Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Is Sex Necessary": Dated Advice on Dating

On New Year's Eve, for the first time ever, I posted a tweet that went viral -- a beautiful E.B. White quote about midnight on December 31, which I had originally copied out of an old New Yorker and posted on this blog in 2007. Partly because of this, I decided to make E.B. White's first book, Is Sex Necessary?, which he wrote in collaboration with James Thurber, the first book I read in 2015. Also because it had been sitting on my shelf for about five years and, at the age of 27, I have finally gotten over being embarrassed about reading a book called Is Sex Necessary? while on public transportation.

Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do by James Thurber and E.B. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

E. B. White's essays, children's books, and Elements of Style writing tips are justifiably classics, but I can't say the same for his first book, Is Sex Necessary?. Hastily written in collaboration with his friend and colleague James Thurber (they wrote alternating chapters), fitted out with Thurber's rough cartoons, and published around the time of the stock market crash in 1929, it's dated in the way that only a humor book from 85 years ago can be. Thurber and White were evidently parodying the pop-psychology and pop-sexuality books of the '20s, but because those books and ideas are no longer in vogue, the parody thereof mostly falls flat, too. (Samuel D. Schmalhausen, who seems to be White and Thurber's main target, doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.)

Is Sex Necessary? has some amusing passages, mostly relating to absurd "case histories" that the authors claim to have witnessed or carried out. Investigating the admonition to "look out for the Quiet Type," Thurber spots a quiet woman on a bus, approaches her with the line "Madam, I would greatly appreciate making a leisurely examination of you, at your convenience," and is rewarded with a slap. There is also a funny (if incredibly dated) story about a young bride whose husband must disabuse her of the notion that babies are brought by lilies and bluebirds. And the section about women who become neurotic due to society's conflicting messages about sex (is it a lyrical expression of romantic tenderness, or is it a casual animal instinct?) still rings true today. That's also one of the only passages in the book that views women with understanding and sympathy; most of the rest of it is written from the perspective of a commitment-phobic man.

But often, it's just too hard to cut through the straight-faced parodies of dry scientific writing, and the vast differences between courtship in the 1920s and nowadays, to reveal the underlying humor. A pun about women having Narcissism and men having Begonia-ism fails because it's difficult for a 21st-century reader to wrap their head around the idea of young bachelors staying home and cultivating begonias (which was evidently a thing in the '20s). In a historical sense, it's interesting to be reminded that the sexual revolution didn't begin in the 1960s; young people in the '20s thought that they were leading a sexual revolution too, rebelling against Victorian morality. But despite the illustrious reputations of the men who wrote it, I too often found Is Sex Necessary? a historical curio, rather than a timeless classic.

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