I have a bunch—say 1,500—of books in my office at home, and in an attempt to ease their retrieval, I try to organize them by category. Thus three shelves of books on presidents, a shelf of Chicago history, a shelf of Dante, a shelf and a half—41 books—by and about humorist James Thurber.
And one shelf of what I think of as queer books, in the former, “odd” sense of the word, since it holds “Queer Books” by Edmund Pearson, as well as “Bizarre Books” by Russell Ash and Brian Lake, and then books that showed up at the paper and I had to snag because I knew I would never see them again, such as “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History” by Tamara Plakins Thornton and “Dust: A History of the Small & the Invisible” by Joseph A. Amato.
Here too, the books group together, forming a kind of spectrum, “Dust” shelved next to “Rubble,’ which is about demolition, next to “Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear.” Bernard Mergen’s “Snow in America,” is next to “Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance” by Mariana Gosnell.
Then a range of body parts.”The Nose,” several cultural histories of breasts, one of the vagina (next to “Flow,” about menstruation), the penis (next to “Castration,” which I haven’t yet found courage to open) and the book I pulled down Friday—easily, without searching, I happily noted—“The Rear View: A Brief and Elegant History of Bottoms Through the Ages,” by Jean-Luc Hennig, a new chapter of which was written last week when a photo of the huge, oiled naked rump of Kim Kardashian roiled the Internet.
I noticed the enormous tush in my Twitter feed Thursday, and it is indicative of how newspapers lope after popular culture, like a little brother crying, “Wait for me!” that the Sun-Times no doubt cannot print the cheerily frank photo of Kardashian’s collossal keister that was unleashed upon the world.
My immediate reaction was gratitude. I had of course heard of Kardashian, and knew she is the supposed embodiment of all that is crass about popular culture. But, in a shocking lapse of curiosity, I hadn’t actually delved into what qualities, if any, she might possess that would make her such a fixture.
And now I knew. In a flash, an epiphany. “Oh!” She possesses this enormous tush, a vast, steatopygic edifice, like a pair of Replogle desk globes strapped to her hindquarters. (I'll save you the trip to the dictionary, "steatopygia" being, according to the Shorter Oxford— not on a shelf, but in a prime location on my desk, next to "The Chicago Manual of Style" — "a protuberance of the buttocks due to accumulation of fat in and behind the hips." I learned it reading "Gravity's Rainbow"* and waited 30 years for a chance to use it. The perfect word, right?)
I then fell to reading Hennig's book, which is fascination itself; how could it not be?
"Among the 193 existing species of primates, only the human species possess hemispherical buttocks which project permanently from the body. Although some people have claimed that the Andean llama also possesses buttocks." I checked; it does.
These specialized books tend to overstate the case for their subjects, and this is no exception: "Man's buttocks were possibly, in some way, responsible for the early emergence of his brain." There is a partisan joke in there, but I will let it pass (this is a subject that lends itself to joking. I told my editor that I planned to write about Kim Kardashian's butt. "You'll be jumping on the story at the tail end," she deadpanned.)
So be it. Like any cultural trend, there are many ways to approach this. Feminists who hoped they were making social progress lately with their anti-catcall videos and the subsequent discussion of harassment might see this as a setback, as men make category errors when it comes to women, and have difficulty differentiating between Kardashian trying to build her empire and any random woman just trying to walk on by.
Though I would suggest that, given the anxiety generated by the wraithlike Kate Moss model of feminine beauty and its dire impact on young girls, the dramatic arrival of Kardashian's heinie has to be a positive development. Say what you will about Kardashian, starved she is not. Though I don't think one photo is enough to make the smart answer to, "Do these jeans make my butt look fat?" become an enthusiastic "Why yes, honey, they make it look enormous."
With this stunt, Kardashian earns a spot in history. In "The Rear View," avant-garde critic Georges Bataille regards the posteriors of baboons in the London Zoological Garden in 1927 and pronounces them "splendidly comic and suffocatingly atrocious." Exactly.
* A misattribution, as readers pointed out. The word Pynchon uses is "callipygian."