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Encyclopedia Paranoiaca

Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf

(Simon & Schuster; US: Nov 2012)

"This book might just save your life… but it probably won't."

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is an exhaustively researched compendium of potential disasters that await us every time we get out of bed—as well as highlighting the many assorted dangers that lurk between the sheets. Authored by bestselling satirists Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, Encyclopedia Paranoiaca trades upon on our modern fears. It underscores that no matter how ridiculous the levels of personal threat management we practice in our lives, something is out there waiting to harm us, make us extremely ill, or simply kill us.

Abounding with humor—if you’ve a mind to laugh at your impeding demise—the book maintains an ingenuous social critique (“if everything is really dangerous, what should we fear?”). It presents a comprehensive and cross-referenced inventory of the “perils, menaces, threats, blights, banes, and other assorted pieces of Damoclean cutlery… currently hover[ing] over humanity.”

Exhaustive in its lists of things that could potentially befall us, Encyclopedia Paranoiaca includes “things you absolutely, positively must not eat, drink, wear, take, grow, make, buy, use, do, permit, believe or let yourself be exposed to.” It also includes an abundance of “toxic lethal horrible stuff that you thought was safe, good or healthy.” In addition it mentions all sorts of “really bad people who are out to get, cheat, steal from or otherwise take advantage of you,” and emphasizes a host of “existential threats and looming dooms that make global warming, giant meteors and planetary pandemics look like a walk in the park.”

Suffice to say, Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is all-encompassing, horror-filled smorgasbord for obsessive compulsives, hypochondriacs and anyone with an angst-ridden or fretful disposition. It’s also very funny, and as it happens, comes complete with extensive bibliographic endnotes, should you desire to crush your will to live or increase the temper of your anxiety disorder even further.

Fear is, of course, a huge commodity, the trading thereof being big business for everyone from governments, the media, and corporations, to the medical establishment and partners and parents alike. However, what Beard and Cerf point out is that while our obsessive day-to-day governance of what we think we can control (all that healthy eating, exercise, and slathering on of hand sanitizer) is psychologically advantageous, ultimately it’s fruitless.

In fact, if Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is to believed—and why would we doubt National Lampoon luminaries like Beard and Cerf—virtually everything is potentially, if not actually, very bad for you. This includes fresh fruit, laughing, crying, leafy vegetables, sunscreen, traffic signs, yoga, or sleeping on your side, back or stomach. The litany of under-recognized harmful substances, situations and experiences are the most fun. If you didn’t previously know that rubber duckies, faucets, reading bodice rippers, brushing your teeth after meals, reading on the toilet or pursing your lips could be detrimental to your health, there’ll be no doubting the dangers of such things after reading.

You may well ask, what are we to do? Beard and Cerf don’t provide any specific answers, but given that Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is at its heart a hilarious and perversely motivated collection of life-threatening perils, direct answers aren’t really the point. As Beard and Cerf note, “This book might just save your life… but it probably won’t.” The content is set to provide the chuckles before we shuffle off this mortal coil—although, hopefully that won’t come via the apparently risky act of squeezing the juice from a restaurant lemon wedge onto your fish.

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca works well at providing a plethora of interesting entries, while it is a little clunky at times due to the constant cross-referencing. Kudos must go to Beard and Cerf for ensuring the book is faintly reminiscent of school days encyclopedias, even if this one happens to be filled with the kind of grim tidings that would cripple a child’s emotional development forever.

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is an anthology of the kinds of trepidatious matters we have probably all pondered over occasionally, and for some of us, agonized over hourly. It’s a delightfully twisted compendium that successfully mocks our various pathological and futile neuroses. It serves as a handy reference guide to explain why you’re terrified of shopping mall Santas, or paranoid about washing your handkerchiefs with your underpants.

Anyone with a measure of pronounced nervousness might want to steer clear. While the book shows how farcical it is to think we can defend ourselves against the micro and macro risks that assault our every waking moment, those already anxious about life might miss the implied recommendation therein. That being, lighten-up, and have some fun. You could get hit by bus, choke on some celery, or have a fatal allergic reaction to a condom tomorrow.


Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.

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