Discussions of something profound and unexplainable sometimes take ridiculous forms. In the 2008 Michael Gondry film Be Kind Rewind, star Jack Black (as Jerry) becomes magnetized. His condition erases all the VHS tapes at the video store where he works, thereby setting the plot in motion. He and his colleague Mike (Mos Def) have to recreate the plots of every film they’ve destroyed.
In their 2010 video “Miracles”, rap/clown act Insane Clown Posse recorded an uncharacteristic tribute to things they didn’t understand: oceans, lava, the planets, rainbows, and most notoriously “…magnets, how do they work?”
Insane Clown Posse dismisses the logic of how magnets work and, in keeping with their spirit, embrace the miraculous and ridiculous “…and I don’t want to talk to a scientist, y’all…lyin’ and gettin’ me pissed.”
Clearly, Insane Clown Posse should read Eva Barbarossa’s Magnet. Another edition to Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series (editors Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg), Magnet considers neither the Jack Black movie nor the sincerity-as-instant-parody song “Miracles”, but this quick volume isn’t lacking for interest and a compelling narrative.
One of the best aspects of this series is when the writers reveal a distinctly personal motivation for choosing their topic. For Barbarossa, magnets were a literal tasty delight, from the time she was five- or six-years-old. She was fascinated by the magnetic letters on her family’s refrigerator, how good they felt in her mouth, their “…bright colors…lightly ribbed edges.” But it was the magnets embedded in the letters that really caught her interest as a child.
“…I’d pry one out and pop it into my mouth…I would suck at the inner core for hours, turning it around with my tongue… When I ate the final magnet from a letter, I would put the letter in my pocket and take it out to be buried… I ate hundreds of magnets… And then one day it stopped, and that was that.”
Barbarossa certainly has us in these early moments of her preface, and her story seems to mirror that of the Jack Black character in Be Kind Rewind. She writes: “In my teen years… I fried car starters and microwaves. I was forbidden from using copy machines… watches broke… Hand me a compass and it will misalign, spinning about…”
What could have been a narrative about the lingering effects of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, however, quickly veers toward her mission statement. Barbarossa wants to show us how we have written, explored, mythologized, defined, and redefined magnets and their characteristics. She takes us back to Homer, who provided the first mention of the magnet in literature in the eighth century BCE. The magnet was a lodestone: “The way.” She explores statues in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, “…enormous, carved images of people…” Their bellies were magnetic. She notes that some “…early descriptions cross the lines between medicine and magic.” What is this force? Does it heal wounds? Is it the essence of what many called “The Philosopher’s Stone”?
Magnetic metaphors abound: ‘magnetic attraction’, ‘opposites attract’, ‘true north’, and ‘moral compass’. As with many of these Object Lessons books, abstract metaphors are stronger than their informational history. This book has less content than many of the others (by perhaps 40 pages) and yet at times it seems as if it’s sometimes stretching to fill a quota.
In Chapter Two, “Earth”, we look at the role of magnets in the lives and times of early explorers. She writes: “[t]he current prevailing theory for the existence of the magnetic field is that the Earth is a geodynamo.” Coriolis effects create the rotation and the sea currents. The earth is one of several magnetic planets, pulling forces into its orbit. The sun shares similar characteristics, and the aurora borealis isn’t just the opening image in a classic Neil Young song. Galileo saw those lights, those “…charged particles from the solar winds [that traveled into] the upper atmosphere, where ionization and excitation of the atmosphere [emitted] lights and colors.” Look deep enough, and miraculous magic will always betray roots in logic.
Chapter Three, “Home”, looks at divination and direction in ancient Chinese culture, and magnetic compasses used by Vikings. In “Alignment”, we see the use of pigeons in World War II used to magnetically transmit messages via devices attached to them prior to their flights. “In the case of pigeons,” she writes, it turns out they have crystals in their beaks that align to the magnetic fields.”
Magnetic bacteria live at and scrounge through the depths of the ocean, maintaining stability for many millennia. She ends this chapter with a brief but compelling look at Quantum magnetics, “…two strands of beings [that] found themselves across space-time and re-paired where they belong.” These moments when magic truly seems to surface in Barbarossa’s narrative make for potentially compelling reading that’s over before it has time to warm up.
Chapter Five, “North”, examines journeys to the North and South Poles. Captain John Franklin, James Clark Ross, William Parry and Roald Amundsen battle for attention in these pages, and the reader unfamiliar with their stories from the 19 th and early 20th centuries will be compelled to read further. Again, it’s in the subjective reflections that a book this brief (and a writer this astute) shines strongest:
“North is an interesting concept… a metaphorical connection to the compass, directions, and ways of seeing the world… Christian maps [before the 16 th century] had east at the top, the direction of Jerusalem.”
Barbarossa writes about how “…the magnetic fields of people have been aligned to phrenology, to the sky, to celestial events…” Ranchers insert magnets in cow stomachs to stabilize health. Barbarossa notes that magnets give us “…a better view of what is happening in our brains…” (that is, MRI machines) but it’s a rushed chapter. Should other elements in this book have been eliminated in favor of deeper development here?
The idea of “transcendence” follows, the notion of animal magnetism (and the life and times of 18 th century medical student Franz Mesmer (to become known for “animal magnetism”), from whom we get the notion of “mesmerized”. Barbarossa writes: “Mesmerism and animal magnetism reached America as a cross between a sideshow and a church revival.” “Magnetism” was a method of control adopted by Theosophists in England and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science in the United States. It was also understood (but not explored here) to be a prime means of analysis (or control) used by L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology.
Part trance, part hypnotism, and part clever sales (like most means of a cure), magnets imposed themselves as more placebo than anything concrete or definitive. “There is research that suggests magnetic stimulation of certain parts of the brain can speed one’s path to enlightenment,” Barbarossa writes. Again, its material worth exploring at a deeper level in a different format.
We know the “Tricks” of magnets (Chapter 8) through the Wile E. Coyote character in Looney Tunes and X-Men comic villain Magneto. Tony Stark (Iron Man) has a wire pulled from his magnetic heart. Of course, as a hero he cannot and will not die. In the film Toys (Barry Levinson, 1992) Barbarossa writes about the magnetic shavings of Wooly Willy and new toys “for smarter children”. Magna Doodle (a precursor to the non-magnetic Etch-a-sketch) was a toy “…found to work well underwater and became a tool for scuba instruction and underwater work.” Barbarossa ends with a discussion of train and car lobbies that have managed to thwart attempts in the west at developing the magnetic Maglev trains we see in Japan and elsewhere.
By the end of Magnets, the reader might get the sense that Barbarossa felt constrained by the series’ format. The writing is both informed and witty, but the strongest elements (the chapters on Health, Transcendence, and Toys) deserve a wider forum. As Object Lessons volumes go, Magnets serves its purpose. It serves as an attractive gateway into deeper ideas. What it lacks in content, it makes up for in potential, and that’s what makes the Object Lessons books so consistently compelling.