Uses of blushing

THE WAY WE ARE by Margaret Visser, Viking pounds 14
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The Independent Culture
MARGARET VISSER, food scholar extraordinary, shares with novelist Nicholson Baker the ability to transform, for a while at least, the way we perceive the ordinary furnishings of existence. Her funny, discursively erudite The Rituals Of Dinner stripped the surprised reader of mealtime innocence. What you ate, how it was prepared, served and consumed, were all and always deeply meaningful, the consequence of centuries of sometimes savage, often bizarre, intricately evolving custom. You were never just someone having lunch, you were a living anthropological specimen.

Now she is at it again, still fascinated by the stuff we put in our mouths (vinegar, chewing gun, baked beans, liver) but turning her amused, inquisitive gaze also on the things we wear, use and do - gloves, swimsuits, bells, showers, lawyers, holidays, crosswords, blushing - until they yield up their peculiar secrets. The yielding has to be pretty quick. Most of these 60 essays, written as columns for a Canadian magazine, are only a few hundred words long. The compression, belied by a graceful and unemphatic writing style, adds curiously to the charm. It is as though some sedate and self-effacing person got up, did a cartwheel, then sat down again hoping no one had noticed.

"The human male has always revered his chin," she will begin, or "Tap dancing turns human feet into musical instruments", and she is off, though rarely in any predictable direction. Typically, she will deal out a few gems of disparate information on her chosen theme - a personal reminiscence, a historical anecdote or two, a bit of etymology, a classical, literary or culinary reference, a sociological research finding - then inspect them to see if they make a pattern. Her sources, often located on the higher slopes of academe, are meticulously listed at the end of each article. This may just be scholarly habit (or self-mockery), but it's mighty flattering to the reader, as though any day now you too might feel moved to consult a 17th-century treatise on armour or the ex-Bishop of Leicester's definitive history of knitting.

Sometimes the facts form shapely little dramas. The essay about umbrellas is a tiny how-are-the-mighty-fallen tragedy, tracing its subject's sad decline from a magnificent silken absurdity that made 18th-century street urchins point and jeer to its present low status as a nylon near-disposable. Sometimes the essays have a resonance out of all proportion to their length. In three pages about chairs, Visser manages to prove that when people chose to "place three- or four-legged supports beneath their buttocks" they set off a chain reaction that would forever differentiate them - in muscle development, manners, clothing, interior design, even cinematographic style - from societies that stayed on the floor. (The Chinese opted for chairs but the language never quite caught up; the Chinese for "Chairman Mao" means Mat-Master Mao).

Juggling so much information in such tight spaces, Visser can't afford to be windy with her own opinions, but they slip through, shrewd and sideways, all the time. Enumerating some refreshingly complicated reasons why men might like women in high heels (cave paintings figure interestingly) she remarks that stilettos "give women an ethereal aspect by raising them from the earth and from common sense". The American street parade "is one of the few Dionysiac outlets still sanctioned by society". She has equally sharp observations to make about the function of Santa Claus, the real reasons why so many Americans give up alcohol, the incomparable virtues of English spelling and the near-universal dislike of anything slimy.

These little writings are wonderfully supple jeux d'esprit but the academic in Margaret Visser would be the first to admit that they have their limitations and, like the sweet treats they are, they are best enjoyed a few at a time. The headily gratifying sense that you are suddenly a world expert on wigs or mahogany rightly fades as quickly as it came. Adept at the witty intellectual sprint, Visser is better still over the longer distance and given even a couple of extra pages - as in the chapter on the varieties and uses of embarrassment - she can really dazzle, really make you think (as opposed to make you think you're thinking).

But even at its apparent slightest, this book is quietly asserting profoundly consoling truths, such as that while we believe the world is always changing, we are creatures of dogged cultural habit and continuity, or that though so much of what we do seems unreasoned and unreasonable, there usually is a reason for it. And on the level of well-I-never material alone the book's a winner, a kind of Reader's Digest from Heaven. Did you know that the first air hostesses wore nurses' uniforms and had to be able to mend punctures? Or that early wedding cakes were flat discs designed to be smashed symbolically over the bride's head? Or that Hitler dropped propaganda crossword puzzles over England? Or that in 18th-century Ireland they made calfskin gloves so fine that they came packaged in walnut shells?