Tooting our own horn

An illustration from "Encyclopedia of the Exquisite"—as seen in the New York Times!

You may have missed last week’s review in the New York Times Book Review, but I am so over the moon about it that I’ve reposted it here. It was written by Lily Koppel. I don’t think my feet touched the ground all week.


FROM the New York Times Book Review,

By Lily Koppel

Do you have a treasure chest where you keep your secret delights? In ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE EXQUISITE: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights (Doubleday, $27.95), Jessica Kerwin Jenkins explains that her first was a cunning grade-school jewelry box, “designed to look like a small birdcage with a faux canary swinging behind brass bars. In its shallow drawer I kept a prism that made rainbows, . . . the face of my father’s old Timex and a sample vial of Patou’s Joy.” Her grown-up version is a cabinet of curiosities — in book form — inspired in part by the encyclopedias of the Renaissance, which brimmed with exotic artifacts.

Joy’s intensely floral scent, created during the Depression for clients of Jean Patou who could no longer afford the designer’s haute couture line, is an apt metaphor for this compendium, which is perfect for a style maven or foodie on a recessionista’s budget. As Jenkins meanders through the arts and the worlds of fashion and beauty, one learns about the royal lineage of a Bartlett pear, the history of confetti and the pleasures of dining alfresco. These days, when so much is mass-produced, it is welcome to be invited on an alluring search for more eternal expressions of quotidian pleasures. Knowledge, as Jenkins writes, can make you feel rich without forcing open your pocketbook — can turn the world, once again, “vast and strange.”

A former editor for W and Women’s Wear Daily who now writes for Vogue, Jenkins tells readers and fellow aesthetes that for years she devoted herself to writing for a “slick” magazine, trying to lend luxe designer goods the same magical sense of delight found in her book. She fancied herself a Holly Golightly with her “nose pressed against the glass.”

Her encyclopedia is sensual and dainty, arranged alphabetically, with antique-style illustrations to go with entries on diverse and beguiling subjects, among them the color black, Champagne, the Elephantine Colossus (one of several elephant-shaped 19th-century buildings), enthusiasm, frilly lingerie, mouches (fake beauty marks), “Nebula, the Powdered Sugar Princess” (a ballet created by Joseph Cornell), omelets, the Japanese pillowbook, sequins, twilight, weekends and whistling.

Jenkins’s wittily curated selection emphasizes the rare and not often considered, with a dash of Julie Andrews’s “favorite things” sensibility. Along the way, tales are told about muses of the marvelous, from Madame de Staël to Yoko Ono. The author concludes with an entry on Ono’s use of the universal expression of optimism: yes.

As anyone who enjoys the pre-­Wikipedian pleasure of curling up with an encyclopedia knows, it is a journey. Envision lying on a couch during a violent tempest (another entry), reading about the history of the divan, imagining yourself lolling goddesslike on a chaise longue while wearing a velvety turban. Ponder strolling through Vita Sackville-West’s all-white garden (“the ultimate chic”) or dipping into a milk bath à la Claudette Colbert. Fold over the corners of pages holding recipes for an egg-yolky gelato and blancmange (a dessert made with cream and sugar, at one time thickened with chicken bones).

Who can resist “slime of snails,” an ingredient in Italian Renaissance-era faux jewels? There are also anecdotes on Claude glass mirrors (“something like a lady’s compact”), 18th-century versions of digital cameras that reflected the fleeting beauty of a landscape; and “Xiguo jifa,” a 16th-century text describing a mnemonic technique for organizing everything you want to remember in a “memory palace.” There are enough of these fancies in “Encyclopedia of the Exquisite” to fill a castle of your own. It is a worthy trove.