A 9-Inch Book on a Big Topic, Unillustrated, Alas

The Book of the Penis , by Maggie Paley. Grove-Atlantic, 242 pages, $20.

Maggie Paley has taken the source of human greatness, power and passion, our capacity for nobility and forbearance, our sense of beauty, our capacity for art, our longing for the poetic, our connection with the infinite, the inspiration for voyages to the stars and the depths of inner space, and reduced it all to a pretty little volume called The Book of the Penis , flesh-colored with a fig leaf on the cover. Fragile and tasteful.

Call me a Freudian if you will, but I was brought up to believe that the tumescence and detumescence of the male sex organ was at the secret heart of human activity, from the rise of patriarchy to the birth of feminism, to the territorial imperative and the wars that follow it (I’m right, No, you’re wrong, Mine’s bigger than yours, I’ll prove it, Bang, bang, you’re dead)–in fact to all male enterprise and female opposition to that enterprise, that you could scarcely say the word “penis” aloud. To name the god is to weaken him. And now here’s Ms. Paley blithely throwing the name around, lightly entertaining us. “To see a penis enlarge and stiffen is to witness a miracle of nature; it’s like watching time-lapse photography of a week in the life of a vegetable–seeing it go from wilted flower to big zucchini in a matter of moments.” Her sense of awe is muted–for man read vegetable–but at least she seems to quite like vegetables and find them interesting. The same book, in the hands of a radical feminist, would have had those vegetables cut, scraped and down the waste disposal in seconds flat.

Ms. Paley’s book is divided into easy segments: the Size Question, the Penis in Fashion, Penises in Art, Circumcision and Castration, Famous for Their Dicks, and so on. It is stuffed with the kind of little facts that come in so useful toward the end of a dinner party. Did you know that Errol Flynn used to take his out and slap it on the table at the slightest excuse? Did you hear that Dillinger’s dick was so large it’s kept pickled at the Smithsonian? But as for Freud, and all that, forget it. Freud, Ms. Paley tells us, “was perhaps a bit penis-obsessed.” That’s him out of the way.

Find in this cute volume everything you wanted to know or didn’t want to know about the penis. I quite want to know that the Japanese mafia insert pearls into their penises when they do time in prison–one for each year. What a way of subverting authority! The longer you’re in, the better lover they make of you (a penis made rubbly by pearls, in the opinion of the Japanese mafia, being the cat’s whiskers). I find I don’t want to know about a recipe by one Mr. Bigelow for uncircumcising the resentfully circumcised by stretching and pulling down the foreskin, and hanging it with weights. I can’t quite just say, ho-hum, how strange and interesting the world is, and leave it at that: I suspect nature gave us reticence and squeamishness for some good reason.

But each to his own. And what I do miss in a book that hungers for them is illustration. If this book were about legs or toes or noses, we would have pictures. Being the penis, there are none. We may know the details, but not look at the actuality. We are not as broad-minded or unterrified as we suppose. To contemplate the god is still to be stirred to impossible passion, and governments won’t allow it. The only illustration in this neat Grove-Atlantic volume is a tape measure running down the edge of a page. Since the book is only nine inches long, a whole lot of white American men will find that inadequate, anyway, when measuring. And according to popular myth, or so Ms. Paley assures us, if they are African-Americans even more inadequate, not to mention Jamaicans, and as for Arabs–wow! When it comes to penis size, it seems, we are allowed to make comparisons that in other contexts would be deemed racist: What we are still not allowed is what we want, pictures of penises, erect or otherwise. (I had always thought the plural was penes, by the way, from the Latin, but never mind. Let us take our lead from Ms. Paley, now the once-forbidden word is on everyone’s lips.)

But why is it left to women to write the book men should write for each other? Why can’t they write their own? For the last 30 years, ever since the feminists insisted women get mirrors and study their private parts and name them and see them as beautiful (I had some trouble with this, I must admit) women’s lives have been blessed and cursed by books about vulvas and vaginas, about menstrual cycles, and life passages, and pregnancies and otherwise, until there’s not a thing a woman doesn’t know about the way she works and the relationship between her self, her ego and her body, not to mention her hormones. And look how her self-esteem has risen in the intervening decades. Men seem to know not a thing about their own bodies, other than locker-room gossip. Yet men are the gender who ought to know, if they don’t want women to occupy the moral high ground forever, if they don’t want to see their good opinion of themselves plummeting. “Oh men!” the young women begin to say. “Who wants ‘em? Why bother with ‘em?” Down to the sperm bank for the babies, off with the girlfriends for the wild night out, unwilling to tell the difference between a dildo and a loving guy; testosterone begins to get a bad name, and most men couldn’t even tell you what it is, let alone defend it.

True, there was something to be said for the glorious ignorance in which both men and women were once reared, when sexual parts didn’t have names, and who’d ever heard of the clitoris, and female orgasms were incidental, and what was happening happened in the dark and was mysterious and wonderful, all sensation and no information, when sex was so closely linked with procreation it couldn’t help being sacramental, but there’s no going back. I’d just like the next book about the penis to be written by a man so we get not Maggie Paley’s sense of amused neutrality, but the determined self-love and approval you find in books about women’s physiology written by women.