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One Good Thing: The 1970s children’s book that envisions an America overrun by trash

I can’t stop thinking about this silly book about overconsumption and lost history.

Monument Row, which is just a bunch of abandoned signs, illustrated by David Macaulay.
David Macaulay

What if everything you thought you knew about the past was completely wrong? That’s the idea that blew my mind as a 10-year-old in suburban Houston, when I gleaned it from the pages of an oversized blue paperback book. In just 95 black-and-white illustrated pages, that book imprinted itself on my brain and instilled in me a fleeting desire to become an archeologist.

It was read to us by a teacher who was definitely rebelling against the Texas public school system’s required reading list. Instead of launching me into a downward existential spiral, the idea of being wrong about history, whether it be the symbolism of the pyramids or the color of triceratops, thrilled me. That book and that thought haunted me throughout my 20s and 30s, but there was one problem: I’d completely forgotten the title and the name of the author.

What I remembered about the plot sounded so bizarre, I had a tough time articulating it beyond, “It’s about being wrong about everything! And archeology. And maybe climate change?”

Every few years, a fuzzy memory of the crosshatched illustrations would pop into my head, and I would think, “I need to find that book.” This went on for two decades. Finally, I got fed up and embarked on a quest. After Google searches like “book with picture of woman with toilet seat on her head” yielded nothing, I turned to the real literary sleuths. I emailed librarians, at random: “I’m trying to find a book about an archeologist from the future who thinks a Do Not Disturb Sign at a motel is some kind of sacred seal.”

At last, one librarian in Iowa emailed back, “Sounds like Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.”

I immediately looked it up, and there it was: the unmistakable lapis lazuli-hued cover, the crosshatched illustrations, and the gold lettering of the title. I ordered two copies and dove back into Macaulay’s story of Howard Carson, a dilettante trust funder from the 41st century with a passion for archeology who spends his time collecting antique spaceships and attempting to discover ways for camels to grow a third hump.

When the story begins, it’s the year 4022, and Carson has traveled to the desolate country of Usa (haha!), whose entire population was buried under an avalanche of excess mail way back in 1985. Carson is in Usa to run a marathon (stay with me here). Ever the bumbling archeologist, he falls down a shaft and discovers a mysterious door. What Carson and his loyal assistant Harriet believe to be an ancient burial ground, the reader knows to be a standard roadside Motel 6. Their sacred Tomb 26 is, to us, simply the entrance to a crappy motel room.

An illustration of a woman with a toilet seat hanging around her neck and head.
Harriet and that toilet seat headdress.
David Macaulay

Dramatic irony drives the humor, but it’s the characters’ awe and wonder about things we tend to dismiss that endeared me to this book as a kid. Reading it years later, I still love their blissfully ignorant joy because, no, Howard, a sanitized for your protection band is not a Sacred Headband and the toilet seat that Harriet wears around her neck is not a Sacred Headdress. When Howard Carson first opens the door to Tomb 26, he observes that “everywhere there was the glint of plastic.” He discovers plasticus petrificus (a.k.a. Formica), The Plant That Would Not Die (a cheap plastic plant), and The Great Altar (a 1970s television set). Carson becomes obsessed with cataloging his discoveries.

“Driven by an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the past along with a burning desire to contribute significantly to the future, Carson soon lost control of the present,” Macaulay writes, which is now my favorite sentence in the book. That line captures the tone and humor of the book perfectly, and it’s even funnier when you learn that to Carson, “losing control” means actually having to work an eight-hour day.

In the prologue, Macaulay writes that Usa was destroyed because “impurities that had apparently hung in the air for centuries finally succumbed to the force of gravity and collapsed on what was left of an already stunned population. … In less than a day, the most advanced civilization of the ancient world had perished.”

The character Howard Carson crouching down and looking into a doorway.
Howard, peeking into Tomb 26.
David Macaulay

In 2021, we worry about the world ending because of wildfires and freezes and murder hornets and plagues, but in Howard Carson’s reality, America/Usa was destroyed by air pollution and gravity issues (pollutantus literati and pollutantus gravitas). I highly doubt that sustainability was on my mind back in fifth grade, but now it feels like a gentle warning to the human race to not be so wasteful. The things that remain in Usa are what we recognize as McDonald’s signs and gas station logos, but which Carson and Harriet interpret as spiritual altars along Monument Row. It’s far-fetched, but that’s the point. Besides, it probably will be the fast food signs and Big Gulp cups that remain long after we’re gone.

My obsession with the book eventually inspired me to track down, or more like lightly stalk, David Macaulay himself. I found out he was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, and I had a Twitter acquaintance who also taught there. Via DM, I asked if maybe he could connect us. He did, and Macaulay and I have been in contact since 2013. During a recent conversation, I asked Macaulay, who now teaches at Dartmouth, if climate change was on his mind when he was writing and illustrating the book back in the late 1970s. He said, “Climate change didn’t occur to me. Air pollution? Yes.”

Macaulay, a Macarthur fellow who has won numerous awards, including a Caldecott Medal, told me that Motel of the Mysteries was the most fun he’s ever had writing a book, and it happened the quickest, mainly because he was just “playing the whole time.” His books — like The Way Things Work and Castle — have gotten more attention and awards, but Motel of the Mysteries is the one that’s stayed with me, and I’m not alone in loving it the way I do.

A quick Twitter search for the book yields a stream of tweets from people who are equally enamored with Howard and Harriet and that toilet seat headdress. Attempts to describe the book range from “a great comedy archeology picture book” to “It’s a kid’s book. About a archaeological dig of a cheap motel.” It was actually written for adults, and Macaulay said that instead of being offended by the fact that his main character misinterprets everything, archeologists are some of his biggest fans. “I don’t think anyone takes their work as seriously or has as much fun,” he says of the profession.

For me, it has stayed relevant all these years because it captures ideas that are eternal: What will happen to our world when it’s wiped out by climate change or excess mail or whatever it may be? Are we closer to winding up like those unfortunate inhabitants of Usa? How do we know everything we think we know is right? And what if being “right” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if being wrong is actually more fun?

“I expected it to disappear long ago given how much work I didn’t put into it,” Macaulay told me recently. “Perhaps it will be unearthed at some future time by a real archaeologist. Now wouldn’t that be fun? Would they know to laugh?”

I hope they’ll know to laugh, and I hope they’ll find as much joy in this book about a bowtie-wearing, 41st-century amateur archeologist as I do. If that’s not enough for future generations, Macaulay also threw in some romance. Amid the ruins, Carson and Harriet, two misguided amateurs who have no clue just how wrong they are, fall in love.

Motel of the Mysteries is available everywhere books are sold. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.