The curious appeal of miscellanea

Or, why we’ll pay for information, but only if it’s completely irrelevant

By Tom Scocca
August 30, 2009

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Facts are fun, though it is not obvious why this should be so. Every day, the newspaper brings new unhappy facts to the door: Tap water in Greenville, Miss., is brown; more than 100 instances of misconduct have been alleged in the Afghan election; the swine flu is more likely to strike schoolchildren.

And while the newspapers are on their way to financial ruin, it’s not because people don’t want information. It is because information has proliferated like Weimar bank notes, with everyone shoveling it into wheelbarrows, till the old economic arrangements have collapsed. There are 3 million English-language entries on Wikipeda, according to the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia.

Yet professionally compiled books of facts are thriving. In 2003, a petite, meticulously designed volume titled “Schott’s Original Miscellany” arrived in the United States from Britain - listing Earth’s atmospheric layers next to sumo weight classes, diagramming palmistry lines and the method of tying a bow tie. The “Original” of the title was part of author Ben Schott’s mock-archaic tone, but it also turned out to be a prophecy. “There’s more and more of them every year,” said Megan Sullivan, the head buyer at the Harvard Book Store.

Last month, Perigee Books brought out “The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information,” the fifth “Book of Useless Information” published since that series appeared in 2006. This is not to be confused with the “Essential Book of Useless Information,” due out from Perigee this fall, nor with the unrelated “That Book...of Perfectly Useless Information,” published by Harper in 2004, or its sequels, “This Book...of More Perfectly Useless Information” and “The Other Book...of the Most Perfectly Useless Information.”

The Google toolbar hovers a few inches up and to the right from everyone’s center of

vision, ready to drop a cascade of optimized search results. The text of books can be delivered to a touchscreen mobile phone. And even so, people are going out and buying paper volumes of facts, printed in unchanging ink, to keep on a shelf. What’s behind this seemingly backward turn?

These new books are not reference books, at least not in the sense that you would refer to one of them to answer a question. “Schott’s Original” has a terse index and no table of contents; “The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information” has a vague table of contents and no index. “We keep them mostly in the gifts section,” Sullivan said.

In a world where useful and important answers come looking for you, it is the idea of unimportance that is the primary selling point of the miscellanies. The books promise to guide the reader somewhere older and slower, to create a little world in which information can serve as amusement rather than currency. A carefully done miscellany appears random, but it achieves a sort of quiet intellectual bustle, set apart from the roar of the daily info-chaos. The miscellanies are information as art, and art for art’s sake.

Schott’s tables of conversions won’t really help me convert liters to gallons - my mobile phone does it more quickly - nor will they get me from the Scotch pint to the Biblical omer, since Schott has left out the numbers for the peck, which would bridge the two. (Google fills in the gap, allowing a calculation of 2.30 Scotch pints in one omer.)

Still, the author has dug back to the sources that identify what an omer or a Scotch pint might be, and brought them together on one page. The result is cultivated serendipity. “That Book...” reports that Davy Crockett was born the same day Frederick the Great died - better yet, that the birth of Johnny Rotten coincided with the death of A.A. Milne. Also that the jukebox was invented seven years before the electric stove (1889 to 1896). There is a connection, or the sense of one. The facts nod at one another, and the reader gives them a nod in return.

“It’s mindless entertainment, is basically what it is,” said Don Voorhees, author of “The Essential Book of Useless Information” and six previous books of trivia and miscellany. “The Essential Book” will be Voorhees’s first contribution to Perigee’s Useless Information series - though he had also written an unaffiliated volume, back in 1998, called “The Book of Totally Useless Information.” (“It gets harder and harder to get stuff that hasn’t been used in another book,” Voorhees noted.)

Before Voorhees took over, the author of the Useless Information series was Noel Botham - another British writer, like Schott. The That Book series is likewise a British import, as is the young readers’ miscellany “The Dangerous Book for Boys” (“Timers and Tripwires”...“Baseball’s Most Valuable Players”).

Why do we turn to Britain for useless information? Britain is the parents’ house that American culture moved out of. It has so much more storage space than our place, and we can always rummage through the bookshelves and the attic when we visit. “Maybe they’re just better rummagers over there,” said George Gibson, the editorial director at Bloomsbury, which publishes Schott’s.

Or they’re more comfortable amid the picturesque ruins of the old informational empire. The broken brickwork of authoritative knowledge - Bartlett’s, Hoyle, Debrett’s, Guinness, the Boy Scout Handbook - has become the deftly juggled informational bits of Schott’s. Cool Britannica.

Within the pages of a miscellany, the world is vast but also manageable, piece by piece. Such works are oddly reminiscent of the children’s books of Richard Scarry, where anthropomorphic animals move thorough busy, well-labeled spheres of existence: “At the Airport”...“At School”...“Mealtime.”

“Not ‘oddly,’ ” Gibson said. “I love Richard Scarry. I think Scarry was an innovator in the way he presented information for kids.”

But miscellaneous information for small children shows them a road forward: Once they know pancakes from fried eggs from toast, or a bulldozer from a bucket loader, they can move on to their next questions about the world. For adult readers, the rise of miscellany is a sign of defeat. The questions multiply faster than you are ever going to answer them. The road isn’t getting you anywhere.

The post-authority reader of reference already knows that. “In Texas,” says “The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information,” a “man can beat his wife as long as he doesn’t use an object larger than his thumb.” Really? To the Web, where - amid a string of “rule of thumb” wacky-law citations that all seem derived from one another - Christina Hoff Sommers and Nancy K.D. Lemon can be found vehemently disagreeing over whether jurisprudence has ever included such a principle at all or whether it is victimological myth.

Is the thumb in Blackstone? They do not agree. Nobody is saying anything about Texas, and seems not to have weighed in. A commentator on the article says: “I don’t have access to the materials cited above, so verification is difficult.” Google Books has a 1915 Volume One of Blackstone, for which the search window finds nothing for “thumb.” How many volumes are there? This is the way we inform ourselves.

Or this way: “No law in the United States has ever permitted the beating of women,” Wikipedia says. There is no citation.

In this state of things, the actor and humorist John Hodgman added to the pile of miscellanies with “The Areas of My Expertise,” a dense-packed collection of facts that happen to be untrue. (Disclosure: I share an editor and publishing house with Hodgman; tangential fact: so do Junot Diaz and the RZA.) The publishing climate for miscellanies is such that the parody led to a sequel, “More Information Than You Require.”

“More Information Than You Require” includes a passage in which Hodgman discusses the Internet, with reference to a passage from one of the great forebears of contemporary miscellany, “The Book of Lists #2” - “certainly one of the best sequels to a book of trivia I have ever read.”

In the passage - which Hodgman describes as “almost entirely accurate” and which Google appears to confirm - the authors of “The Book of Lists” warn of a failed Nixon-era plan to connect up houses by cable, rendering newspapers unnecessary. “[W]hile the Internet may have been dreamed up by authoritarians, in fact, it is the perfect system for *erasing* authority,” Hodgman writes. “[W]hat is the Wikipedia if not one great and endless compendium of fake trivia?”

What’s a compiler of facts to do? Even in this seemingly archaic little reserve of publishing, the Internet is finding a role. Next summer, Gibson said, Bloomsbury plans to bring out another miscellany, this one dedicated to animals. It will be a print version, he said, of “The Animal Review,” a website.

Tom Scocca is working on a new book, “Beijing Welcomes You,” from Riverhead Books.