On the Trivial Pursuit of Useless Information
I don't have a very good memory of the fiction books I read and enjoyed as a child. What I do remember is an obsession with encyclopedias, almanacs, atlases, the Guinness book, trivia, and general miscellanea. Which probably doesn't make it too much of a surprise that I ended up here, a reference librarian at one of the most fact-filled libraries in the world.
As a kid, I was also highly talented at games like Trivial Pursuit and You Don't Know Jack, usually beating any adult I played against. I assumed this was a credit to my lifelong love of reference books. After moving to New York City, I discovered the "pub quiz" and found that, well... turns out I'm not exactly Ken Jennings and these people are entirely out of my league.
That's ok. I've moved on. It seems that nowadays, the Internet and its endless rabbit holes do enough to satisfy our desires to accumulate bits of information flotsam and jetsam. How many articles in Wikipedia do you end up clicking through in a single sitting? I know I have had some marathons. Still, if you ever feel like physically flipping through some factoids (we also have ebooks and databases for you to read online), here are some suggestions.
Vade mecum is the subject term you'll see for a lot of these compendiums; it is a Latin term meaning "to go with me." According to the OED it is "a book or manual suitable for carrying about with one for ready reference; a handbook or guidebook." Now, the reference tool you keep in your pocket is likely a shiny bit of glass and plastic, with Google a tap away. But handbooks in the library are still cataloged as such. How quaint!
Access old-timey handbooks electronically:
- Vade mecums in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (access on site at the research libraries)
- Vade mecums in Archive.org
- Vade mecums in Hathi Trust
Schott's Family Miscellany (2003) and Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany (2004) by Ben Schott are both small, elegantly typeset books of tables, diagrams, lists and definitions. Sections include "Birthstones," "Sushi," "Knights of the Round Table," "Colors of the Empire State Building," "Eponymous Foods," and "Cattle Branding."
The Uncyclopedia is another British import, full of random collections of facts. It is also available as an ebook. It includes "Fortune-Telling Techniques," "Sails on a Standard Three-Masted Ship," "Newspaper Slogans," "Diseases Named for Their Discoverers," and "Noteworthy Cats and Their Owners."
Noel Botham has produced a series of books of amazingly useless information; The Amazing Book of Useless Information is available as an ebook in which you can learn about American advertising that has had unfortunate translations in other countries, such as Coca-Cola's "bite the wax tadpole," common superstitions, and where to find the largest scale model of the solar system.
- Mental Floss The Book: Only the Greatest Lists in the History of Listory (2011)
- The Mental Floss History of the World (2008)
- Mental Floss Presents: Instant Knowledge (2005)
- Mental Floss Presents: Forbidden Knowledge (2005)
- Mental Floss Presents: Condensed Knowledge (2004)
Studies have shown that toast usually does fall butter side down and that cats react negatively to men with beards; did you know William Faulkner was briefly a postal worker? "Knowledge junkies" can also get their fix on mentalfloss.com or their Twitter.
Kenneth C. Davis's Don't Know Much About... series started with history and now covers an array of topics for adults as well as younger readers to fill in missing gaps in their knowledge.
David Feldman's Imponderables series includes a few I remember reading as a kid. He asks the kinds of questions that may keep you up late at night, but provides answers you can then use to impress your friends. Here are the ones available in ebook form:
- Are Lobsters Ambidextrous? (reprint of When Did Wild Poodles Roam the Earth?, 2006)
- Imponderables: The Solution to the Mysteries of Everyday Life (2004)
- How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? An Imponderables Book (1993)
- When Do Fish Sleep? and Other Imponderables of Everyday Life (1989)
- Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise? and Other Imponderables (1987)
The People's Almanac and The Book of Lists are an ongoing series, first published in the 1970s, by David Wallechinsky and his father Irving Wallace and sister Amy Wallace. Some selections from the Almanac have been republished online with permission. A few examples from the 2005 New Book of Lists are "11 Famous People Who Were Dentists," "27 Things That Fell from the Sky," and "15 Notable Events That Happened Under the Influence of Alcohol."
Listomania: A World of Fascinating Facts in Graphic Detail puts a visual spin on some informative lists, such as "13 Colors Crayola Has Retired" and "21 Micronations."
Of course as almanacs go, there is always The World Almanac and Book of Facts and the Old Farmer's Almanac (now also available as an ebook). Or if you are training for JEOPARDY!, take a few lessons from the master himself.
John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise: An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by Me looks a lot like an information source along these lines except that it is all completely absurd and made up. It is also pretty funny, if you have a sense of humor when it comes to your love of trivia.
For Kids and Teens
- Curiosities and Wonders
- Questions and Answers
- Handbooks, Vade-mecums, etc
- I Wonder Why... series
New York City Factoids
- All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities (2011)
- When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City (2010)
- The Ultimate Book of New York Lists: Everything You Need to Know about the Greatest City on Earth (2009)
- The Almanac of New York City (2008)
- Strange but True New York City (2005)
- The Little Big Book of New York: Literary Excerpts, Essays, Recipes, Poetry, Songs, History, and Facts (2004)
- New York Year by Year: A Chronology of the Great Metropolis (2002)
- The Curious New Yorker: 329 Fascinating Questions and Surprising Answers about New York City (1999)
- The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s New York
I would be remiss not to include The Book of Answers: The New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service's Most Unusual and Entertaining Questions from the team now better known as Ask NYPL! You can still call them (or email) and ask them anything.
Find books from this post (and more) in this list in BiblioCommons.
Finally, that little piece of plastic at the end of your shoelace? It's called an aglet. Don't ask me why I know that.