In a Googlized world, the serendipity of devouring facts the old-fashioned way still produces a special kind of joy. All it takes is a fresh World Almanac to begin each new year.
Junius Brutus Booth, well-known actor and assassin’s father, was born in 1796 and died in 1852, 13 years before his son slipped into a private box in Ford’s Theater and ended Abraham Lincoln’s presidency with a single derringer bullet to the back of the head.
That bookend set of two simple dates — and the appetite they whetted about the father of a man who would change America forever with his hatred and vanity— arrived on the front doorstep of my 8-year-old brain in the spring of 1976 as I browsed through a book that, thanks to my father, was ubiquitous in our home throughout my childhood. Its well-thumbed pages were replaced at the beginning of each new year with its fresh-off-the-presses successor: the latest edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts.
The almanac’s newsprint-scented pages contained treasures that in those days could be unearthed nowhere else — the momentous, the indispensable and the morsels that were absurdly obscure until you read them and wondered how you ever did without them. A succinct chronicle of recent years’ events. U.S. population by race and origin. A thrilling color insert depicting the flags of the world’s many nations. The rulers of Middle Europe. Energy consumption by state. Extreme wind speeds. Famous bridges and tunnels and the years they were constructed. Perfect baseball games pitched since 1901.
And, deep in the pages of its absurdly thick corpus, the section called NOTED PERSONALITIES — ENTERTAINERS OF THE PAST.
Here I learned about not only Booth and his nefarious and not-so-nefarious progeny, but about Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, about Eddie Cantor and Theda Bara and the Barrymores — John, Ethel, Lionel and Maurice. Each single line, with a name and two years, represented a life I wanted to learn more about — and did. This simple list of dead celebrities fueled an interest in old movies that, in the intervening four decades, has never waned.
Reference books were a passion of my father’s. A professor born in the second year of the Harding administration, he was nonetheless a cheerful early adopter of technology, diving headlong into the Apple IIc in 1984 two years after he turned 60. But to his dying day, through a half-dozen computers all the way to his final 2011 Dell laptop, he never stopped loving the physical, hold-in-your-hands reference book and its potential for what he called “the serendipity of fact.”
For him, and for me, such books (the quirkier the better) were troves of wonderful randomness in an age well before the rise of search and social — and years before the catchphrase “Well, that’s random” had taken on its current meaning of “delightfully wacky and fascinating.”
I have long found facts — unexpected facts, deliciously arcane facts, facts that I never knew I needed — to be one of the most rewarding gifts the world can offer up. That is why, like my father before me, I begin each new year, including this one, with a freshly minted copy of The World Almanac — and, by extension, with the possibility of a thousand fresh revelations in miniature.
And why I still believe that, in a world of searching for and finding what you want instantaneously, the power of serendipity remains potent.
METEOROLOGY — RECORD TEMPERATURES BY STATE. Arkansas, -29, Feb. 13, 1905. Weather Station: Gravette.
Were you aware that Napoleon’s penis was purportedly separated from the man at death and made its own way around the world for decades, moving from owner to owner (though perhaps “owner” might be a slight misnomer here)? During the many years of its journey away from its putative host it was, I daresay, a bone apart.
I learned about its travels from another fixture in our household in the 1970s, The Book of Lists, by a father-son-daughter team that cobbled together a wonderful array of randomness (some of it more sexualized than an 8-year-old mind might expect) that made its way from the good folks at William Morrow & Co. to the top of the toilet tank in our front bathroom.
It was there that I located much of the miscellany that I could drop into conversations at the dinner table, adding my own distinctive (I hoped) voice to the weird and wonderful things about which my parents would palaver during an average evening meal.
If memory serves, the Napoleon-phallus anecdote, delivered over lamb chops, was met with more bemusement than amusement. “Well,” said my mother to my father, as she often did, “he’s certainly your child.”
Then there was the just-the-facts-ma’am CIA World Factbook, which offered a country-by-country breakdown of the world in a handy fashion that seemed perfect for the would-be government toppler who has everything. I used to marvel during my Brezhnev-era adolescence, when my father bought it for me (often gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree alongside The World Almanac), that we regular Americans trying to process the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet nuclear threat could have access to the exact same facts about a country that actual spies used.
This feeling was accentuated by the fact that many acquaintances of my father, a language educator who spent the second half of the 1950s in Indochina, traveling from country to country on the eve of the Vietnam War, joked that — in his trench coat and thick glasses, with his professorial demeanor — he had probably been a spy. “How many governments have you toppled?” I heard a university colleague joke to him at a party once. After years of receiving the World Factbook from my father at the holidays, I asked him as Alzheimer’s began to steal his brain whether he had in fact ever been a spy. He eyed me and smiled. “If I was,” he said, “I don’t remember.”
What was the aggregate effect of these books and the random information they delivered to me, sliver by sliver, as I grew into adulthood? I learned that having the facts at hand mattered, and that unusual knowledge could add flavor to conversations and provide access to interesting people and interesting things. I learned that humanity was, in fact, wonderfully random, and that there were a lot of people who wanted to offer up knowledge in ways that would be useful and entertaining. I learned that facts, wielded properly, could be built into stories that made people more aware of their world. I learned the value of detail in adding texture to life. And I learned — please forgive me, Neil Postman — that knowledge and the pursuit of it can be whimsical and genuinely fun.
How, then, is that different from Google and Wikipedia, from all the places where the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, and in our pockets, 24 hours a day?
I think the answer to that is simple: Most of what I learned from the reference books of my childhood, I wasn’t already looking for.
U.S. GOVERNMENT — CABINET-LEVEL DEPARTMENTS. Secretaries of Commerce. Kennedy: Luther H. Hodges, NC, sworn in 1961.
Fun fact that I didn’t know I was looking for but found while writing this essay:
The World Almanac is not an almanac of the world — our world — as I’ve always believed. Instead, it was originally the almanac of the New York World, one of the pre-eminent New York newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1868, it decided its readers needed an almanac to go with the news, so it created one.
The notion grew and grew, encouraged by the publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, until newspapers all over the United States were distributing World Almanacs under their own imprimaturs. Now, with newspapers struggling, The World Almanac and Book of Facts is its own center of gravity. And a center of gravity it remains: As of this morning, a day before the dawn of 2017, its latest iteration was the 11th-bestselling reference book on Amazon. Look through the feedback on its page; over and over people say, “I buy this every year.”
Every year. Still. Even with smartphones in their pocket. Why?
I don’t think it’s because everyone buying it is over 70 and doesn’t want to use a screen. In an era when we draw our smartphone from our pocket like a Colt .45 to defend ourselves in our barroom trivia shootouts (talkin’ to you, IMDB), I think it comes back to the “serendipity of facts” that my father so adored. The modern world is a morass of confirmation bias; we find what we’re looking for because we’re looking for it. This pervasive notion crawls into our social feeds and our political brains, serving us up versions of what we already know to be true.
The joy of a World Almanac, or a CIA World Factbook, or a Book of Lists, is that while sure, there’s an index, and sure, we can look something up, getting lost in its pages leads us to things we haven’t searched for — to an appetizer plate of new knowledge that touches our brains in new ways.
And along the way, maybe, just maybe, we think about things we haven’t already chosen to think about. Like, say, when the tunnels and bridges of the continental United States were constructed, or the 2016 population of Nauru (9,591).
Some of the facts I learned from The World Almanac I remember on their own, distinct from other knowledge. But many others have simply been incorporated, over the years, into my world view. “Education is what remains after all that has been learned has been forgotten,” B.F. Skinner said. Or perhaps it was Einstein. Or someone, at any rate; no one’s quite sure.
But the point remains: The pieces of knowledge that this glorious miscellany gave to me — and that I excavated randomly while paging through these books and looking for nothing in particular — today form an underpinning of my identity as a writer and (I hope) a critical thinker.
As a journalist, I am fascinated by technology and its effect on knowledge. I am an early adopter of almost everything I can get my hands on, and I embrace the virtual, the intangible, the possible, the infinite. I spend chunks of every day studying how information moves around and how best to convey true, accurate information to people who seek it.
Yet I also collect old typewriters and have 8,000 books in my home. I want my kids to be digital natives, but also remember the Old Country, the place where old men like my father and, increasingly, me spend some of their time seeking out knowledge that they’re not really looking for. I want them to page through human knowledge that is organized in a fashion that makes the journey, not the destination, the point of it all.
How does that play out in a generation in which my 10-year-old son, on New Year’s Eve 2017 this morning, gets up, says hello and immediately disappears into his virtual world of Minecraft and moves around in that universe as comfortably as I walk around my own home?
He adores the Guinness World Records book and has since he was old enough to page through it. He requests an updated one regularly and is spotted with it throughout the course of the year. In fairness, I suspect his interest is less about the vital statistics of John Wilkes Booth’s father and more focused on the activities of people like one Joe Sylvester, who holds the record for the longest ramp jump in a monster truck (237 feet, seven inches, 2013).
The boy received the 2017 edition for Christmas a week ago, and I asked him to take a brief break from his Minecraft forays to chronicle what he considered the best unsorted but significant facts that he found. Here is what he came up with:
I wonder whether, in any virtual world, he would think to search for the Great Barrier Reef (which he now wants to visit) or bull ants (which he does not want to visit us) or seven-foot lizards (which he would like to see, but only via a screen, I think). He already liked baseball, but the other stuff? How would he ever know if he hadn’t been poking through his new reference book of facts he wasn’t already looking for?
So click on the Wikipedia links in this piece, by all means. Follow your information hunger into the hyperlink rabbit hole. Use search to find what you’re looking for.
But as you begin a new year, pause to remember all the things out there that you’re NOT looking for, and the possibility contained in magical volumes like The World Almanac — the possibility that in an age when we are already looking for so much, there’s some genius in encountering what we don’t already know that we need.
On Halloween Day 1990, when I was already a young adult, my probably-not-a-spy father gave me yet another CIA World Factbook. Attached to it was a handwritten note bearing two small stickers — the orange dots he used to leave his mark on things he sent out into the world.
“I don’t have the world to give you,” he wrote in his usual scrawl, “so you’ll just have to be satisfied with the World Factbook.”
He was wrong. By instilling in me a love for the glorious miscellany of reference, by showing me that what I’m looking for isn’t the only thing I need to find, he did in fact kind of give me the world — its Almanac, its Factbook, its Guinness Records and much, much more.
- Moon Shot: Gazing into a long-ago Polaroid taken by my father, and finding multitudes, a meditation on a single, informal photograph from four decades ago.
- Shack Love: Watching the First Shots of the Digital Revolution from a Front-Row Seat in the Suburbs, a look at how an electronics chain shaped the 1970s world view of a technology-hungry boy.
- To Think, To Laugh, To Understand: Edward Mason Anthony Jr., Sept. 1, 1922 — July 12, 2015. The eulogy I delivered about my father at his memorial service.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2016 | Ted Anthony