Schott’s Original Miscellany: A Collection of Necessary Trivia, Uncommon Knowledge, and Vital Irrelevance , by Ben Schott. Bloomsbury, 158 pages, $14.95.
The old chestnut about what book you’d want on a desert island is outmoded now, what with most desert islands dedicated to reality programming. However, if you were to find yourself stranded in a motel room without cable, you could do a lot worse than Schott’s Original Miscellany . A best-seller in Britain, this slender collection of random information is surprisingly entertaining, frequently useful and occasionally thought-provoking. As the compiler himself observes, “It is, perhaps, possible to live one’s life without Schott’s Original Miscellany , but it seems a curious and brave thing to attempt.”
That’s a slight overstatement, given the generous amount of standard-issue trivia here. If you want the names of Santa’s reindeer, Snow White’s dwarves, the Bond girls, the labors of Hercules or the seven wonders of the ancient world, then Mr. Schott’s your man. He also includes those tired old collective nouns, most of which-a “murder” of crows, an “exaltation” of larks-we’ve seen before. (I’m not sure that all of them are even right; a “bench” doesn’t refer just to bishops, as Mr. Schott implies, but to many elected officials.)
Still, the good, original stuff vastly outweighs the so-so. For me, the appeal of Mr. Schott’s book lies in the practical information that I didn’t know I needed but am delighted to have. For example, in a lifetime of buying lingerie, I’ve never understood how the ladies with the tape measure arrive at a bra size. It’s complicated, and it’s here. And Mr. Schott’s explication of the intensely cryptic international laundry symbols is, all by itself, worth the price of the book: I can now understand my garment tags and operate my Braun iron without fear.
Even handier, Schott’s provides European/U.S. conversion tables for shoe and dress sizes, a list I’ve just photocopied for my next Barneys sortie. Now I won’t need to ask an arch salesperson to reveal whether a size six is a European 34 or 36-a question that evidently exposes me as someone with no business in the Jil Sander boutique, anyway. A little farther afield, if you, like me, have always wondered idly how Indian women keep their saris up, Mr. Schott provides simple line drawings-à la The Joy of Sex -illustrating how to wrap six yards of silk.
Practicality aside, the best tidbits in Schott’s produce unexpected little epiphanies. The juiciest of these nuggets are historical-tiny, carefully selected footnotes that animate the past (and lead me to suspect that Mr. Schott has a degree from a good university). For instance, the leaders of the French Revolution ditched the Gregorian calendar and invented a system of 12 30-day months with names based on seasonal weather-fog, wind and heat. They eliminated weeks in favor of 10-day groupings called décades and made the five or six leftover days into holidays dedicated to such concepts as reason, virtue and revolution. The sheer hell-bent iconoclasm of it reminds you how well-behaved our own founders were.
Across the Channel, during the reign of George I, demonstrators had one hour to disperse after an official read them the newly passed Riot Act, which commanded “all persons … peaceably to depart to their habitations.” It all seems so much more civilized than fire hoses, until you get to Mr. Schott’s observation that anyone who didn’t move along woke up with his head on a pike.
Other entries are somehow reassuring, revealing order in a world that seems more chaotic every day. I was glad to know, for instance, that there are precise guidelines for describing newly discovered terrain on the moon and planets. The names of scholars, artists and scientists go to large lunar craters; dunes on Venus get names of desert goddesses; features of Titan, a satellite of Saturn, receive names of “displaced ancient cultures.” Meteorologists are equally systematic in their classification of tornadoes based on wind speed. An F4 (207 to 260 m.p.h.) is “Devastating,” an F5 (261 to 318 m.p.h.) is “Incredible,” and an F6 (greater than 319 m.p.h.) is left nameless, with the hopeful annotation “Theoretical; not expected on Earth.”
But more intriguing than any mere fact in Schott’s is the philosophical question raised by its popularity. In A.D. 2003, when anyone with a high-speed Internet connection can get the basics of any subject within 10 seconds, does the world need collections like this? From an informational standpoint, probably not. As an experiment, I Googled a few of Schott’s entries and was instantly drowning in expertise. “Collective nouns” produced five Web sites devoted to the subject, including one in which you can coin collective nouns of your own. “French Revolutionary Calendar” brought me the particulars in Mr. Schott’s book, plus thumbnail pictures of the multi-ethnic Mariannes-those women who embody La France. “Sari-wrapping” led me to diagrams much more detailed than Schott’s , and a curry recipe besides.
So if information isn’t the selling point of Schott’s Original Miscellany , what is? Aesthetics comes into it a little bit: The volume is beautifully designed (by Mr. Schott himself), feels great in the hand and comes with one of those attached satin ribbons that serve as page markers. (Note to Mr. Schott for his next miscellany: Do those things have a special name?) But the real pleasure of the book lies in the process by which you come across the information. You don’t seek, you stumble. The difference between this handsome volume and an Internet search is the difference between listening to a CD you’ve burned yourself and happening onto a really great radio station, or the difference between giving a party and going to one. Ben Schott has done all the work, and given it to us as a gift.
JoAnn Gutin is a science writer and editor in New York City.