Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Tater Chip Books

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths about Our Health and the World We Live In by Anahad O'Connor

Sometimes one wants a book to pick at rather than to read. This can be Herodotus's Histories, or more likely, it can be a book like the two here, which are books written by very smart people who are obsessed with trivia and know that the rest of us are, too. However, they are, essentially, also books that could have been written by anyone with a library card.

Our authors here are very different types of writers, but both have major media affiliations, which goes a long way towards separating them from the herd, as trivia books go.

O'Connor is a recent Yale graduate who landed a gig writing for the New York Times (damn those young overachievers!), including a popular health and science column titled "Really?" The feature largely proves or debunks a variety of old wives' tales, popular wisdom, and that article you read on Yahoo! News two years ago where scientists said something that you've been using ever since to justify your chocolate, latte, or exercise habits.

Whereas, the authors of The General Book of Ignorance are a producer and a writer from the popular BBC comedy-quiz show QI (Quite Interesting). The program(me) is hosted by Stephen Fry, English television personality and comedian (and author of one of my favorite books, Revenge), and also seeks to debunk commonly accepted answers to popular trivia questions. Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent the telephone, but does anyone really know the name of the man who did (well, unless they read The Book of General Ignorance)? Since correct answers are rare, points are awarded on the basis of the interesting-ness of incorrect ones and deducted for simply regurgitating common misconceptions. QI says, "It's okay to be wrong, but don't be obviously, boringly wrong."

While both books have their charms, O'Connor's didn't say a whole lot that isn't already known by the discerning reader. We know that chicken soup is good for what ales you, that a poppyseed bagel can make you fail a drug test, and that the key to losing weight is generally to eat less and move more. However, I did learn some interesting things from him about seafood and scabs. The book includes a handy chart, listing the seafood with the most Omega-3 and the lowest concentrations of toxins, which I've now committed to memory. Also, everything your mom ever told you about treating a boo-boo is probably wrong; they ought to be covered, kept moist, and (yes) picked at occasionally.

On the other hand, I learned a ton of things I had no idea about from The Book of General Ignorance, including the technological contributions of the Scottish, the fashion contributions of the Croatians, and the culinary contributions of the French. And there's also a very funny story about Napoleon and a rabbit hunt gone bad.

Still, despite the cranky Guardian digested read about the latter, you couldn't go wrong with either if you need a good public transit, airport, doctor's waiting room, or bathroom book, and I suppose that's fairly high praise. Nobody says that kind of stuff about Sister Carrie.

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