Saturday, January 06, 2007

Schott in the dark - A high caliber almanac


Slide-rule companies pretty much went out of business with the advent of computer age. Though in the Internet age the printed page is far from endangered, traditional reference works are. All the words of the massive bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for which I paid $1,500 back in 1974, now come on DVDs thrown in for free with the purchase of some other computer program. The fabulously popular Wikipedia online is even beginning to rival Britannica in accuracy. And with data of every kind freely available on the Web, whither the yearly printed almanac? The "World Almanac and Book of Facts" or the "Information Please Almanac" now have a quaintness to them, almost as if someone published them year after year but had forgotten why.

So London-based Ben Schott decided to reinvent the yearly almanac. The result is "Schott's Almanac: 2007" ($25.95 in hardcover from Bloomsbury USA), designed especially for American readers (there are also British and German versions). In the brief introduction, the author writes, " 'Schott's Almanac' reflects the age in which it has been written: an age when information is plentiful, but selection and analysis are more elusive. ... 'Schott's Almanac' aspires to provide an informative, selective and entertaining analysis of the year. 'Schott's' is an almanac written to be read."

Superficially resembling the more traditional almanac, with familiar section titles like "books and arts" and "the States," "Schott's" is shorter (368 pages) and its content far quirkier. It's unlikely that years from now we will be driven to look up "street names, unusual" to find the "7 'wackiest' street names, according to a 2006 poll by Car Connection Web site." (A few of the selections, for the record: Psycho Path, in Traverse City, Mich.; Divorce Court, in Heather Highlands, Pa.; and, in Story, Alaska, Farfrompoopen Road, "the only road leading to Constipation Ridge.")

Oldsters beware, too. The print is minuscule and the overall tone decidedly hip. There are lots of fun lists (the "Hacker, Cracker, & Geek Speak" lexicon distinguishes among geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks) but lots of serious talk as well, especially in the survey of the year that leads off the book. You'll find an official definition of genocide, a biography of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a short article on Holocaust denial. Some of the sections (sports, the nation) are more prosaic than others (such as media and celebrity, which leads off with a comparison of the cover stars pictured on issues of People and US Weekly) but all in all Schott's lives up to its claim to be readable.

Odd corners abound. Here's a poem from Thomas Hood (1799-1845): "Dirty days hath September, / April, June and November, / From January up to May / The rain it raineth every day. / February hath 28 alone, / And all the rest have 31. / If any of them had two and 30 / They'd be just as wet and dirty."

Then there are the Ig Nobel prizes, for real research that seems pointless, with the 2005 winners in chemistry: "Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger (University of Minnesota) for their tireless investigation into whether people swim faster in syrup or in water."
The "Oddest Book Title of the Year" award for 2005 goes to author Gary Leon Hill for "People Who Don't know They Are Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It."

Don't look for a review anytime soon.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission. Posted by Picasa

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