Let’s begin with a seasonal mind game. You’re the floor manager in a flagship metropolitan book store. As the customers stream in you’re regarding a crate of just-arrived books for the Christmas market – the title is Rucks, Pucks and Sliders: More Origins of Peculiar Sporting Lingo – more? Who said they wanted more? (Bob Wilson, Icon, £9.99). Where on earth do you shelve the bloody things? Your eyes flit desperately around the serried racks of your emporium. In “Sport”? No. Those rucks, pucks and whatever the hell they are would shrivel up in shame alongside Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. How about that “Lingo”, though? Could it go on the linguistics shelf alongside Noam Chomsky and Greenbaum’s Oxford English Grammar? Perhaps not. It would rather lower the tone.
And what about that crate of Skylarks and Scuttlebutts: A Treasure Trove of Nautical Knowledge? (Lorenz Schroter, Granta, £9.99). Where will that little vessel of peculiar information – eg, “What is the highest peak on the Faroe Islands? Slattaratindur” – find a haven? Or, more importantly, strategically open a customer’s wallet?
What about Bertha Venation – and Hundreds of Other Funny Names of Real People (Larry Ashmead, Profile, £8.99) – eg, “Sid Down”, “Stan Dupp”? Shall we place that exercise in higher trivia in the baby section? Expectant parents are always looking for inspiration about names, and might be glad of a warning.
In despair, our tormented manager dumps them all on a table called “Perfect Gifts for Christmas” and mutters a prayer to the Great Bookseller in the Sky that they sell fast before they’re shunted on to that other table of shame marked “Book Bargains”.
As the 2007 book market girds itself for the annual holiday sales bonanza, it is awash with such perplexingly unshelveable miscellany. Over the gunwhales with the stuff, one might say (you don’t know what a gunwhale is? – see the aforementioned scuttlebutt book). Blame Lynne Truss and that damned panda and his shotgun.
But inchoate and unshelveable as it is, within this wilderness of non-books, shadowy categories can be glimpsed.
1. The Trussiads
In deference to the all-conquering Truss (and to think I once marked that woman’s undergraduate essays) are the sexy updates of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, instructing us how to speak proper. For example, such Trussiads as: It’s Not Rocket Science And Other Irritating Modern Cliches – eg, “No Way; No-Brainer; No Pain, No Gain” (Clive Whichelow and Hugh Murray, Portrait, £9.99); She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook – eg, “Enjoy!” (Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, Constable, £5.99); and I Before E (Except After C): Old-School Ways to Remember Stuff – eg, “30 days hath September”, (Judy Parkinson, Michael O’Mara, £9.99).
2. Wot skool never taught you
Forget the stinks you did at school. Science is fun! This sub-genre was founded a couple of years ago by an out-of-nowhere bestseller, Does Anything Eat Wasps? (Profile, £7.99), by New Scientist (not, one should say, an author often encountered in the charts).
Never let it be said publishers are reluctant to leap on other publishers’ bandwagons. This year, the scientifically curious reader can find answers to many hundreds of conundrums, such as: Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? (Mick O’Hare, Profile, £7.99); Why Don’t Spiders Stick to Their Webs? (Robert Matthews, Oneworld, £7.99); Why is Yawning Contagious? (Portrait, £7.99); and Do Elephants Ever Forget? (Guy Campbell, Buster, £7.99) So successful has the genre been that it has even spun off an opposing anti-genre in the mocking form of Do Ants have Arseholes? (Jon Butler and Bruno Vincent, Sphere, £7.99) and How to Fossilise your Hamster (Mick O’Hare, Profile, £7.99).
Why, to continue the questionnaire, do people buy these books (so to call them)? What possible use could the information they contain be, even to the nation’s small number of dead hamster owners? One has to guess at reasons. The waspy progenitor of the science genre asserted, bestsellingly and persuasively, that the boring things you were made to study at A-level can, in later life, be a whole lot of fun. They can stimulate interesting dinner conversation – and make perfect holiday gifts.
This was further asserted, drawing on another, and even less-loved, part of the school curriculum, by Harry Mount’s 2006 bestseller, Amo, Amas, Amat… And All That: How to Become a Latin Lover (Short Books, £12.99). Following the instruction literally (oops!, mustn’t say that) is Charlotte Higgins’s Latin Love Lessons: Put a Little Ovid in Your Life (Short Books, £12.99). It will do well, one doesn’t doubt.
History Without the Boring Bits: A Curious Chronology of the World (Ian Crofton, Quercus, £16.99) puts the rationale of this sub-genre clearly enough. Even that dorkiest of subjects, geography, has been given the “without the boring bits” treatment, with 2007 arrivals such as I Never Knew That About London and I Never Knew that About Wales (both by Christopher Winn, Ebury, £9.99). They offer the reader such believe-it-or-not facts as: “Vauxhall Cross Bus Station is now the capital’s second busiest bus station” and “Flint has the oldest town charter in Wales”. Sometimes, dorkiness is inexpungible. Pity the poor old geography teacher.
3. The survival guides
These are what used to be called conduct books. This year’s “Perfect Christmas Gift” table is laden with jokey titles such as: The Baldies Survival Guide: Everything a Slaphead Needs to Cope in a Cruel Hairy World (Tim Collins, Michael O’Mara, £9.99) and the even more desperate My Boyfriend is a Twat (Zoe McCarthy, Friday Project, £9.99). Lose the baseball cap, lose the boyfriend, is the message – delivered, of course, with the appropriate yuletide yo-ho-ho.
4. Things you didn’t need to know
The year’s most thriving category is what might be called “saloon bar lore” or “what everyone knows after the fourth pint”. Top selling titles include: Bears Can’t Run Downhill: And 200 Other Dubious Pub Facts Explained – they can: there are gnawed bones in the forest to prove it (Robert Anwood, Ebury, £9.99); Steve Wright’s Further Factoids – eg Austria was the first country ever to use postcards (HarperCollins, £9.99); and The Pedant’s Revolt: Why Most Things You Think Are Right Are Wrong (Andrea Barham, Michael O’Mara, £9.99).
As the above titles suggest, there is a broad vein of in-your-face (“you pub-ignoramus you”) scepticism running through these books. Time and again one encounters contradictions to such pseudodoxia epidemica (“vulgar errors” for those not up with Mr Mount) as to how lemmings die and how Mr Know-it-all is wrong in thinking that Norwegian cliffs are in any way involved.
The best of this fourth category, for my frugal tenner (although it costs a smidgen more), is John Lloyd and John Mitchinson’s The Book of General Ignorance (Faber, £12.99). This contains recondite, and corrective, answers to such questions as “Which eye did Nelson wear his eye-patch on?”, “How many nostrils have you got?” and “Was Hitler a vegetarian?” (chances are, like me, you’ll be wrong on all three). What distinguishes this effort is that its authors have evidently embarked on what, in other circumstances, one might call “research”.
Reading The Book of General Ignorance reminds us, inescapably, of the grand progenitor of the “vulgar error” genre, Sir Thomas Browne who wrote the original Pseudodoxia Epidemica (long out of print). He pondered at vast length, and with owlish scholarly industry, such pseudodoxia as whether, given their body mass, elephants were unable to lie down and had to sleep leaning against (stout) trees; or whether, if you hung a dead kingfisher up, its beak, like a magnetised needle, would swing to north (first catch your kingfisher; well, on second thoughts, don’t bother). Lloyd and Mitchinson get a deserved commendation in the form of a witty introduction from the nation’s favourite omniscientist, Stephen Fry.
These books are, to the jaundiced eye, the equivalent of Diet Coke or decaf coffee: reading matter you don’t actually have to read because there’s nothing between the hard covers but cotton wool for the mind. They are to the traditional book what the MTV clip is to Mozart. Their triviality reflects the degradation of contemporary intellect. We should be ashamed they are so numerous this year. Where is Savonarola when we need his purging bonfires?
And yet, trivial as these books are, serious points can be made about them. The first is that such books are not a new phenomenon. As a general category, one can trace them back to John Porter’s primeval (and long out-of-print) Anglo Saxon Riddles – eg, “What has 49 heads, one eye, and limps? A one legged, one eyed garlic seller”. It’s funnier in Old English.
A handy term for them is “flim-flams”. It was borrowed from Laurence Sterne by Isaac D’Israeli, author of Curiosities of Literature, an early-19th-century compilation that went through half-a-dozen bestselling editions in as many years.
The flim-flams to be found in such quantity in bookshops this year also tell us something interesting about the spirit of our age. Encylopaedias – from Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, through Diderot and Britannica to Wikipedia – embody an optimism that knowledge can be organised, categorised, quality tested, standardised, contained. Flim-flams argue the opposite. The suitcase is always too small, however much you jump up and down on it. Knowledge is constantly exploding. Enjoy it, but never think you can organise it.
A 2007 flim-flam such as Philip Ardagh’s Book of Absolutely Useless Lists (Macmillan, £7.99) submits gracefully to the impossible. It’s an anti-encyclopedia. Its contents (eg, 20 “strange facts about hair”) are totally random and pointless. Why? Because that’s the only rational response to information overload. Only the supercomputer can organise or contain it. And who wants to read a supercomputer? Or get one for Christmas?
Exacerbating the overload is the crazy pace of modern life. No time to read (Proust is three million words long, Mr Guinness’s flim-flam record book tells us); no time even to look at blurbs. Hence flim-flams have titles that grab the customer by the eyeballs, assuming the wallet will follow. What subsequent reading is involved will be done in minutes. The 21st-century book purchaser has no time to browse. Leave that to the cows (should any of those lactating quadrupeds survive foot and mouth and bluetongue).
So, there you are. What are they? Books for our time. Flim-flams triumphant!
John Sutherland is author of ‘Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP) and ‘The Boy Who Loved Books: A Memoir’ (John Murray)
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