By Philip Wallace, Marketing Systems & Content Analyst
Trivial Pursuit first came on the scene during my 1980s teen existence, and I became obsessed with that board game over the next few years. It didn’t hurt that my little rural community shut down completely when it snowed, so that became a fun indoor leisure activity for my family to supplement Rook, Monopoly, and Scrabble. Yes, I know that qualifies me as the relic of a bygone era.
I have gone on several cruises and have fun with the trivia matches on sea days. Yet, on my most recent voyage, I burned out on the intensity of some of the other passengers. Folks were giving the activities staff member grief about the correct answer to a question concerning a quote from the Hollywood classic “Some Like It Hot.” The young woman serving as emcee did have her fact wrong, but the grand prize was a cruise-line luggage tag, so I figured that people needed to take a chill pill, and that was the end of trivia on the ocean for me.
Still, I can’t resist factoids, whether they be part of the mainstream body of cultural knowledge or something a bit more off-kilter. I fancy myself as one of those “a little about a lot” kind of learners. So, I have always enjoyed browsing through reference books even when I didn’t necessarily have a particular question for which I needed an answer. I like sampling the morsels of knowledge and feeling a bit smarter for a relatively small investment of my time.
The internet has transformed everything in contemporary life, and it’s a common refrain that reference books don’t serve the same purpose they used to. I won’t deny that reality, but somehow, there is still something kind of magical about turning the physical page to reach new discoveries or at least re-familiarize myself with subjects from the past. I wanted to share some of my all-time favorites, and thankfully, all of them are still in print, though admittedly a couple may not cause as much of a stir as they used to.
Book Title: Why Do Pirates Love Parrots from Imponderables Series by David Feldman (There are
at least seven, but this is the most recent.)
ISBN: 9780060888435 | $12.99 Paperback | Collins Publishers
Feldman managed to pivot from studying literary classics as an undergrad to a devoting his post-secondary academic life to pop culture. (Yes, there are degrees in that.) His books tackle the sorts of questions that we all have in the back of our minds but never seem to be able to articulate, let alone try to answer. Do people really go to jail for taking the tags off of mattresses? Why is peanut butter sticky? Where does the lost tread from our tires go? Feldman now maintains an internet archive of his findings, but I still think the books are fun. (I work for a book distributor, so I should say that, right?)
Book Title: The New Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace
ISBN: 9781841957197 | $18 Paperback | Cannongate Books (The editions from my Gen X formative years are long out of print, sadly.)
As profiled in a 2014 CNN.com article, veteran reference guru Wallechinsky has devoted his more recent career to internet ventures and his extensive involvement in sports data. Yet, the Book of Lists series he created with his sister Amy and assistance from a couple of other members of his literary family created a major sensation in the publishing industry during the 1970s and 1980s. As a preteen, I was absolutely addicted to the whimsy and irreverence on display. This was long before the internet era, so asking questions that may not always be polite or prudent was still pretty revolutionary.
Book Title: Almanac of American Politics (2016)
ISBN: 9781938518300 | $89.00 Paperback | Columbia Books Inc.
Okay, unless maybe you live and work on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., this is more of a go to the reference section of the library rather than a pick one up at the local bookstore kind of title. You have to be a political junkie to get into it, but if you fit that description, it’s a goldmine. If you want to know how the fine points of how congressional members vote on legislation or how individual states and congressional districts behave politically, this is the title for you. The price point reflects the labor-intensive nature of the research for this kind of publication. Granted, the internet makes certain aspects of this material more obtainable, but there does still seem to be a value in pulling it all together in a physical book form.
Book Title: Where Are They Buried?: How Did They Die? Fitting Ends and Final Resting Places of the Famous, Infamous, and Noteworthy (Revised)
ISBN: 9781631910111 | $17.95 Paperback | Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
If you have a taste for the slightly quirky and macabre, this is the title for you. For a host of notable individuals from a variety of fields, the authors detail the specifics of how each individual departed his or her earthly journey and where each person is buried. (Directions for tourists are included.) It’s not a matter of being disrespectful to the deceased or making light of human tragedy, but curious minds do want to know this sort of thing. Funny story: several years back, my mother kindly agreed to hang out at my condo one day to wait on either the cable company or the heating and air folks, one of those places that gives you the four-hour window. She saw my copy of Where Are They Buried? on the coffee table. Her initial reaction was that this seemed like an odd subject for a book, but she picked it up anyway and found herself appreciating the diversion.
Book Title: The World Almanac and Book of Facts (2016)
ISBN: 9781600572012 | $14.99 Paperback | World Almanac Books
This venerable title is the reference granddaddy of them all. It’s almost too obvious to include on my list, and yet, I have to pay tribute. Growing up, I would ask for the latest annual edition as a Christmas present, the timing worked out well. They go to press late enough in the year to include topics such as the World Series or election returns, though the 2000 presidential election marked an awkward development with regard to the latter. I don’t replace my personal copy quite as often as I used to, but I still can’t resist taking the plunge every three to four years.