Uncommon Knowledge

A Talk With Ben Schott, Compiler of a Big Little Treasury of Trivial Facts

Schott is now racing to finish a new Miscellany devoted to food and drink (due for U.K. release at Christmas, and out in the States sometime next year). Lately he's been reading up on Trimalchio's feast from the Satyricon, tracing the lineage between coffee and commerce (both the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London began life in 19th-century coffee shops), and "trying to pinpoint exactly why we're not allowed to eat swans." He also pens a weekly column for London's Telegraph, dedicating a recent entry to notable 11ths. "People always put together groups of 10," he explains, "and I just wanted to say, Hurrah for 11s!"

As inclusive and free-form as his enterprise appears, however, Schott points out, "There's no Top 10s, no longest-tallest-deepest-widest, no comparative lists at all." Though your local seller will file the book under Reference/Trivia, the author takes pains to set it apart from distant cousins Whitaker, Guinness, et al. "Trivia tends to be a male preserve, and it's quite competitive. It's like, I know this, you don't know this, therefore somehow I'm better than you. Whereas with an entry in the Miscellany—who could possibly know this? So it's not one-upmanship; it's just glorying in other people's knowledge." Which may set any given copy of Schott's Original Miscellany on a path of glory all its own: As Schott remarks, "Someone said to me, it's the kind of book that starts out in the loo, and then you start discovering it in other parts of the house."

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