Uncommon Knowledge

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

The distance from the Statue of Liberty's cranium down to her chin is 17 feet, three inches. Upon reaching the 25th level of the Freemasonry hierarchy, a member earns the title Chevalier of the Brazen Serpent. For dessert aboard the Titanic on April 14, 1912, first-class passengers could choose between Waldorf pudding, peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate and vanilla éclairs, and French ice cream. According to legend, in 1599 the king of Burma died of too much laughter, while no fewer than four of his predecessors died in elephant-related incidents.

"It started out as a joke, and then it got completely out of hand," says Ben Schott, referring not to the circumstances of King Nandabayin's demise but to Schott's Original Miscellany (Bloomsbury, 159 pp., $14.95). The slender, unassuming volume houses ephemera and exotica ranging from Lady Lib's physical stats to the Twelve Labors of Hercules (No. 9: Acquisition of the Girdle of Hippolyte), from the schematic of Dante's Inferno to the classification sizes of icebergs. (A height less than one meter above water relegates a 'berg to the status of "Growler"; next size up is the scarcely less dignified "Bergy Bit.") A surprise No. 1 bestseller in the U.K., the Miscellany announces itself as "a collection of necessary trivia, uncommon knowledge, and vital irrelevance"—a densely packed grab bag of charts, glossaries, diagrams, and scrumptious stand-alone factoids.

The 159-page nest of novel nuggets originated as a brainstorm for a Christmas card, during what Schott calls his "previous life" as a portrait photographer (his subjects included Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher). "I thought I would send my clients a little booklet of all the stuff that just eludes the memory," recalls the 29-year-old author, puffing a cigar in his apartment in Highgate, North London. "The verses of the national anthem, some technical things for photography and design, and just some bizarre fun things, like the names of cloud shapes. I showed it to some friends, and people were just really excited about it, in a way that I couldn't really believe. So I just kept working on it."

Schott designed and typeset the Miscellany himself. "I wanted it to look and feel like a book you'd seen before. You'd pick it up and think, Didn't my grandfather own one of these? It would seem comfortable and familiar, yet archaic." With its Garamond serifs, two-column layouts, and deadpan magniloquence, it also strongly resembles a McSweeney's offshoot, though Schott swears he's never glimpsed a copy of the quarterly.

The Miscellany's epigraph is from Virginia Woolf—"Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small"—but her counsel is lost on some readers. "I had a journalist say to me a few weeks ago, 'This is all very well, but when are you going to write a proper book?' " Schott reports cheerfully. In addition to the modest but compulsive pleasures of trivial pursuit, however, the Miscellany also takes abundant joy in the secret histories, untapped talents, and shape-shifting prowess of language itself—just like a proper book. Schott gathers choice palindromes ("Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas!") and condenses dictionaries of slang: cockney rhymes, roadside-diner jargon, and polari, the gay idiom of mid-century London that bantered like the dandy scion of Italian and Nasdat. He salutes that eternal friend of the typesetter, the holalphabetic sentence, with a greatest-hits catalog—we can all recite "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," but have you heard the possibly profane "Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz"? And can you purr "I love you" in 43 different languages, including Esperanto ("Mi amas vin")? The Miscellany can.

"For that one, I would just phone up the Polish airline and say, 'Oh hello, my girlfriend's from Poland, I want to tell her 'I love you'—anyone there who speaks Polish?' " explains the wily researcher. "And they'd say 'Oh that's really sweet, hang on' and they'd go and find out for me. And then I'd call up some Serbian cultural group, and say, 'Oh hello, my girlfriend . . . ' "

The compendium acknowledges the transatlantic language barrier in an "English to American English" guide, one of several entries written specifically for the U.S. edition—British readers of the original, for instance, will not discover that 37.5 percent of FBI directors have been named William, or that, alarmingly, when an American spots a "speed bump," an Englishman descries a "sleeping policeman."

Multiplicities of expression and communication lay at the heart of the Miscellanyendeavor. "The whole project is about sub-languages, subcultures, subsections of expertise," Schott says. "For example, there's a thing called the Glasgow Coma Scale, used in hospitals across the world for analyzing head injuries. Anyone who's worked in a trauma ward or ER knows the GCS, but anyone else opening the book would have no idea. You can find these secret spheres of knowledge everywhere, if only you look for them. There's a scale for everything." That would include the heat of chiles, ranked by the Scoville Scale (pure capsaicin scores 16 million Scoville units), and the intensity of tornadoes, ranging from "Gale" to beyond "Incredible" on the Fujita-Pearson Scale.

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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