Monday, March 12, 2012

"The New Book of Lists"

I think I've probably mentioned before here that I love books of lists. If I haven't, let me do that now.

I love books of lists.

So, I'm not quite sure how I missed the fact that David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, to of the three compilers of the original Book of Lists, published in 1977, put out a new volume, The New Book of Lists (Canongate; 600 pages) in 2005.

The original, which I loved just for the sheer novelty of it, spawned several sequels and numerous and varied imitators of differing quality over the years. I've read, or at least perused, a lot of them. Maybe it's because I love trivia, or perhaps it's because I'm a list-maker myself. Whatever it is, I can't seem to put books like this one down. When I got this new volume home from the library, I sat down to glance through it, just to see what was new. I ended up spending over two hours with it, thumbing through it and read what seemed most interesting to me at the time.

That is another thing that I think attracts me to this sort of book: They don't need to be read in sequence, from cover to cover. That has a lot of appeal to someone like me, who more often than not reads a magazine back to front and who often writes longer pieces of writing from the middle out. With books of lists, you can pick them up, turn to a page, and start reading. Additionally, you can pick up a book of lists for five minutes if that's all the time you have to spare (and if you can stand to put it down after so short a time), or you can spend hours with it and not get bored.

As with the original volume, the lists in this book span the breadth of topics and the complete spectrue from the sublime to the ridiculous. You can read about "15 Notable Events That Happened Under the Influence of Alcohol" (including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the failed 1991 coup in the former Soviet Union). Or, you can learn about "20 Famous Gurus and Their Former Jobs". Did you know that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who famously taught Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles in the 1960s) had a BS in Physics? It is less of a surprise that Werner Erhard, the founder of the EST movement, was once a used-car salesman.

While those examples lean more towward the ridiculous end of the spectrum, a little more sublime is the list of "9 Valuable Art Works Found Unexpectedly". This list includes the couple in a Milwaukee suburb who discovered that the van Gogh reproduction hanging on the wall in their living room for years was not a reproduction, but an original that brought $1.4 million at auction. Or the librarian in Hollywood who found 665 handwritten pages in an inherited steamer trunk that turned out to be part of Mark Twain's original handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn.

And then there are the lists that are just outright funny, like "36 Great Slips of the Tongue in American Politics." Some of these are familiar, and some are not, but I would be willing to bet that it is impossible to get through the entire list without laughing...and becoming more than a little frightened if, indeed, there is any valididity to the concept of the Freudian slip.

I suspect that every word in The New Book of Lists is probably not strictly true; a few of the entries seem to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. Still, it is a fun book that I would recommend to anyone who needs a break from serious, linear, plot-driven reading.

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