If you’re like me, you’re probably sick of lists proclaiming the best and worst of 2011 and what to watch out for in 2012. As an antidote, consider these four books of lists that eschew the here and now in favor of a wider view. Conclusion: The human species has always been a mess.
4. The Little Book of Big F*#K Ups: 220 of History’s Most Regrettable Moments by Ken Lytle and Katie Corcoran Lytle: This chronological romp through some of mankind’s biggest blunders takes a History Channel approach to its subjects: quick and shallow. In other words, if you know anything at all about the subject, you’ll find little of interest, but if the material is new to you, there’s enough to whet your appetite. The authors take a wide view of “history” by including sports snafus and errors from the world of entertainment (sorry, ABC’s decision to pass on The Cosby Show doesn’t qualify as a colossal fuckup). The writing is often wooden and the humor a bit ham-handed, but the decision to support the stories with quotations adds some much-needed depth. The perfect accessory for your toilet tank.
3. Citation Needed: The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing by Conor Lastowka and Josh Fruhlinger: As is so often the case these days, what began as a blog is now a book. The authors, one of whom lives in San Diego, have taken it upon themselves to pluck examples of bad prose from the word salad that is Wikipedia and preserve them for all time. It’s a clever concept, entertainingly executed, but bad writing is bad writing. Most of the entries are very brief, for which I’m grateful, but establishing context isn’t high on the list of the authors’ priorities. When delving into the realm of Wikipedia, credibility is an issue, and there were times I wished the authors used the commentary section to confirm or deny an entry’s relationship to the truth. I’m not really sure if the world needs a book of bad writing, but like snow globes and Chihuahua sweaters, I’m glad this one exists.
2. 10 Ways to Recycle a Corpse: 100 More Dreadfully Distasteful Lists by Karl Shaw: With a taste for puns and an appetite for wordplay, Shaw finds humor in depravity: “You’re Eatin’ Heart: 12 Acts of Cannibalism,” “Gone with the Wind: 10 Sufferers of Flatulence” and “The World’s 10 Favorite Tourist Destinations for the Depressed.” Shaw’s catalogs of extreme deviance, banal cruelty and preposterous vanity unlock a hidden side of history. For example, who knew that Julius Caesar was obsessed with hair loss? Why was Isaac Newton compelled to nearly blind himself not once but twice? Did Maurice Wilson really believe the best way to ascend Mt. Everest was by crashing a plane into it and climbing the rest of the way? These aren’t lists so much as proof that there’s nothing more destructive than a bad idea. Shaw’s book probably won’t gross you out, but it just might shake your faith in the human enterprise.
1. Fact. Fact. Bullshi*t! by Neil Patrick Stewart: A brilliant concept for a book of useless trivia: On each facing page are three facts. One of them, however, is bogus. The reader guesses which fact is incorrect and turns the page to discover the answer. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-read person and was appalled and occasionally frustrated by my inability to spot the corker. This is one of those books that’ll have you saying, “Did you know—?” to your spouse or partner every 10 or 15 minutes. For example, did you know that cockroaches can survive being nuked in a microwave? Or that the male koala has a bifurcated penis? Or that during World War II special editions of the game Monopoly were delivered to POW camps by the Red Cross that contained real money, a compass and maps to safe houses that the prisoners then used to escape? Now you know. My only quibble with the book is that every topic is introduced with an exclamation mark: Elvis! Flamethrowers! The Jockstrap! But this outburst of enthusiasm doesn’t detract from the pleasure of learning about a world that’s infinitely more complex than one could ever hope to imagine.