Connoisseurs of the Christmas gift book market — we are a select group, with little otherwise to occupy our time — will have noticed a couple of significant absences from this year’s line-up. There is no Blue Peter Annual, for the first time since 1964, when even Christopher Trace was still a young man. More tellingly, Schott’s Almanac appears to have ceased publication after six years of, one assumes, gradually declining sales. It was beautifully designed, lovingly compiled, funny and unpredictable, and I shall miss it. No doubt Ben Schott is now holed up in his gothic tower, surrounded by pieces of paper with bizarre facts written on them, wondering what on earth he should do next.
But if he needs any consolation (other than the vast sums of money he has made) he should take a look at this year’s batch of quirky Christmas books. Although there is a lot of rubbish around, as there always is, there are also a few titles that, within the bounds of their modest ambitions, are really quite stunning, and most of them owe at least a small debt to Mr Schott’s pioneering work.
David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words (Profile, £12.99) is his third book about language this year, for only James Patterson works this fast. It’s also one of his best. ‘How can we tell the story of the English language?’ he asks in his introduction. Well, you can take an overview, identify general themes and trends, and give as many examples of usage as space allows. Crystal has done that, several times. Or you can go micro rather than macro, and cobble together a whole load of individual etymologies. Crystal has done that too, ‘in my collection of international proverbs, As They Say in Zanzibar’.
Here he combines both approaches, and chooses 100 words, every one of which tells us something about the way the language has developed. From roe (fifth century) and loaf (ninth century), via arse (11th), taffeta (14th) and bodgery (16th), up to schmooze, DNA and unfriend, it builds gradually into a kind of linguistic tapestry, packed with abstruse information, wonderfully readable, a work of reference and a gripping lavatory book in perfect combination.
If you have ever unfriended someone because they used the word ‘unfriend’, you might not be instantly drawn to Tweeting the Universe: Tiny Explanations of Very BIG Ideas, by the science writers Marcus Chown and Govert Schilling (Faber, £12.99). Possibly to keep up with ‘ve kids’, these two set themselves the challenge of explaining how the universe works on Twitter. Collected here, then, are 140 questions, asking things like ‘Why is Mars red?’, ‘Is Jupiter a failed sun?’ and ‘Does the Sun have a surface?’, and answers them in a maximum of 15 tweets, each of no more than 140 characters.
It’s ridiculous but ingenious, and wholly successful. The extreme compression forced upon the writers makes clarity imperative: the discipline seems to have liberated them. Everything you failed to understand in Stephen Hawking’s ridiculous books suddenly makes sense. You may learn more in an afternoon reading this book than you did in a whole childhood of science lessons.
The chess writer William Hartston is also, in his spare time, the doyen of trivialists, whose 1984 volume (with Jill Dawson), The Ultimate Irrelevant Encyclopaedia, is a work of unacknowledged genius. His latest, The Things That Nobody Knows (Atlantic, £16.99), takes a new tack, and lists 501 questions to which we simply do not have the answers. Why do giraffes have long necks? Why are so many of them gay? Can lobsters recognise other lobsters by sight? What did the Minoans call themselves?
Hartston charts mankind’s attempts to solve these conundra with deep research and his usual deadpan drollery, but the overall effect, as the unsolvables pile up, is oddly comforting. You could spend your whole life trying to work out what Stonehenge was actually for, while knowing in your heart that no one will ever know for sure. But that’s as it should be. If everything were known, what else would there be to find out?
There should be no shame in failure, though, unless you find yourself in Stephen Pile’s The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures (Faber, £12.99). Then you’re in real trouble. It is more than 20 years since Pile last compiled one of these books, so only the most cynical critic would accuse him of flogging a dead horse, and I am not that critic. Again it’s the deadpan wit and the writerly craft that make these absurd tales of failure and misadventure sing. Forget success, says Pile. Doing something badly requires vision, originality and genius.
One can only marvel at, for instance, the tale of the Leeds shopkeeper who, in 1998, having banned prams, pets, smokers and anyone using foul language from his shop, finally went the whole hog and banned customers. ‘They are rude and noisy,’ he explained. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ said a neighbour. ‘He doesn’t get a lot of customers anyway.’