The ‘gift books’ are out again, piled high in Waterstones, books that have only one reason to exist: to be given to people who don’t want them on Christmas Day. Having written one or two myself, I have seen the look on the faces of potential purchasers as they pick one up and leaf idly through its well-crafted pages. The look that says: whose Yuletide can we ruin with this?
As ever, happily, there are a few genuinely decent books in among all the drivel and nonsense and tired jokes about Brexit and Donald Trump. The Spectator’s own Mark Mason is a long-serving truffler of trivial facts, which he often frames within some sort of weird travelogue: in one book he walked between every London underground station, just because he could.
The Book of Seconds (Weidenfeld, £14.99) is more restful. Subtitled ‘The Incredible Stories of the Ones that Didn’t Quite Win’, it’s a survey of things and people that came second and that no one really knows about. The second female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. The second million-pound transfer in football. The second Doctor in Doctor Who, followed swiftly by the second James Bond. I have read so many books that were brilliant ideas but whose execution didn’t quite come up to the mark, but this is the opposite: a slightly hokey idea done with such verve and humour and telling so many good stories that you succumb to its manifest charms with a simple sigh of pleasure.
Another trivia hound is Thomas Eaton, who has been writing the weekly quiz in the Guardian magazine for possibly thousands of years. Eaton’s Modern Ready Reckoner (Blink, £9.99) is a Schott’s Miscellany for the 21st century, but rather better: this is a lean and hungry book with no waste or waffle. Eaton’s speciality is lists you don’t know you want to read until you have read them. On one page he lists all the gruesome and outlandish deaths in the Bible. On the following page he lists lots of untranslatable words from other languages, very few of which I had seen before. (I particularly like sobremesa, which is Spanish for the time spent sitting round the table and conversing after a meal.) What sets Eaton apart is exceptionally high quality control. He is more interested in content than poor old Ben Schott was, and less interested in quirky design. This is clearly the right way round.
Philip Rhys Evans’s A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book (Slightly Foxed, £14) is also a delight: an apparently random collection of letters to newspapers, quotes, poems, signs and other bits and bobs that Dr Rhys Evans has seen and noted down. How many books have we seen like this that are very slightly more boring than they should be? This one isn’t. Again, there’s no waffle or waste, and I’m encouraged by how many of my own favourite writers (Matthew Engel, Alan Bennett, P.G. Wodehouse) appear in its pages. In fact, I have to admit that I have already stolen something from it for my own next book, which is about cricket. This was a sign Dr Evans saw in Dubai while watching Pakistan play England in the second test match on 17 January 2012: ‘The dress code is very simple. Just keep your clothes on.’
One of the best daft Christmas books last year was the fetchingly titled The Book of the Year 2017, by the four members of the ‘hit podcast’ No Such Thing as a Fish. It was an excellent collection of the silliest and most unlikely news stories of the year, arranged in a helpful A-Z format by subject, and I liked it so much I assumed there was absolutely no chance of there being The Book of the Year 2018. But here it is (RH Books, £12.99), the format unchanged, because there needs to be no change: the first one got it right first time. The sheer scope of the research takes the breath away, and the humour is perfectly judged. Under ‘N’ for New Species, for example, we find that discoveries this year include Colobopsis explodens, a species of exploding ants which blow their own heads up with yellow goo to defend their nest against predators; and Megapropodiphora arnoldi, a big-armed fly named after Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m sure he feels very honoured.
Finally, the book to give to your mother: All the Queen’s Corgis (Hodder, £14.99) by that indefatigable writer of royal biographies, Penny Junor. It is actually a serious book, but it had me laughing out loud several times on the Tube. (Chapter ten, about the death of the ur-corgi Susan, is entitled ‘Kennel in the Sky’.) My mother, who’s obsessed with small dogs, already has my copy and finished it at a gallop. All mothers should receive one for Christmas, and most probably will.