I love trivia. Trivial Pursuit is the only board game I’ll play. Probably because it’s the only one I’m good at. (Well, that and Stratego.) I get very competitive—for me, trivial knowledge is personal. I knew that Craig Claiborne was The New York Times’ restaurant critic when the first Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit came out. I was eight. How I knew this, I still don’t know. I didn’t read the Times, and definitely not its food section. But I must’ve overheard someone mention it and it stuck. Math doesn’t work like that with me. Craig Claiborne trivia does.
With that as a preface, it’s no surprise that “The Book of Lists,” originally published in 1977, is a favorite of mine, and has been since I was a kid and stole it from my grandparents’ bookshelf. Where else could I find all the information I never knew I needed?
Written by David Wallechinsky, along with his father, Irving Wallace (Irving had Anglicized the surname), and sister, Amy Wallace, “The Book of Lists” includes, “Orson Welles’ 12 Best Movies of All Time” (surprisingly Welles does not include “Citizen Kane”; FYI his #1 pick is Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”); “7 Famous Bodily Parts”; “8 Remarkable Escapes from Devil’s Island”; “20 Members of President Nixon’s Enemies List” (which included Paul Newman—“Radic-lib causes … ’72 involvement certain”); and my favorite, “16 Famous Events that Happened in the Bathtub.”
“The Book of Lists” even contains lists of books, i.e. “12 Best Detective Stories Ever Written,” and “W. Somerset Maugham’s 10 Best Novels of the World.”
What makes these lists so fascinating? People usually hate them. They’re associated with “to-dos” or even worse, something work-related. For me, it’s that every list includes a story that you have to dig into on your own to uncover. Why were Voltaire, Miguel de Cervantes, O Henry, and Marco Polo in prison when they wrote their best-selling work? Ok, let me look into Voltaire … et voila! Born François-Marie Arouet, Voltaire was imprisoned in the bastille and then temporarily exiled to England for writing a ribald poem about the Duke of Orleans. It was in England that Voltaire finished his epic poem, “Henriade.” And like Voltaire, O Henry wasn’t named O Henry—he was William Sydney Porter, who spent three years in a federal prison for embezzlement. Many of the stories from his best-seller, “The Gentle Grafter,” were written while he was incarcerated.
Call it trivial if you will, but “The Book of Lists,” if used properly, can open up an unexpected world of history and drama and bathtub reading. Or it can just make you popular at cocktail parties.