Monday, May 7, 2012

All facts considered: The essential library of inessential knowledge

By Kee Malesky

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

Forty-eight pages of fine-printed “Notes and Sources” will give you some idea of how well Malesky, National Public Radio’s (NPRs) librarian, footnotes and offers references for the information she provides.  Malesky notes, “I am not the NPR librarian; I’m one of a team of searchers who support NPR’s editorial process” (p. 3).

When I first saw this book, I overlooked it on purpose thinking it was pure nonsense.  That is, I thought it was for those who wanted to fill up their storehouse of useless knowledge (or succeed when playing “Trivial Pursuit”) I didn’t even consider reading the book much less reviewing it.

You may wonder how the facts in this book were selected.  Malesky makes it very clear: “The facts in this collection have been chosen by me . . .” (p. 3).  These are facts that I like or that I find useful, interesting, amazing, or worth sharing . . . “ (p. 3).

In this book, there is no continuing narrative, no unifying theme (although the author uses parts (“On Memory and History,” “On Reason and Science,” and “On Imagination, Poetry, and Art”)) and chapters) to organize her facts.  As you read, however, you kind of lose sight of the over-arching subject since there are so many diverse facts discussed.  The index is 20½ pages long (in small font) and includes subjects and authors.  This is important in a book such as this for when you want to go back (or research) a particular section, at least you have a place to go to help you find it.

If you just want to fill your mind with facts, this is a terrific resource.  For example, “The initialism LOL isn’t new; it was used by librarians (and probably many other people) way before computers, to describe a certain group of patrons: “little old ladies.”  Now standard Internet shorthand for “laughing out loud,” it has equivalents in other languages too. . . (pp. 86-87).

In her section, “The Department of Redundancies Department” (p. 88), look at the following list (she lists 22): self-censor yourself, please RSVP, 2 a.m. in the morning, PIN number, SAT test, START treaty, LCD display, ATM machine, end result, basic fundamentals, free gift, closed first, Rio Grande River, pair of twins, reason why, whether or not, hot water heater, unexpected surprise, past history, first began, enter into, and prohibition against.  Delightful!

For readers interested in language, her sections, “Endangered Languages,” “Euskera Spoken,” “The Forest of Rhetoric,” and “Mixed Metaphors” are especially interesting.

I’m not one who just wants to sit back and be entertained by a whole bunch of unrelated discussions of facts.  For me, that is a total waste of my time.  I would much rather read books that contribute substantially to my writing (in whatever capacity that may be).  It’s the “Inessential Knowledge” portion of the title that concerns me most.  I picked up the book simply because I thought there might be some juicy, relevant tidbits that I might use.  I think if I were continuing to lecture to undergraduates (as I did for 22 years), there might be an example, a statistic, or an illustration that would be useful; however, being beyond that time in my life, the search would be unnecessary and pointless.  I try to read books that are more relevant to my current stage of life.

This book is interesting, well-researched, and well-written.  Malesky has collected a great number of facts, and if you have the patience and the interest, this book will definitely occupy your time.  There are only 204 pages of text, and it reads quickly.  Have fun!

All facts considered: The essential library of inessential knowledge can be purchased at Amazon

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