It is not, to most of you, news that before there was Wikipedia, the way we all looked stuff up was to consult the printed page. Nowadays, it’s rare to see an encyclopedia, and I imagine that college students today don’t have to write term papers by camping out in a library carrel with stacks of books and piles of index cards with pertinent notes scribbled thereupon, but we managed. And the old way had its own peculiar joys.
Take almanacs. Sure, you can randomly roam Wikipedia and the net and find stuff just by exploring, but for sheer randomness and “did you know” happenstance, almanacs are still a unique experience. Back when I was amassing my store of useless trivial knowledge (fact: we did at least one “Ask Perry” random call-in trivia challenge segment on Chris Hardwick’s radio show a long time ago), almanacs were among my go-to sources. The Information Please Almanac, the Philadelphia Bulletin Almanac (still have one from 1959, and, no, that predates me), all the almanacs. But the premier almanac was always the World Almanac and Book of Facts. That one was the ultimate arbiter, the factbook among factbooks. Yes, it had weird random lists of famous people that tended to leave out plenty of famous people for no reason (and include less-than-famous people), and you’d do better for sports information with sports-specific books like the Sporting News baseball guides, but when you wanted to know the capital of some country few could locate on a globe, or Notable Shipwrecks in a handy list, or the year the United Mine Workers of America union was founded (1890), the World Almanac was the book to consult.
And it lives on. I hadn’t seen a copy in ages, but the latest edition of the World Almanac and Book of Facts is in bookstores now, and I’m pleased to note that it’s pretty much the same as it always was — organized, in a manner of speaking, in a scattered way, kind of like an attic full of interesting stuff (or my mind, for that matter), full of weird information that you may or may not ever need to know, stuffed in boxes with a note about the contents therein scribbled in Sharpie on the outside, and great for just opening to any page and finding out something you didn’t know. (Plus, if you don’t want to take your iPad into the bathroom, it’s another option. I didn’t say that, did I?) It is absolutely not searchable, so good luck locating something when you don’t know the specific category in which they’ll put it, but for finding, say, facts about any particular country, or all the members of Congress, or top rated TV shows, or the height of major buildings around the country, it’s there. (So are arbitrary “famous people” lists, and other odd why-is-this-here stuff, but that’s also part of the fun and mystery; why, say, Leighton Meester made the “Entertainers of the Present” honor roll but not, say, Clark Gregg, or why some dead folks are on the “present” list and not the “past” list, well, you’ll have to ask them. I’m not on any list, either.)
So, in honor of rediscovering the joys of old school infotainment, here are ten random facts from ten random pages of the 2014 World Almanac, chosen entirely by just opening the book and grabbing the first item in sight:
1. Page 618: By 2050, 21% of the U.S. population will be older than 65 years old.
2. Page 522: In the 1960 election, Illinois went for Kennedy over Nixon by a 2,377,846 to 2,388,988 margin. The book does not indicate how many votes in Chicago were from the deceased.
3. Page 430: “Ohio” means “fine or good river” in Iroquois.
4. Page 230: Judd Nelson was born in Portland, Maine. (Not mentioned in the book: I went to college with Judd Nelson. TRUE.)
5. Page 70: You could guess that Coke has the largest share of soda sales, and Pepsi is second, for both sugared and diet categories. But Mountain Dew is third in both, with 9.7% of sugared and 7.4% of diet markets.
6. Page 841: The population of Tajikistan is 7,910,041.
7. Page 336: The next total solar eclipse is scheduled to occur on March 20, 2015.
8. Page 477: The real Josiah Bartlett, signer of the Declaration of Independence and almost-namesake of the Martin Sheen character in The West Wing (who was supposed to be a descendant of the real guy), was a physician and judge. Interesting career combination.
9. Page 743: Boutros Boutros-Ghali was only U.N. Secretary General from 1992 through 1997. Seemed longer.
10. Page 303: The highest recorded temperature in New Jersey as of 2012 was 110 degrees at Runyon on July 10, 1936. I’m a New Jersey native and I had to look up where Runyon is… via Google. Turns out that it’s part of what is now Old Bridge Township. Huh.
Knowledge. It’s a wonderful thing. And even if it’s resolutely old-fashioned and unsearchable and low-tech, there’s something kinda comforting about being able to pick up a thick book like the World Almanac and just page through the kind of facts you didn’t know you didn’t know. (And there’s even a Kindle edition if you’re not into the whole dead-tree thing.) Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some more useless information to absorb….