Meanwhile, in 1994...: The Books of Lists

The People's Almanac Presents the Book of Lists - 'David Wallechinsky',  'Irving Wallace',  'Amy Wallace' The People's Almanac Presents the Book Lists No. 2 - Irving Wallace The Book of Lists #3 - Irving Wallace

This will be a new segment on Reading Rainstorm, in which I will reflect upon various things that I have read in childhood and how they may have influenced me over the years. I guess I might be a little obsessive about these things, and I've been pondering if I should reread them before I talk about them. In any case, I ave been looking through this series over the last year, finding myself back in middle school; The Book of Lists #1, #2, and #3, published in between  1977 and 1985 and chock full of fun, retro information.


These books have a special place in my heart. If I recall, I discovered them sometime in 5th or 6th grade and quickly acquired all of the series that I could. Even then, in the mid ‘90s, the book was hopelessly out of date and a few of the lists had to be taken with a grain of salt but, as I did not yet have access to the internet, this was one of the finest sources of random trivia and bizarre facts available to me. I loved every page of it (with the exception, I suppose, of the chapter devoted to sports) and poured over each list, taking down notes and lists of my own. Divided into sections by topic, Crime, Literature, Nature, Art, etc., there were all sorts of tidbits to blow my eleven year old mind. I remember bringing them everywhere so as to be able to look up amusing facts for friends and classmates at short notice, at one point dropping a copy into a mud puddle at recess and having to painstakingly dry the thick little paperback.

Compiled and edited by a family team, Irving Wallace, his children David Wallechinski and Amy Wallace, with their mother Sylvia Wallace participating for the second volume, these lists of bizarre factoids and essays are written with a wit and verve I still enjoy. The lists reflect the time period they were written, but have a classy yet casual style and, in addition to lists of facts like the ten countries where the highest percent of men and women live to 85, there are lists consisting of the opinions of famous people such as the ten worst movies of all time (circa 1977). Whether it was the five most hated people in history (1970-1976), the nine dog breeds that bite the least, or fifteen authors who wrote best sellers in prison, I learned a lot (particularly in the section on sex). In the end, I feel that there was definitely an influence there on shaping my interest in organizing knowledge and sparking my eclectic, multidisciplinary interests in learning as much as I could. My favorite of the volumes would probably be the last one, #3, the "jumbo" edition.

Reading it today brought back this feeling of awe at the endless variety of weird stuff in the world throughout time, and I smiled as I remember being amazed or shocked by various facts that I now remember having been confirmed or questioned in my later education. The yellowed, slightly brittle pages still have that nice, slightly sweet tinge of a ‘70s era paperback, redolent of library book sales and middle school classrooms. The Books of Lists are probably entirely redundant now, what with new lists of bizarre, random amusing facts being posted by the hundreds on websites such as Cracked, BuzzFeed, or Thought Catalog. Lists have, perhaps, reached both their zenith and their nadir with the internet as thousands, brilliant and sophomoric, appear daily. But the idea of ranking facts, ideas, and jokes for both fun and and knowledge, have been around for decades and I think may have began to infiltrate our culture through the Books of Lists and other vintage general knowledge tomes like them. How much influence have these books had on the other 20 and 30 somethings who make these online compilings? I wonder.