The Book of General Ignorance is not just fascinating reading, it’s fascinating to see how other people react to the trivia it contains.
The basic premise of The Book of General Ignorance is that many commonly held beliefs are, in fact, inaccurate. This book dispels these myths, gives us the straight dope and then speculates about the likely origin of the misinformation.
The format of the book is a series of questions with unexpected answers. The authors have a very readable style which combines with the subject matter for a fascinating read. On some levels, the book puts me in mind of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, simply because the authors are covering a lot of ground but doing it in an engaging, readable style that is extremely accessible to a lay person.
What I also found funny, however, is the way people would react to the information in this book when I shared it. I started reading this book on vacation in Maine and occasionally, when I would run across a particularly interesting or suprising fact, I would read it out loud to Hilary whose reaction was vehement. “That’s stupid! That book is stupid. Why do you believe these people?”
I suppose it’s a fair question. “Because no one would publish a book of lies,” is not really a good answer. John Hodgeman has published several completely hilarious books comprised entirely of true facts that he made up. More insideously, there are plenty of books out there which are either poorly researched or that have an agenda. I am, in fact, quite a skeptical reader most of the time. So why was I taking this book at face value? I suppose it is the premise of the book that lends it credibility. While plenty of people publish books full of lies, it would be curious to publish a book of trivia whose sole purpose was to correct commonly held misconceptions in general knowledge if that book was not itself scrupulously researched.
I suppose that the fact that it’s a book dealing with general knowledge is a key factor in that credibility formula. If this were a book whose goal was to correct commonly held misconceptions about global warming or evolution, I might be a little more skeptical. But what possible agenda could be served by spreading misinformation regarding the origins of chicken tikka masala or the number of words that Eskimos have for snow? Apparently much of the material in this book was originally researched for a British game show and while sometimes the answers are based on technicalities or trick questions rather than misconceptions, the fact is that each answer is expanded on in an educational manner and that’s where the real appeal of this books lies. The information in it is fascinating.
Hilary was not the only person to react strongly to this book, however. She brought it up at Thanksgiving with my family and I cited one example from the book that caused an uproar at the table. Chameleons do not change their color in order to camouflage themselves. They do change their color but it is not to match their surrounding. Instead, it has to do with their emotional and physiological state. Everyone at the table sided with Hilary and insisted that the book was bunk. We finally resorted to researching the answer on the Internet (that other irrefutable well-spring of knowledge). Shockingly, it turns out the book was right.