October 05, 2006


Scholastic Book of Lists. By James Buckley, Jr. and Robert Stremme. Scholastic. $9.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2007. By Mary Packard and the Editors of Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. Scholastic. $14.99.

     Despite the continuing expansion of the Internet, there remains a place for old-fashioned reference books of certain kinds – concordances, for example.  But books like these two, although they contain some interesting material, are a type whose time is passing increasingly quickly.  Scholastic Book of Lists consists of 11 sections focused on History, Numbers, Science, Words and more.  Within each section, every entry is short and presented in multiple type styles and type sizes, in an obvious attempt to make the information more interesting in our age of highly visual communication.  But the approach does not work very well, because it makes the pages of little use to students doing serious research – while making them not especially attractive for anyone simply paging through the book for fun.  Under “The Arts,” for example, a page called “Famous Orchestras” first explains, in small type, what an orchestra is; then lists, in large type, 12 famous orchestras (with no explanation of how or why they were chosen); then, at the bottom of the page, next to a meaningless graphic design, says a little about Vienna, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Vienna Philharmonic.  So what does a reader take away from all this?  The answer, unfortunately, is: not very much.  Reading a Wikipedia entry on orchestras and following its hyperlinks is a more interesting approach, and it leads to many more connected (or unconnected) facts.  On the plus side, the basic information in this book remains as solid as in its earlier editions, and some of the facts are really fascinating.  For example, the book names Shakey as the first robot able to navigate by itself (1966), and Unimate as the first robot arm used in an assembly line (no date given).  But these machines are part of a “Famous Robots” page that also includes cartoon character Astro Boy and C-3PO of Star Wars.  There’s no way to find facts that are so thoroughly mixed with fiction.  So even though Scholastic Book of Lists contains accurate and often interesting trivia (check out “Weird U.S. City Names” and the “Brag About Bricks” page, which describes building terms), it’s a book whose format may not have staying power much longer.

     The Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, complete with its exclamation point, is already long past its prime.  For many years a great place to learn (albeit in a patronizing way) about other cultures, customs, and the strange ways of human genetics (what used to be called “freak shows”), Ripley’s is now merely a pale imitation of Guinness and other record-oriented publishing.  The oddball stuff of yore is gone, replaced with entries about the world’s largest tomahawk, the oldest pet cemetery in the United States, and the largest community of spiritualists.  Entries called “Ripley File” are supposed to delve into interesting facts from the past, but “past” here is broadly interpreted to include the years 1994, 1999, even 2005.  When there is a truly old entry, it is not necessarily even tied to its time period: one dated “1.18.1930” (for no apparent reason) says that the flying snake of Java can flatten itself and sail from tree to tree – which is true, but just as much so today as it was then.  The 3-D cover and “Special Edition 2007” designation are intended to make this book seem modern and up to date.  But in truth, the whole thing creaks of an earlier time and an archaic approach to what are now known as factoids.

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