June 28, 2007


Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Through the Ages. By Leland Gregory. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid. By Lemony Snicket. HarperCollins. $12.99.

      Sometimes books deliver exactly what they promise – and they don’t promise much. That’s actually fine, if you don’t expect much as a reader – a laugh or two here, a shrug or exclamation of surprise there, a knowing “aha” now and then, maybe even a sigh or two of resignation from time to time. If this sort of thing is what’s you’re looking for in a book, and no more, you’ll enjoy both of these little volumes.

      Stupid History is a bit of a misnomer for Leland Gregory’s book. Most of it isn’t about history at all. For example, Gregory points out that things traditionally associated with Sherlock Holmes – deerstalker hat, calabash pipe and the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson” – were never included in the stories and novels by Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but were added to the character by actors portraying him. Interesting, but not historical. Gregory mentions that the Bible does not say that angels have wings – these too were added later, in this case by painters. Also interesting; also not history. He points out that the “bald” in “bald eagle” comes from the old word “balded,” meaning “white,” which is why the symbol of the United States has a white head, not a hairless one. Not really history – and Gregory makes an error (one of a few in the book) when he adds that “pibald [sic] (‘part white’) is used to refer to dogs with white spots.” Actually, the word is “piebald,” and it is not used only of dogs (and has nothing to do with apple or lemon meringue desserts). You have to stretch things a bit to say that Gregory’s book really is about history: he does quote Napoleon’s and Custer’s famously inaccurate lines about coming victory at Waterloo and the Little Big Horn, respectively, and Napoleon and Custer are, after all, historical figures. But Stupid History is mostly just a compendium of oddments. Examples: Patent leather is the only product or process named after the U.S. Patent Office; Oscar Hammerstein II is the only person named Oscar ever to win an Oscar – two, in fact; the saying about a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is an Irish recasting of the much more realistic saying, “One would be as likely to find a pot of gold as to find the end of a rainbow”; ten-gallon hats hold only about three quarts of liquid; humans and armadillos are the only two animals that can contract leprosy; and on and on. Arranged in no order whatsoever, without chapters or index, Stupid History is strictly a browser’s book, for those fond of trivia of all sorts.

      Ah, but one should not be too fond of trivia. Or of anything. Not even of life itself. It is best to be despondent, since those who anticipate the worst will rarely be surprised. And if that sounds like something Lemony Snicket might say – well, he didn’t actually say it, but he said a lot of things like it, and Horseradish collects some of them. Snicket, the persona assumed by Daniel Handler in creating the tremendously successful 13 parts of A Series of Unfortunate Events, is represented in Horseradish by some excerpts from that series and some remarks made elsewhere. Many of the comments are determinedly dour, but a lot of these supposedly “bitter truths” don’t come across as much of anything: “A good thing to do when one is sitting, eating, and resting is to have a conversation.” “It is not very polite to interrupt a person, of course, but sometimes if the person is very unpleasant you can hardly stop yourself.” Horseradish is, of course, a shameless attempt to cash in on the popularity of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and it’s certainly no worse than many of the other semi-useful self-help and advice books out there. In some ways, it’s better, because some of the perSnickety remarks contain more than a grain of truth: “Oftentimes, when people are miserable, they will want to make other people miserable, too. But it never helps.” “Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course. Piracy, for example, is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean we should all attack ships and steal their gold.” The book is arranged, somewhat arbitrarily, into chapters with such titles as “Home,” “School,” “Literature” and “Travel.” It is hard not to think that this was done to take up extra space – most pages have only a few lines of type, and a number are blank altogether. As Snicket might say, one should not expect any book to provide a major boost to one’s life, because, of course, it is only a combination of the thin remnants of dead trees with a smattering of ink and some smears of glue.

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