September 22, 2005


Book of Lies and Book of Secrets. Produced by Essential Works Ltd.  Andrews McMeel. $14.95 each.

     It probably tells us something about the 21st century – just what, it is hard to know for sure – that something looking like the venerable Little Red Book of Mao Zedong now appears as Book of Lies, while the even more venerable “little black book” of much fame and infamy now shows up as Book of Secrets.  These two British-produced compendiums of trivia – the former by six authors, the latter by five – are very distinguished in appearance, being solid in color with the title (and nothing else) stamped in gold on the front and spine, and with a color-coded ribbon bookmark sewn in.  They look elegant, even erudite.  Don’t be fooled.

     Each of the books is a miscellany of oddities in history, politics, writing, transportation, animals, and pretty much anything else that strikes the authors’ fancy.  Saying that this produces a mixed bag of material is understating the case.  Book of Lies, for instance, has information on chicken farming on one page and an optical illusion on the facing page.  Book of Secrets juxtaposes “The Secret History of Kotex” with “The Secret to Surviving Snake Bite.”  You might think this arrangement makes the books ideal to read in any order whatsoever, but that is not quite true, since certain elements are scattered throughout the works.  Book of Secrets, for instance, devotes 10 widely separated pages to closed New York City subway stations, discussing nearby streets in considerable detail.  One page about a closed station will refer back to the previous one, so you really need to read in order.  (Oddly for a British book, the 40-odd closed stations of the London Underground get only a single paragraph).  Book of Secrets contains, among other things, a series of “Little Known Culinary Curios,” but don’t look for No. 3 – that section was omitted (two sections are given as No. 4).  Book of Lies, similarly, has multiple “New Age Lies,” “Lies We Tell Ourselves,” “Animal Lies or Truth,” and more.

     Of course, the books rise or fall on the entertainment value of their contents.  Book of Lies is somewhat less interesting than its companion.  It includes such lists as “Lies We Tell Teenagers” (“If you don’t come home, I’ll tear up your driver’s license,” “Good girls don’t wear eyeliner on their lower lids,” and other questionable remarks); extremely far-fetched conspiracy theories about Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy; and lots of items that are more folkloric statements than lies (“Elephants never forget”).  Book of Secrets includes “The Secret History of Striptease” (it was invented at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893); “The Secret First Screening of Star Wars” (for Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma); and “The Secret Bond Boy” (one minor actress had had a sex change).  Despite some oddities – such as all those pages on closed New York subway stations and a two-page list of chemical food additives giving their European Union “E numbers” – this book has enough genuine secrets to make it fun almost throughout.  Could secrets in general be just a touch more interesting than lies?

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