Though it is now somewhat dated and of questionable accuracy in spots, I love diving into lists such as "Clifford Irving's 10 Best Forgers of All Time" (Oh, the irony!), "10 Sensational Thefts," "9 Most Unusual Monuments in the World," "Wilfred J. Funk's 10 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language," "Orson Welles's 12 Best Movies of All Time," "10 Memorable Books The Never Existed," "15 Famous Events That Happened in the Bathtub," and much much more.1
Browsing books are a big part of my life for two reasons.
First, I don't always prefer reading in linear fashion.2 I enjoy jumping around to different topics and letting my train of thought barrel off in whatever direction it wants, before circling back to the original topic. So, yes, I'm the guy who gets lost in neverending Wikipedia and Google searches, somehow starting with Pomerania and ending up with, say, the Moberly–Jourdain incident or Husband Edward Kimmel.
Before Wikipedia and web browsers, I thought the mid-1990s version of Encarta, with its early adoption of hypertext functionality, was the greatest thing in the world.
But before that, books were the only option for surfing the world of knowledge. And so I would, in the early 1980s, browse through "The Book of Lists" and encyclopedias and those Britannica Book of the Year volumes.
Today, even with the Internet, books are still a huge part of my life, of course. (And I "Just Say No" to e-books.) My collection of browsing books has grown over the years. I mentioned that there were two reasons that browsing books are a big part of my life. The second reason is that, once it's time to get into bed, I typically only have six to nine minutes of consciousness before I start head-bobbing and snoring. So, clearly, that is no way to be reading the works of Richard Russo or David Mitchell. They are not designed to be read in six-minute chunks.
And so browsing books are perfect for bedtime! You can open to whatever page you want, and most articles are limited to one or two pages.
Here's my personal Browsing Books Hall of Fame:
- "Dictionary of English Folklore" by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud
- "Encyclopedia of Superstitions" by Edwin and Mona A. Radford
- "Food in History" by Reay Tannahill3
- All of Roger Ebert's collections of movie reviews
- "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" by David Thomson
- "Home Life in Colonials Days" by Alice Morse Earle.4
- "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy" by John Clute and John Grant
- "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" by John Clute and Peter Nicholls
- All of "The Straight Dope" books by "Cecil Adams"
- "The Pinball Effect" and other books by James Burke
- The Useless Information Series of books
- "A Book about a Thousand Things" by George Stimpson
- All of the miscellanies by Ben Schott
- "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" by Tim Brooks and Earle F. Marsh
- "Stephen King's Danse Macabre"
- "The Directory of Possibilities" by Colin Wilson and John Grant
- "Dictionary of Teleliteracy" by David Bianculli
- "Facts & Fallacies" by The Reader's Digest Association
1. Oh my. I'm going to become immensely sidetracked if I keep going. Clearly, I need to do a retro-review of "The Book of Lists" in a future post. The book is so endlessly fascinating and full of side alleys of knowledge to wander down!
Jorge Luis Borges. I recently had an opportunity to discuss Borges' works — in a very introductory manner — with my daughter. On her own initiative, she created a small sculpture with old floppy disks and pencil erasers. She decided to call it "The Path That Never Ends." And so I took that as an opening for a homeschooling discussion of Borges' work, including "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "The Library of Babel."
3. "Food in History" is not technically a browsing book. But its anecdote-filled romp through food history is suitable for diving into at any point.
4. This book was mentioned in the June post "Another 'mug': Old illustration of the centuries-old Winthrop Jug."