Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Uncyclopedia by Gideon Haigh

In the early years of this century, there was an odd mania in the bookworld: small books filled with lots of random facts jammed together onto small-format pages, usually with a pseudo-retro look as if they emerged straight from the late 19th century.

Ben Schott and his Miscellany was the great originator, as far as I know, but every successful market niche brings competitors. Every jobbing writer with a file-cabinet full of clipping to attest to his various manias pulled together a proposal, and some of them got contracts.

One of the early books in that derby was The Uncyclopedia by Gideon Haigh, published in 2004. (Only a year after the original Schott's Miscellany.) Haigh is an Australian journalist who's particularly known for his coverage of cricket...which lines up well with Schott, who was a graphic designer who fell into collecting random facts.

Uncyclopedia, like the Miscellany, has no clear organizational structure and is full of lots of lists of random things -- from the three men in the boat to how to fold an origami swan (with diagrams) to the UN Charter. The descriptive copy refers to it as "a reference book," but, frankly, it is nearly useless as reference: there is an index, but you'd have to know what random facts are included here to even think to check it.

So it is instead a well-designed, attractive book of random information, suitable for reading in random moments, with the hope that the reader will remember some of those random facts and use them in his life going forward. (And, if not, no big deal.) Uncyclopedia succeeds on that level, though, as a book from 2004, it's a bit dated at this point.

If you ever hit the end of the four Miscellany books and despaired that there were no more in the world, you are in luck: this is very much the same kind of thing. If you're looking for a collection of snippets that can be ready quickly and easily in random free moments, you are also in luck. But this is otherwise a basically forgotten book from a nearly forgotten subgenere, less than two decades after its birth. So pass all the works of man.

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