Armagideon Time

The good book

May 22nd, 2019

The House on the Hillside has been getting something of a makeover for the past year and a half. While the biggest driver has been the pending arrival of the kid, it began as a pair of independent projects where Maura wanted to carve out a studio/reading room for herself in the attic and I began to reconfigure the living room around my growing record collection.

Most of the work has involved things we’d been meaning to get to but put off for reasons of time and expense. We’ve been living there for almost fifteen years, which is a long enough stretch for entropy and attrition to start taking their toll. Most of our furnishings were hand-me-downs or placeholders from our pre-cohabitation days which somehow defaulted into a state of semi-permanence. They’ve served us well, but have exceeded their “bought at Ames for $30 in 1999” lifespans and need to be replaced with ones that fit better in terms of space and purpose.

Over the past month, we’ve swapped out a pair of sagging “composite wood” (a.k.a. “shaped sawdust & glue”) bookshelves in the dining room and our bedroom with doublewide Kallax jobbers. In the process, we’ve discovered a number of old friends buried in the back of the stacks, books obscured for a decade and change by the tchotchkes and other bits of kipple which seem to accumulate on our bookshelves over time.

Lipstick Traces was there, along with the Repo Man script book and the Trouser Press and Guinness Guides to (pre-1993) alternative music. Unearthing the likes Drachenfels, Stand on Zanzibar, Retro Hell, and The Comics Journal Library #6 felt like discovering a time capsule from this site’s earliest days.

And then there’s The People’s Almanac

…purchased from half-dot-com in the mid-Aughts to replace the one that went missing in the chaos following my mom’s death.

The book is the mother of all modern vademecums and bathroom readers, an absurdly thick assortment of factoids (and fictions) arranged via easily digestible chunks and thematic chapters. The authors-slash-compilers went on to produce the Book of Lists series, which tread similar ground but in a more specific format. The Almanac has its share of lists and list-adjacent material, but also includes longer-form entries, color plates, and the occasional essay.

It entered my life through my dad, who used to bring a lot of these popular “reference” tomes home for me to pore through when he got bored with them. This being the Seventies and me being a geeky pre-teen, I thumbed straight to the sections on Jack the Ripper, tragic disasters, and supernatural phenomena. The sensational slant of the writing and brevity of the individual articles were tailor made from my curious-but-easily-bored nature — so much so, that I kept on browsing once I’d polished off the parts about spontaneous human combustion and the Balvano train disaster.

The People’s Almanac (and similar books) functioned as a parallel form of schooling during my early years, and the verbal spillover from my factoid-intoxicated brain did a lot to contribute to my teachers’ not-entirely-justified assessment that I was some child prodigy in the rough. Where other kids my age were memorizing types of dinosaurs or the names of Star Wars aliens or the stats of every player in the Bruins, I used the same energy to memorize the capitals of dissolved nations and details about UFO sightings. The material and level of parental encouragement may have been atypical, but the underlying pathology was hardly unique among kids of a certain age.

It was also — by way of its detailed glossary of sex terms — how pre-pubescent Andrew learned about the birds and the bees, sparing me from ever having to have that conversation with my parents. For that alone, the book’s authors have my undying gratitude.

The personal significance of the People’s Almanac was justification enough to seek out a replacement copy. Once it arrived, though, I did a quick flip through the pages before shelving it. The physical awkwardness of the book — fifteen hundred pages crammed into a floppy-ass paperback — didn’t really lend itself to casual browsing like it used to when I was a kid, and the citation-free sensationalist tone didn’t hold the same authority to eyes and a brain which had come out the other end of a humanities degree. Stuff like “the Devil’s Footprints” didn’t have the same thrill it did when was young and the horrors of the “invisible world” seemed to be lurking around every corner.

Going back to it again these past few weeks, a couple years after revisiting the entire Book of Lists series, has been yet another experience. It’s less about the veracity of the (often extremely dated) information, but historical context in which it was compiled — what it chooses to emphasize and what it says about the era of its original publication. It’s a product of the post-Watergate, pre-malaise era where diminishing expectations hadn’t entirely eclipsed the remnants of Sixties idealism. It’s also the era when I first developed awareness of the world around me, and can still recall fragmented bits of with a fair degree of clarity.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that the mark that it left on me is nigh indelible, and still governs my outlook in numerous ways. If you’re wondering whether the “it” refers to the 1974-1976 period or the book, the answer is “yes.”

7 Responses to “The good book”

  1. Sol Bermann

    OMG how I LOVE LOVED LOVED the People’s Almanac and the Book of Lists family.

    My sol-called skills at trivia are entirely predicated on those reads

    And an Ames reference, a blast from the past I haven’t thought about since living in Central Va in the early-mid 90s

  2. bitterandrew

    Ames bought out Zayre’s (a local chain) in the 90s and staggered along until the end.

    I bought my first computer desk there in 1999, which got dragged out to the curb last night.

  3. EAG46

    I loved those books too. Reference type books are my favorite books. Man no wonder I’m such a dork.

  4. Scholar-Gipsy

    My longest-lasting friendship was cemented in an Ames back during the pre-Christmas rush of 1989. Their Worcester store was open 24/7, and my pal and I took advantage of the fact to get hopped up on Denny’s coffee and then run riot through the place, dueling with rolled-up contact paper swords while balanced on skateboards. For that alone, Ames will always hold a place in my heart.

  5. Cygnia

    The People’s Almanacs & Books of Lists are still well-loved and well-thumbed in my household. And yes, the sections on Jack the Ripper, tragic disasters, and supernatural phenomena were usually the first bits I flipped through to — as well as the sex chapters.

  6. Scholar-Gipsy

    You may well already have all these, but your recent Twitter mention made me want to point you toward this site, where by express permission of New Man their former sound engineer has uploaded digital versions of several tracks; the login is “NEWMAN” and the password is “music”:

    Man, I effin’ love “Bad Boys.” It’s the sound of being fourteen and addicted to V66.

  7. Zeno

    The People’s Almanac, The Book of Lists, and the pre-politically correct incarnations of The Guinness Book of World Records (back when they still tracked records for things like having The Largest Face) all helped make me into the data fiend and trivia hound I still am to this day.

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