My affection for data too rare to pass up
For a while there, for almost 450 years between publication of "Tottel's Miscellany" in 1557 and "Schott's Original Miscellany" last year, the genre hit a fallow period. Thank goodness the conceit is back. I'm a fan of eclectic information. I am glad to know of "Some Notable Belgians" (Jean-Claude Van Damme, for one). My life is the richer for it.
Oh, sure, we've had almanacs and collections of data since William the Conqueror ordered the royal bean counters to create The Domesday Book. But a miscellany is different: It does not attempt to be complete or encyclopedic. It reflects personal taste.
I think the Top Ten list on "The Late Show with David Letterman" may have helped to revive the collection of information. Letterman showed us the humor in a countdown of ironic arcana and made us feel that things must now come in tens. With the publication of "Schott's Original Miscellany," I realize that I have been working on my own lists and random collections for years.
Perhaps these will be of use to you: Rubber bands last longer when refrigerated. Peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite. There are 293 ways to make change for a dollar. The average person's left hand does 56 percent of the typing.
I am not so interested in provisions carried on the Titanic, the names of English kings' jesters, or the Scoville Scale for comparing the "heat" of chili peppers, which just goes to show that ultimately a miscellany is a personal thing. Mr. Schott's sense of arcana is not my own. Each of us is a miscellany in progress.
My miscellany is almost exclusively verbal. It's hard to say exactly what qualifies for my various collections - I just know it when I hear or read it. The phrase, sentence, or paragraph is curious, forceful, funny, pungent.
The opening sentences of novels, for instance. They are an entrance, a doorway to the imagination, the start of a conversation with the reader. Every English major has "collected" a few of the standards, which stick like burrs in our memories of college survey courses. These two need no introduction: "Call me Ishmael," and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...."
In another of his openers, Dickens gets to it in an almost Camus-like fashion: "Marley was dead: to begin with." A stark difference in voice! I would not know this had I not created my opening-sentence miscellany. Nor would I have encountered this gem: " 'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast." E.B. White knew that good literature is good literature, regardless of the nominal age of the audience. And he knew how to push the old frisson button too, even in a story about a young girl and her pig, Wilbur.
Most important, a miscellany starts you thinking in unexpected directions, answering questions you didn't know you had, supplying data that is mostly useless but has the feel of being pertinent under the right circumstances - things simply too rare, humorous, or practical to pass up. Those jesters are growing on me.
Simple data dropped into a context of no context tend to provide a certain context. I'd like to follow up on this one, for instance: "It is illegal to send an alligator longer than 20 inches through the US mail."
Perhaps the Internet has helped to revive miscellanies. The Internet is the ultimate miscellany - a miscellany of miscellanies. It is also indiscriminate and overwhelming. It is a Niagara of collections, lists, and links. The "of the day" sector on the Web alone - poems, words, quizzes, links, lists, miscellanies - belies the notion of selectivity at the heart of one's miscellany. Yet the individuality of personal websites and weblogs are attractive mediums for sharing the pleasure of collecting.
It gets complicated. What would Jorge Luis Borges say about the hyper-self-referential mirrors of sites linked to sites whose links are linked to miscellaneous links?
Enough! Maybe Mr. Schott is on to something. Keep it simple. There's such a thing as too much information. After all, my favorite maxim from my quotation collection has always been, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (Emerson).
But what of an unfoolish consistency?