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Powells.com
Saturday, November 24th, 2007
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The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong

by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

The (Not So) Obvious Answer

A review by Doug Brown

Already a hit in England (according to the jacket blurb, anyway), The Book of General Ignorance is now available in the US. It is ostensibly a book of factoids, but with a twist: these are facts many people have a mistaken knowledge of. Famously, George Washington didn't have wooden teeth (they were mostly made from hippopotamus teeth). The factoid format makes this a perfect bathroom or coffee table book.

Some interesting tidbits at random: most tigers in the world live in the US (in zoos and as pets); Napoleon's troops didn't shoot the Sphinx's nose off (it came off long ago and has never been found); there was no curse on King Tut's tomb; Thomas Crapper invented the manhole cover but not the flush toilet; Thomas Edison may have invented the word hello (before Edison it was halloo or hullo); and Columbus thought the world was pear-shaped and much smaller than it is. Some "it didn't originate where you think" bits: haggis is from Greece; kilts are Irish; chicken tikka masala comes from Glasgow; champagne is an English invention (as is baseball); Panama hats are from Ecuador; and, the guillotine was invented in Yorkshire

Some of the entries are a bit of a stretch. For instance, the authors say George Washington was the fifteenth president of the United States, but the first fourteen were actually presidents of the Continental Congress. They also claim the odds of dying from an asteroid are much greater than lightning, but this requires a little statistical prestidigitation. If an asteroid were to hit, it would hypothetically kill lots more people than are killed by lightning -- but such an event hasn't happened in recorded human history. The odds of an asteroid of such size hitting the earth in a given lifetime are very small, whereas lightning kills many people every year.

As this book was written for the UK market, it has a very UK-heavy emphasis. References are made to obscure children's rhymes that must be more well known across the pond, and whenever it can be pointed out that something was invented in the UK, it is. But these are minor quibbling points. Overall The Book of General Ignorance is a lot of fun, and you're guaranteed to learn something you didn't know (but thought you did).


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