Friday, May 31, 2013

The Book of Knowing What You Don't Know

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Dimensionally, it’s about 5.2 times larger than an iPhone in size and about 25 times as heavy. Its search engine is at the tip of your fingers and probably floating about luminously somewhere in one of your frontal lobes. There is not a single visual image included in its 1,368 pages. (Well, the cover features an apple…but not that kind of Apple.) Finding anything in it will require the ability to skim a) a table of contents and b) an index. (All conditions that scream 'anathema!' to the wired generation.) This is the revised, expanded, third edition of The New YorkTimes Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for Curious Minds (2011), descended from the 2004 original.
This is not the party favor you purchase for your great niece or grandson, nor the Christmas stocking stuffer you surprise your youngest relatives with unless they are seeking a hefty doorstop, or have very huge feet. But it is a reminder: it recalls the cumulative efforts of a great newspaper with more than 160 years of experience and 95 Pulitzers to its credit, and it also serves as the contemporary expression of that great 18th-century human endeavor—to corral all ‘known’ knowledge into a comprehensive form—a task that gave Denis Diderot a reason to get up every morning, which historians eventually labeled the French Enlightenment (which is, incidentally, only indexed in the Guide’s section on “Law,” though it appears elsewhere). 
Diderot: Ahh, sacré bleu, eez zee tomato zee vechuteble o zee fruwt?
It’s the kind of weighty tome you stash somewhere handy, like, near a landline phone where you know you’ll be on hold a lot, or in your car if you have to wait for someone to finish their violin lesson or Little League game, or well, in the bathroom, where it would be a perfect brain teaser. It's the resource you brandishly proudly if you are averse to computery.
Moreover, it’s not only virtually guaranteed to keep your brain primed, but also provides a respectable upper body workout. But here’s the most salient point: the NYT Guide is truly ‘written,’ not just cobbled together from a bunch of random facts. It has a sleek intelligence all its own, because its compilers and essayists still respect the sanctity of proper spelling, grammar and descriptive finesse. It is a paean to the kind of reputable English that some of us still care about, deeply. Even so, on p.865 you will find that in 2010 the New York Times placed third in circulation (876,638), after the Wall Street Journal (2,061,142) and USA Today (1,830,029). That’s a lotta fish wrap! (see “Green Revolution” and “Environmentalism” to deal with that).
So, just to determine whether you really need this sturdy resource as you prep to appear on Jeopardy, or to jumpstart the cockles of your gray matter before a competitive game of Trivial Pursuit with those rabid players from across the street, here are a few quiz-like questions gleaned from the segments on the arts, sciences, humanities, economics, media, sports and food. Some come out of a handy reference segment that includes “Nations of the World,” biographies, special dates, and those troublesome metric to inches or pounds conversions in “Weights and Measures.

Who was the first African-American baseball player in the American League?
(Hint: Not Jackie Robinson, who was in the Major League).
 What is considered the finest example of Hindu architecture?
Temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, c.1150
And on p. 1163, you can learn that Cambodia had a population of 14,701,717, a budget of about $30 billion, and a national G.D.P. of $2,000 per capita.

What Polish-born author is thought to be the ‘first great 20th-century English novelist?
Josef Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
How many plays do we think Sophocles wrote, and which of his plays did Aristotle consider the ultimate example of tragedy? 
Of an estimated 123 plays, Oedipus Rex proved supreme. Freud liked its 'complex' plot too!
What woman is considered one of the three most important Soviet composers of the post-Shostakovich period?
Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931), Two Paths (1999), Light of the End (2003), and In Tempus Praesens (2007)
In the contemporary periodic table of the [how many?] elements, do Einsteinium (Es) and Fermium (Fm) occur naturally?
Something like 125 and no, these appeared after the first thermonuclear explosion at the Eniwetok atoll in 1952.
So c’mon, is “irregardless” acceptable or NOT?
NOT, say the NYT “Writer’s Guide editors.
(But what about eggs? Can I have eggs or not?!)  
Alex: You can eat eggs; in fact, I KNOW you can. I have my sources.
Incidentally, Jeopardy is still one of the hardest game shows to finesse; they tell everyone who doesn’t answer the passing number of 50 questions correctly to tell the folks at home that they ‘missed it by one’ and send you packing without even a buzzer trial. For people cramming, ridiculously, right before they enter the studio to compete in the first round, this would definitely be an essential resource. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Karen L. Mulder, Ph.D., only answered one of the questions above correctly despite her erudition and extensive travel experience.


  1. The book knows much more than I know. And can retain it better than I, as well I'm sure.

    I was actually (sadly) a bit confused by the quiz. Normally the answers are "after the jump" but I think they were after each image on this one. :'-(

    Confidentially, I wouldn't have done very well anyway.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Karen replies: They WERE after the photo in small print so you couldn't skim ahead for the answers. Sorry, it's the guest blogger's unknowingness about the jump.

    1. I like the way you did it. I'm a big one for instant gratification!

  3. I was fooled by Angkor Wat, which I knew as a Buddhist structure..but it was Hindu first!
    The first book of this nature that I know of was compiled by the charming Pico della Mirandola,(1463-1494), and was called, "De Omnibus Rebus et de quibusdam aliis", or "Of Everything that Exists, and a bit more."
    Pico was a card.

    On a personal note, I was unable to view this post in its entirety until I changed my browser from IE8 to Firefox. Did anyone else experience this?

  4. My up-to-date periodic table goes up to Copernicium 112. Then several spaces are left blank awaiting the next unstable atom to roll out of the particle accelerator.
    Does The Times have its own accelerator? Where did they get up to 125?

    1. Karen responds to Dr Reid2much about the periodic table going up to 112: The NYT guide implies that there MAY be as many as 125...and what with thermonuclear fusions adding to the bunch...well, let's just say that there's some stuff in some of our neglected kitchen sinks that might make the periodic table. But seriously, it was more like an implication than a stated fact. Good catch, though! You sharp Gleaners!

  5. Jackie Robinson, who was in the Major League...

    They all were in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson played in the National League. Doby, by the way, who joined the majors in 1947, the same year as Robinson, was the first player to go directly from the Negro Leagues to the big leagues, and also (with teammate Satchel Paige) the first African-American to play on a team that won the World Series, the 1948 Cleveland Indians. (His 1946 team, the Newark Eagles, had won the Negro World Series as well.)

    Definitely a player who should be better remembered. And in 1978, Doby became the second black baseball manager as well, with the Chicago White Sox.

    1. Thanks, RPS, for inspiring me to read more about this subject. I read that Robinson started with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, while Doby was signed and started with the Cleveland Indians on July 5 of the same year.
      Bill Veeck said he wanted to alleviate some of the pressure on Doby by signing him after Robinson, who would bear the brunt of the press attention.
      As always, it's fun to hear from you, RPS.

    2. The key point seems to be that Doby was subjected to more or less the same amounts of abuse and pressure from fans and other players as Robinson, but because he wasn’t 'first,' which people always turn into a big deal, Doby isn't nearly so well known.

      They were players in different leagues, playing different positions, but a case could be made that Doby was superior to Robinson. He led the league in home runs twice, and in RBIs once, whereas Robinson led once in batting average, and twice in stolen bases. Doby was a 7-time All Star; Robinson a 6-time. Each played on one team that won the World Series, and both are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

      Doby's famous teammate, the Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, later said that Doby was the 'Buzz Aldrin' of the duo, whereas Robinson (like Neil Armstrong, first on the moon) always would get the most attention.

      p.s. Today, of course, there are more than 3x as many Latin players in the major leagues as Blacks; you also might also enjoy reading about Minnie Minoso, a black Cuban who became the first Latin standout of the modern era. A 9-time All-Star, Minoso played professionally in seven (!) different decades.