Show me your miscellany!
August 24, 2010 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Three of my all-time favorite books are The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Allusions, 1000 Sayings of History*, and Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology. Beyond the divergent content, what ties these three titles together are that they consist of rather a lot of very short (<500-word) histories. Now that I've memorized these three, I'm hungry for more. What other books are out there like these? What are the best published** encyclopedic miscellanies?

* This book is awesome. It consists of a whole ton of quotes ranging from the totally inane to the world renowned, but what makes it special to me are the page-long contextual blurbs that accompany and comment upon each quote.
**Published is preferred, but if you know of other blogs/sites like Futility Closet those would be acceptable as well.

posted by carsonb to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia? More literary than historical, but lots of historical info.
posted by mskyle at 12:54 PM on August 24, 2010

Response by poster: Literary works too! I didn't mean "histories" necessarily in an historical sense, but more generally.
posted by carsonb at 12:56 PM on August 24, 2010

Seconding Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia. I'm trying to pare down the book collection, but that one's not going anywhere.
posted by asperity at 12:58 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings fits this description, although it's rather short.
posted by theodolite at 1:00 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: From the Amazon review of Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia: The thousands of entries in Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia cover anything and nearly everything having to do with literature. The book includes biographies of authors, summaries of books and plays, depictions of characters and mythological figures, explications of literary terms and movements, and, well, a whole bunch of other irresistible stuff that is somewhat quirky and utterly engrossing.

Yep! This is pretty much exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for: Irresistible stuff that is somewhat quirky and utterly engrossing.
posted by carsonb at 1:02 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: I also love The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, if you're into that kind of thing.
posted by mskyle at 1:02 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Any of Charles Panati's books are great. He wrote "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things", "Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody" and similar books on fads, the sacred, and the sexy.
posted by inturnaround at 1:04 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Benet's is good. I also find Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable to be the pinnacle of instructive digression: I cannot count how many times I have picked it up to look up the derivation of a single phrase, seen something else striking, and then looked up blinking, hours later, after spending the afternoon reading about Xhosa courtship rites and the symbolism of the ox in medieval Scotland and and the origin of the Tokugawa clan's crest.

Judy Jones and William Wilson's An Incomplete Education is equally compelling this way, although the info here is not bite-sized, but perhaps snack-sized. As well, they are highly readable writers, and their arch and breezy tone is a joy.

Michael Macrone also did a series of books -- Brush Up on Your Shakespeare, Brush Up on Your Classics, and so forth -- with a little more focus.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:10 PM on August 24, 2010

most Oxford Companions have similiar formats.
posted by KogeLiz at 1:11 PM on August 24, 2010

With fear of being laughed out of the room, I'd like to suggest the Uncle John's Bathroom Readers. The standard ones are full of miscellaneous miscellany, but "Plunges into the Universe," "Plunges into History," and "Plunges into Great Lives" sound like the sort of thing you're looking for. Brief biographies, explanations of scientific whatsits, short histories of whatever...I think they're great. They're pretty funny, too.

"Great Lives" was where I learned that Vidal Sassoon, in his youth, was a member of a Jewish street fighting gang that would embed razor blades into potatoes to chuck at Nazis.
posted by phunniemee at 1:12 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic would seem to fit the bill.
posted by Dragonness at 1:12 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: maybe this, my Mom has a copy. I remember reading parts of it last time I visited
posted by KogeLiz at 1:17 PM on August 24, 2010

One whole genre is dictionaries of greek mythology, whose entries can definitely just be browsed for the stories. The classic of this genre is Doctor Lemprière's Dictionary. I don't know if it's currently in-print. A contemporary and very readable dictionary of this type is Jenny March's Dictionary of Classical Mythology--that's a book I enjoy flipping through for pleasure.
posted by Paquda at 1:21 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: I love this kind of stuff too.

You may like Things Not Generally Known (a reprint of a v. old classic), found here:

Also, the Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities

Both old and probably v. outdated, but they will contain some gems that have been forgotten in the passing of time...
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:43 PM on August 24, 2010

I ought to have added, the Handy-Book is similar to Brewer's but with, seemingly, an American slant.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:44 PM on August 24, 2010

A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose
"...a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pickpocket eloquence"
posted by JulianDay at 1:46 PM on August 24, 2010

I think you'd enjoy the hell out of Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities, which is presented as a bunch of short, fanciful descriptions of cities in Kublai Khan's empire as told to Kublai by Marco Polo. There's a narrative thread concerning their conversation(s) that shows up at the beginning and the end of every section (comprising around 10-15 of Marco's accounts) but those sections themselves are rarely longer than three or four pages. It's a great book.
posted by invitapriore at 2:02 PM on August 24, 2010

Oh, and as an example of the sort of thing you might find in Invisible Cities, he describes one city (alas, I don't have the book on me right now, so this is a paraphrase) where the layout and events and daily tasks of the citizens all match in some way the arrangement and movement of the stars; but the inhabitants are puzzled when asked about their lack of freedom, because the changes they make in the city register in the night sky as a supernova, or a shooting star, etc.
posted by invitapriore at 2:06 PM on August 24, 2010

Response by poster: I think you'd enjoy the hell out of Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities

Read it! Was thinking of including it in the list of exemplars (along with Van Amerongen's The Way Things Work) but thought it might throw off results. Thank you anyway, good rec!
posted by carsonb at 2:16 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If a smaller version of the monolith from 2001 were to appear here in my kitchen, making all the pots and pans ring deafeningly and shattering the windows, I would expect to see wrapped around it a blow-up of the dust jacket of The Oxford Companion to Food, so much has that book changed everything about the way I approach food.

Here's an excerpt from the entry on eels to give an idea of what it's like:

Some tales which might appear to be legends have a basis in fact. Thus there is no doubt about the existence of 'eel balls', spherical clumps composed of scores of small eels knotted tightly together; nor about the perambulations on dry land of eels looking for a meal of peas, confirmed in these terms by a writer whom Moriarity cites:

Further observations on the eel's liking for green peas were provided by the Dowager Countess of Hamilton early in the nineteenth century. The eels from Lake Hedenlunda wandered into the fields at night and ate pea pods, making a smacking sound with their lips. Close investigations showed that they ate only the soft and juicy outer skin of young pods and did not gnaw through them.

posted by jamjam at 3:04 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of the books by James Dunnigan (alone or with co-authors) are organized as a series of short segments, ranging from a quarter of a page to three or so pages, but usually tending to the lower end.

A good example is "Dirty Little Secrets of WWII".

They range all over the place, within the rather large realm of war and politics.

And "Up the Organization" is a series of short articles arranged in alphabetic order by subject. (The one on "marketing" begins, "Fire the whole marketing department.")
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:15 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature was a very popular 19th-century miscellany, now available in a confusing plethora of print-on-demand reprint editions & Google Books scans, or at Project Gutenberg, or here (self-link).

Have you read Schott's Original Miscellany? Or its sequels?

Rather more longwinded is Alasdair Gray's Book of Prefaces: an idiosyncratic history of literature in the shape of an annotated anthology of introductory texts.
posted by misteraitch at 4:17 PM on August 24, 2010

+1 for Brewer's.
posted by caek at 4:38 PM on August 24, 2010

You would love Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy.
posted by keeo at 4:54 PM on August 24, 2010

I subscribe to a podcast by Steve Silverman, who's also the author of Einstein's Refrigerator and Lindbergh's Artificial Heart, which are compendiums of short, quirky, historical tales.
posted by clerestory at 5:35 PM on August 24, 2010

Though all the bits of Norman Davies's Europe: A History are very much a work of a historian who full well knows that his is a liberal art, it includes within it many of what he calls "capsules", which are indeed histories in about 500 words about everything from goose-stepping to witch-hunts to education in middle medieval Europe.
posted by curuinor at 7:03 PM on August 24, 2010

Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Food history and culture. Amazing. Prepare to pursue some rabbit holes.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 3:14 AM on August 25, 2010

The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration is endlessly fascinating.
posted by oulipian at 5:10 PM on September 2, 2010

The People's Almanac is a fascinating compendium of cool facts and stories not found in the usual dry almanac. It's got some woo stuff but don't let that put you off. There were three volumes eventually published. Sadly out of print but well worth the effort to get.

I'd also recommend the Oxford Book of Essays. A great collection of short prose pieces on various topics. All very well written, and absolutely worth reading.
posted by storybored at 3:46 PM on November 30, 2010

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