The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (William Morris, 1977)
This book was a runaway bestseller in the 1970s, and it serves as a nice time capsule of life before the internet. Widely forgotten, The Book of Lists and its sequels provided exactly what it suggested: a series of lists of things, often complete with capsule summaries explaining their presence on the list.
Choices for lists ranged from useful information (20 largest islands, 10 most populous indian tribes in the U.S. and Canada) to trivia (12 most commonly used words in the English language, 13 famous American lawyers who never went to law school) to subjective analyses (9 outstanding winners of the American Medal of Honor, 15 most memorable articles ever insured) to personal, typically from a person famous in the related field (Gene Kelly’s 11 greatest dancers of the past, Leon Uris’ 12 greatest Jews of all time). There’s one section devoted to the ten dinner guests from all time who various famous people would invite… if you’re curious about what Vincent Price’s ideal party would have been like, this is the book for you.
Some of the information is outdated, but the first book in particular remains entertaining and even useful, an obvious predecessor to the ubiquitous “Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers” which flourished in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Considering it more broadly, in terms of the lists chosen, can also provide a glimpse into the interests of the general populace of the 1970s. (This aspect of the book is more pronounced in the sequels, where having covered the expected items in prior books the editors sought more lists which were skewed toward contemporary culture.)
It’s a fun book which deserves to be remembered. It can be purchased for less than $5, or you can pay more for an updated version from 2012. Little depth, little analysis, little controversy… but just from the title, none of that should really be expected.
The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton (Cassell, 1911)
The character of Father Brown was introduced in a 1910 short story, and he proved popular enough to warrant more tales and, very soon after his creation, a book compiling them. The stories continued throughout Chesterton’s life, as the insightful British author and philosopher crafted clever detective stories which were, in their way, the antithesis of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Father Brown’s focus was on human nature, using the motivations of people as a guide toward the solution of crimes and puzzles alike. An empty bar at the beginning of one story leads to the solution of a murder; rather than seek the source of the poison and determine who could have had access, Brown asks why the bar was empty and asks what events could have precipitated from there.
The two philosophies of detection continue to this day, although many contemporary writers follow the path of Agatha Christie and combine the pair.
Chesterton’s stories are often more than simple mysteries; they provide him with a chance to expound upon the firm religious beliefs which guided most of his writing. In this way the readers are given a combination of entertaining stories and apologetics for Christianity… first, toward Chesterton’s Anglican views and later, following his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his Catholic ones.
If there is one significant drawback to Chesterton’s writing, it is the dense prose at the beginning of most of his Father Brown stories. The bulk of the tales are fueled by conversation and action, and in order to get to the point where those can occur he front-loads most of the description and plot at the start of the story, leading to immense paragraphs filled with details about who and what has occurred leading up to the human interactions to come. Work through the beginnings; the rest of the tales will be worth it.