Saturday, July 25, 2009

The People’s Almanac

Over the years I’ve clung to certain ambitions. One of them was to read The People’s Almanac from cover to cover (and, presumably, The People’s Almanac #2 and The People’s Almanac #3, which have also been part of my library).

I don’t know how my family acquired The People’s Almanac, which was published in 1975; I was ten at the time. Was it a gift?

I knew kids who’d claimed to have read the dictionary and the encyclopedia (Britannica or World Book?); neither project appealed to me. OK. Yes. I did try reading a dictionary a few times. Boring! As suspected.

Something about that title fascinated me: The People’s Almanac. I didn’t know what an almanac was. The People’s Almanac was not like The Farmer’s Almanac, which included “a calendar for the year as well as astronomical information” (that’s from the Microsoft Word dictionary definition of “almanac”). Rather, The People’s Almanac was a seemingly random collection of information – a year by year history of the U.S. (1797: “In retirement, General Washington dined well. One of his favorite menus: cream of peanut soup, Smithfield ham with oyster sauce, string beans with mushrooms, Southern spoon bread, Virginia whiskey cake.”), thumbnail descriptions of all the nations (“Nauru is composed largely of phosphate-rich guano or, as it is better known, bird droppings. This unusual resource has provided Nauruans with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world …”), supposed buried treasure troves, words commonly misspelled, offbeat artists, stories of great boxing matches, and so on.

The idea of imbibing all these facts was far more fascinating the actual process – there was just so much information, I discovered, about which I did not care!

Still, wasn’t there something special about the possessive? The “People’s” … I recognize it now as particularly 70s. At the time it had an aura of rebellion, offering a fresh new take without the tired old rigidity and irrelevance of the established authorities, whoever & whatever they were. Oughtn’t something belonging to “people” also be more fun? Such seemed logical to me at the time.

When I was clearing out my mother’s house I brought The People’s Almanac and its sequels home to Berkeley (aka “The People’s Republic of Berkeley”). They sat on the floor of the library upstairs – the shelves having already been taken by other books. Now that renovations are going on the books have all been boxed up and sit once again in inaccessible stacks. I didn’t box The People’s Almanac.

Because I decided I wasn’t going to keep it anymore. That old ambition, that I was going to sit down and read the thing through? I’m letting it go.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

I read it. Probably read #2 and #3 too. I love books of weird little factoids. Do I remember anything I read? Probably but if I do I no longer remember that I read it in the People's Almanac. I've read a lot more books of little factoids since then. And the internet is really good at providing even more factoids.

bibulb said...

This series (and its sister series, The Book Of Lists) DEEPLY influenced me as a kid. I know the time's long passed, but I'd recommend picking these up on the cheap sometime - even if the information and presentation are QUITE dated, a lot of the information is still pretty interesting, and it IS a window on the priorities of that time period.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

hi bibulb - my brother (see first comment above) probably read The People's Almanac all the way through. I know he went through the Book of Lists and some of its sequels, and I didn't.

There are certainly interesting things one could learn "of that time period" from climbing into these books. Other sources come to mind, too: Our Bodies, Ourselves; The Whole Earth Catalog; undergroundish papers like The Berkeley Barb or the SF Oracle. Liberate information! seemed to be the ambition. A similar utopian cry accompanied the birth of the Internet.

There's more to read, more to learn than one person will ever be able to get to. I personally won't be going back to the People's Almanac, but I won't recommend against it.

I said in the post that I tried to read the dictionary and gave up. If there's a dictionary one can read, it's probably The Oxford English Dictionary. Not the definitions so much as the snippets of context the compilers have found. This one from 1716, under "almanac" has a certain something, for instance: "My Friend perceiving by his Almanack that the Moon was up..left me."