The Greatest Book Never Read Cover-To-Cover
Every year has its list of books that make the New York Times #1 Bestsellers list and yet you will never see this one in Oprah’s Book Club. There are more novels considered classics than I can count and don’t get me wrong, I could ramble on and on over a host of fiction novels - Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last Of The Mohicans, and Jack London’s The Call of The Wild, however, they were far from the most influential book I read growing up. No, my favorite book and, truly one of the great books of all-time stands alone as a 1000-page behemoth in the non-fiction section of any library. The World Almanac and Book of Facts (TWA&BOF for short) stands alone as a unique masterpiece. To be sure, there are many publishers and varieties of Almanacs, yet TWA&BOF stands apart from all others in its size, scope, and authoritativeness. It is one of the greatest books ever written. I said it and I stand by it.
My love affair with TWA&BOF began in grade school, it used to be in the magazine section of the local Giant Eagle, and it was the most exciting aspect of grocery shopping with my mother as a 10-year old in 1985. Some may think it is strange for a fifth grader to have such an interest in facts and statistics, and to be fair, it was probably an eclectic behavior for child and I certainly was not the most popular kid in school. However, I was still far from a child prodigy and I loved my 3.5” Star Wars figures and Transformers as much as anyone else born in 1975. I just happened to enjoy trivia as well, especially as it pertained to history and geography, and no other book was delivered as well as TWA&BOF.
I am quite certain that I somehow scrounged up enough money to buy my first one issued in 1985, and was without a doubt the paperback version. I couldn’t tell you what the retail value was because both covers and several pages are missing, probably under $10, and yes, I still have it. In truth, I have 35-years’ worth of almanacs lying around in various locations as if they are collector’s items. After that I became fortunate, as the new year copy would be released around Christmas each year, I would inevitably put the newest copy on my Christmas list. My mother relayed the message to my Aunt and for the past 34-years I have received it like clockwork. Even today she always comments “it is the first and easiest present she picks up every year!” It has become a Christmas tradition of sorts between us. I have joked with family and friends that I feel a kinship to Steve Martin’s character Navin Johnson in The Jerk who screams wildly, “The new phonebook is here. The new phonebook is here!” except I replace phonebook with an almanac.
Nostalgia is good and fine, but it still doesn’t explain the book’s true value to humanity. For that, we need to take a step back in history to a pre-world wide web Dark Ages. The first edition was published in 1869 by the New York World newspaper thus lending the book its name and continued till 1876 before publication was suspended. Then in 1886, famed newspaperman, Joseph Pulitzer got involved. He resuscitated TWA&BOF with the intention of “making it a compendium of universal knowledge, “ and it has thus been printed every year since and almost always ending up on the New York Time’s Bestseller list for reference books.
Almanacs, in general, are rather old and many played a role in the early history of America. The first almanacs were marketed to farmers, settlers, and sailors and tended to deal with weather forecasts, planting data, tide tables, festival dates, and the movement of heavenly bodies. Remember libraries were uncommon and volumes of encyclopedias were bulky and expensive so having such information in a small, easy-to-read resource book was a blessing. The farmer no longer needed to approximately predict when to plant and when to harvest a new crop, as it was now possible for someone with an almanac to open it and consult numerous tables and charts detailing climatological data. As a fun side note, Benjamin Franklin made some of his fortune publishing the Poor Richard’s Almanack in Philadelphia from 1732-1758. Another almanac with a claim to fame is The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and it can still be found today in bookstores and magazine aisles throughout the United States and has been since 1792 making it the oldest continuously published periodical in North America.
However, TWA&BOF has always been a cut above its competition in scope. Geography, history, sports, science, politics, entertainment, demographics, color maps, flags, and government are just a few of the many categories between its covers and each of them are further divided into many sub-categories. Furthermore, TWA&BOF has had its own Hollywood moments. Don’t remember? Who could forget 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street and its importance to the plot? Still forgetful? Think back to the moment right before the lawyer brought all the letters written to Santa Claus in the courthouse. The lawyer, Gailey, reads this nice little exert from non-other than TWA&BOF to establish the professional and expert nature of the U.S. Post Office as an authoritative government body who recognized Kris Kringle as “The ONE true Santa Claus!”:
“The post office department was created by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1776. The first postmaster general was Benjamin Franklin. The post office department is one of the largest businesses in the world. Last year, under Robert Hannegan, it did a gross business of $1,112,877,174.” - Gailey
How about a more recent film? Who could forget the iconic classic 1992 film, White Men Can’t Jump starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes and featuring Rosie Perez as Gloria Clemente, a woman obsessed with learning enough trivia to earn a shot on the TV Game Show, Jeopardy? She spent practically the entire movie reading the 1991 edition of TWA&BOF!
Recently, however, not all is golden and TWA&BOF has lost some of its luster thanks to the internet – the bane of all print media. A 1000-page book is just not that convenient or even that comprehensive when compared to the vastness of the internet and the ability to access the slightest bit of trivia in a moment’s notice with the use of Google and Reddit. Still, even today, TWA&BOF has its use and value with a new edition printed annually. The current publisher is Infobase Publishing in New York with the senior editor being Sarah Janssen since 2009. She manages a 10-member team that spends the year updating TWA&BOF for another release. About 30% of the content each year is completely new, and 50% is briefly updated, such as adding the most recent Super Bowl winner. Only 20% of the book, such as the text to the United States Constitution, stays static from year-to-year. When you have sold more than 82 million copies over 150-years, it can be a daunting challenge to provide something new with each yearly edition.
Hopefully, even if I failed to convince you that TWA&BOF is the greatest book ever, and even if you believe that my love for TWA&BOF is irrational and rooted firmly in nostalgia, it still doesn’t take away from the value of the book. Tens of thousands of people still peruse its pages every year for that one statistic to drop in their term paper, or that one figure to impress their employer, or even that one trivia answer to win a bar bet and free drinks. So take my advice and run out and get yourself a copy. Even if you do not fall in love and expect a new edition yearly like me, you will still be glad for the purchase the next time you need an answer.