Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Book Of The Dead Is Dead Good

When The Book of General Ignorance was published in 2007, people snapped it up left and right, landing it on the New York Times bestseller list. And it turns out most of us are ignorant to a certain extent.

The book humorously points out how little most of us truly know, including that chameleons don’t change color to match their surroundings—they change to match their emotional states. Okay, I didn’t know that. They're like mood rings.

General Ignorance Prompts The Book Of The Dead.

The authors, John Lloyd and John Mitchison, are back with The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure. It was released this month, with the focus on people.

The Book of the Dead explores the lives of an eclectic selection of people, famous and not so famous, such as Freud, da Vinci, and Archibald Belaney. Who? Yep, Belaney is one of the undeservedly obscure.

It's easy reading, with most of it served up like mini bios on a litany of folks, arranged into chapters such as There’s Nothing Like a Bad Start In Life (people who had rotten childhoods or absent parents), Let’s Do It (people for whom sex was a big deal or a big taboo), and the Monkey-keepers (people who owned or apparently were fond of monkeys).

These are the details about the lives that a serious biographer would omit, and that’s what makes it all the more fascinating.

Case in point: Catherine the Great. Turns out Catherine wasn’t even her real name (it was Sophie), she despised being called “Great,” and she did not die in a compromising position with a horse (a rumor started by her bitter son).

And then there is Freud's fear of trains. And what makes Isaac Newton laugh. Or that William Morris' death was attributed to "his simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." Morris, of course, is a famous designer who had worn many other hats, including poet, painter, engraver, weaver, dyer, printer, retailer, and revolutionary.

There are scores of details on plenty of other dead people to keep things interesting, embarrassing, and disturbing.

It's the kind of thing anyone with half an interest in trivia will enjoy. And the book is funny as hell from start to finish.

This isn't less surprising after you learn that the authors are jolly good Brits with some serious credentials. Lloyd is a radio and television producer best known for Not the Nine O’Clock News and Blackadder. Mitchison has a literary background, including serving as managing editor at publishing house Cassell, where he published Monty Python’s Michael Palin, among others.

The Lloyd/Mitchison duo has hit pay dirt before: they worked together on the quirky TV panel show QI (Quite Interesting, an intentional reversal of IQ, Intelligence Quotient), which got its start on the BBC in 2003. Lloyd was producer; Mitchison was in charge of research. The show is still going strong. Here is a clip from a town hall of sorts, about QI.

British comedian Stephen Fry called The Book of the Dead “dead good,” and I have to agree. The bios tend to run together in some places, but Lloyd and Mitchison make up for it with some outstanding research and the writing is spot on. The subjects are fascinating, including people you never heard of your in life.

The Book of the Dead Lives With A 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure is available on Amazon. Make sure you find the right one. The title The Book of the Dead is overused by publishers all the time.

One of the best lines from the authors tell it how it is: “The first thing that strikes you about the dead is just how many of them there are.” Good thing. One of the best aspects of the book is they keep you from associating history with dreadful boredom.
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