Vital irrelevance

A little book of many small things you could live without knowing

Royalty normally entails power, privilege, and pomp, but someone forgot to tell a handful of Burmese kings:

In the 10th century, King Theinhko ate a farmer's cucumbers without permission; the farmer killed the king and took the throne. King Uzana was trampled to death by an elephant in 1254. King Minrekyawswa was smushed by his own elephant in 1417. King Razadarit met his end in 1423 after getting tangled up in ropes while lassoing elephants, and King Tabinshweti's own minions slew him during a failed campaign to find a mythical white elephant in 1551.

Such information will not improve your looks or health, but it's a historical curiosity. And the "Strange Deaths of Burmese Kings" is only one entry among hundreds from "Schott's Original Miscellany," a No. 1 bestseller in Britain and a highly addictive, bizarre, educational, and hilarious romp through all types of oddities and "unconsidered trifles."

Need to decode Cockney rhyming slang, understand the laws of robotics, proceed down the circles in Dante's Inferno, drop some archaic golf nomenclature, recount the 12 labors of Hercules, sing the other three verses of "The Star Spangled Banner," or name the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor? Ben Schott's got them all.

Curious about commonplace German, Latin, French, Yiddish, or Spanish phrases? "Schott's Original Miscellany," an Urtext ne plus ultra, is de rigueur reading, full of chutzpah, and guaranteed to bring salud y pesetas to all.

The book contains no logical arrangement, with entries running from a few words ("Declared Nuclear Powers" or "OPEC Members") to two pages ("Presidents of the United States" and "The States"), but Schott usually aims for the peculiar. It's not enough to know the inauguration date, political party, and zodiac sign of any US president. Schott offers whether the man was wed in office, was red-haired, died on the Fourth of July, sported facial hair, owned slaves, or was left-handed.

Although the jacket flap claims "Schott's Original Miscellany" cannot be read in one sitting, this reviewer claims otherwise. It took but a couple of hours, and afterward I performed fouettés and entre-chats (page 93, "Some Ballet Terms") through the backyard, declaiming the joys of knowing "aurophobia" is the fear of breezes, sharing with squirrels my knowledge of "The Social Etiquette of Washington" (page 142), and pointing out the cumulonimbus clouds (page 101, "Cloud Types"). In short, the book creates a state of animated giddiness that can be neither stopped nor contained.

The last time I experienced such a response to a compendium of useless information was in fifth grade, when a 1980 edition of "The Guinness Book of World Records" landed in my grubby mitts.

Gathering facts on egg-eating, domino tumbling, high-altitude lakes, or those corpulent McCrary twins who rode motorcycles, transformed a quiet kid into a first-class pain who bombarded teachers, parents, and fellow students with outlandish accomplishments, human oddities, and annoying queries. But where Guinness offers the biggest and best, Schott opts for the slyly sophisticated ("Some Shakespearean Insults"); the cultured ("Orchestra Schematic"); the sporting ("Two Dice Odds"); the colloquial ("American Diner Slang"); the charmingly morbid ("Famous Last Words"); and the downright goofy ("Pig Latin Hamlet)."

Utbay aitway here'stay oremay!

Metric wire gauges, bons mots of Dorothy Parker, contradictanyms, and chat-room acronyms rest beside bed sizes, philosophical quotations, kitchen maxims, and the Fujita-Pearson Tornado Intensity Scale. James Bond films (with villain, girl, and key car), constitutional amendments, Super Bowl singers, and Knights of the Round Table clash with the Apostles, techniques of divination, Ivy League fight songs, and notable Canadians and Belgians.

Whether you employ the book as a debate- settler or conversation starter, "Schott's Original Miscellany" will repeatedly provide whatever you need, want, or are curious to know. As Schott claims in his introduction, "It is, perhaps, possible to live one's life without 'Schott's Original Miscellany,' but it seems a curious and brave thing to attempt."

He's right, of course, because nowhere but in Schott's eccentric volume will you learn the grave risks of roping elephants or hassling Burmese cucumber farmers.

Mark Luce teaches literature at The Barstow School in Kansas City, Mo.

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