Need just the facts? Look to the almanac

Mark Athitakis

THE WASHINGTON POST – “Can we read the almanac?”

My 10-year-old son, Daniel, asked that pretty often at bedtime lately. He’s an avid reader, which does my book-critic heart good. But his tastes in reading can be particular, despite the best efforts of my wife and I to expand them. Left to his own devices, his literary choices roughly default to three categories: the continuing adventures of tweenage stick-figure antihero Greg Heffley, selections from the endless supply of YA books about boys thwarting Nazis, and – increasingly, these days – almanacs.

I can take or leave the first two, but trust me: You could use an almanac right now yourself. About a year ago, I received a review copy of the 2020 edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts. I haven’t developed a meaningful critical aesthetic that would allow me to review such a book – the agate type is impressively readable, I guess? But paging through the almanac in 2020 has proved to be surprisingly soothing. Here’s a book with facts, and nothing but. Glory be.

I mean, where else are you going to go for information? The Internet? That place where the sitting president posts imaginary things about voter fraud, social-media sites tag them with disclaimers, and then people go online to mock the disclaimers? And then newspapers have to write stories about the imaginary things, the disclaimers and the mocking? That’s the place you go?

Yes, everything in The World Almanac is eminently Googleable – or, more precisely, Wikipediable. But it’s a balm to experience facts in a walled garden, as if information were both thorough and finite. Bless you, heart-crushingly dull chart of the National Home Price Index. Thank you, list of nations with the highest percentage of the population using the Internet. (Number one: Kuwait. Huh.) Handy, this list of birth dates and birthplaces of prominent living authors (Paula Hawkins: Harare, Zimbabwe, 8/26/1972). The NATO phonetic alphabet is there for me, should I face some crossword-puzzle-based emergency. Who won the 2019 World Series? That’s right, the Washington Nationals did.

I grew up during the last gasp of the print almanac. Until about a decade ago, publications like Time and the New York Times sold their own print versions, when that kind of collection was good branding and good business. The Internet stomped on all that, turning physical fact books into a Back to the Future plot point and inescapable presences on Goodwill racks. Today, there are effectively two players left: Infobase, which publishes The World Almanac as part of its reference-book and education-technology business, and National Geographic, whose children’s division sometimes seems to understand Daniel better than I do. Although little changes from year to year when it comes to, say, otters, Daniel has devoured years’ worth of the books. We’re now well-schooled in the top speed of avalanches (155 mph), the surface temperature of the sun (10,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and the longest word in English (pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis).

Almanacs aren’t always – and haven’t always been – so fastidiously factitious. Historically, they’ve often been as stuffed with hokum as fact; the stalwart Old Farmer’s Almanac weaves pseudoscientific weather predictions and folk remedies alongside its rigorous tables of tides and moon phases. And my trusty World Almanac takes its name from the New York World, a leading purveyor of yellow journalism in the late 1800s. Fake news is part of its history.

But the modern almanac is at least built on the notion that there’s a set of agreed-upon common information we can all find meaningful. When Benjamin Franklin launched his Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732, he supplemented the usual astronomical details with his famous proverbs. He aspired to something universally accessible, “a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books.”