QI: The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

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QI: The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Category: Trivia
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: QI: The Book of General Ignorance belongs to the very popular family of general knowledge trivia volumes, bought especially round Christmas as presents for anorakish friends and family members. From lists of 777 wonders of the world to instructions for all things a bright boy could do to places one simply has to see before dying to listing the greatest, craziest and most dangerous ideas, there are plenty of volumes out there to satisfy out inherent curiosity and reduce - even if only by a millionth of a per cent - the ignorance in which we are immersed.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571233687

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QI is based on a TV show of the same name, and I am told it follows the content very faithfully. I could not check myself, as I don't own a television set at the moment and thus this review relates to the book as a stand-alone event. As such, it acquits itself very well indeed. This success is, I think, due to the fact that QI devotes itself to enlightening us in the areas of commonly hold misconceptions, misrepresentations, old wives tales, urban myths, simplifications and opinions that seem obvious but are, in fact, anything but. There is something inherently delicious in learning that what you always thought was true (and what so many people still, poor dears, think is true) is in fact, complete rubbish. There is something even more satisfying in checking that the authors included some things that you, yourself, had already known to be rubbish despite so many people, poor dears, still believing them to be true.

QI contains answers to 230 questions and in most cases there is also extra information on the topic, related but not exactly relevant to the question. In many cases, the first level debunking is followed by a debunking of a previous debunking. For example, I had known that lemmings do not commit suicide, they just fall off the cliffs which are in their way. But I also thought that the whole notion of the suicidal lemmings was created by Disney in their infamous film which is, apparently, also not true as it had preceded the film considerably. On another note, chop-suey is actually a proper Chinese dish, not an American invention.

The answers are succinct, entertaining and presented in a colloquial, often humorous language but without sliding into farce. They are short and thus may sometimes seem bitty, but overall maintain coherence while maintaining high factoid quotient. The main problem I had with QI was the total lack of references. The facts are stated with the utmost conviction and in some cases there is nothing that would make me doubt them: saying that I possess four nostrils is only another way of saying that those two holes connecting my nose cavity to my mouth evolved from nostrils and is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. On the other hand, the claim that polar bears are not, in fact, left handed is one that I would like to see substantiated by something (anything at all!).

There are also some facts whose inclusion per se made me wonder. What is the main constituent of air? Well, nitrogen. Why ask? As the authors say themselves, any 12 year old knows that, and why would that need debunking? Luckily, this kind of thing is not very common, but what is common is that the supposedly obvious, wrong answers are often omitted and after reading a non-shocking if not necessarily known to me answer I was often left wondering what the erroneous, and presumably more commonly held belief would be. What is supposed to be believed to be the densest material, if it's not (the truly densest) caesium iridium or platinum? What would most people think the best electricity conductor is? I still don't know what the animal responsible for most deaths is supposed to be, as QI provides only the alternative, presumably correct answer.

Some questions cover truly obscure trivia (as in how many penises an earwig has) or scientific facts that, albeit unknown or not immediately obvious, are not particularly amazing (the light travels at unequal speeds depending on the medium, there are only four galaxies visible to the naked eye from Earth) but there is a remarkable number of truly fascinating debunkings included in QI, enough to warrant its back-cover line of everything you think you know is wrong. I challenge anybody, even the most trivia-obsessed, science-literate, general-knowledge-filled know-it-all not to find at least ten answers in QI that would genuinely surprise you and contradict beliefs you really would have had previously defended as facts. For me, they included the following: it's the English who invented champagne, USA contains the largest number of tigers in the world, the English Civil War killed the highest proportion of soldiers, the death of gladiators was ordered by the "thumbs up" sign.

The single entry that deserves the widest dissemination is, in my opinion, the one that deals with the curiously popular and completely, obviously wrong idea that coffee and tea dehydrate more than hydrate. It's actually rather amazing how such an idea even came into being: everybody must surely know somebody who drinks only coffee or tea or a mixture. These people stay alive and live pretty normal lives (in the winter I am one of them!) without signs of shrivelling up or imminent death after 2 days. But the myth lives on.

I heartily recommend QI: The Book of General Ignorance, especially if you have not followed the TV show or not too closely. If you did, I suspect it will lose most of its novelty value and thus attraction. It's entertaining, it's enlightening, it's funny and it teaches us a little bit about the nature of knowledge and things we tend to take for granted and consider as facts.

AQA 63336's book The End of the Question Mark takes the art of producing a brief but fascinating general knowledge answer to the limits delineated by the size of a single text message. Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? concentrates on natural science queries and doubts, while What is Your Dangerous Idea? presents more questions than answers that might challenge and stimulate thinking about the world, and the minds that we use to explore it.

Booklists.jpg QI: The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson is in the Top Ten Books For Slightly Geeky People.
Booklists.jpg QI: The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson is in the Top Ten Books For Your Father.
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Buy QI: The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy QI: The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson at Amazon.com.


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Jill said:

Woo! I knew the thumbs up one! It's actually a mildly entertaining programme too - it often has Alun Davies and I really like him. Plus, obviously, as the panel discusses the question, you also get the wrong answers.