Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trivial Pursuit

Trivia, I think, is fascinating. It is such a pity that it is, er…, trivialised, since it is one of the prime ways to gain attention at, say, an especially boring cocktail party. A brief mention that the sackbut is an early form of trombone but with thicker walls, imparting a softer tone, will invariably get attention. If you add that the bell is narrower, your superior erudition will be recognised. The secondary advantage is that you will probably not be asked back.

But to be an experienced trivialist, one needs to have the right equipment to hand, and here I would recommend the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica. I first ran across this work as a child of ten or so when, suffering from some infantile disease such as whooping cough, I was dragged to the doctors. The waiting room was graced with a complete set of this work and, no doubt to assuage a difficult patient, I was allowed access whilst waiting.

I was enthralled. Here, I felt, was the answer to the problem of attending school, which I objected to, and, in the future, to university, which seemed equally unattractive. All that was needed was a set of these books, thoroughly mug them up, and I would be qualified for the battle of life.

It was many years after this when the dream had long since faded and I was living in the United States, that a colourful leaflet arrived in my mailbox. It was from the Encyclopaedia Britannica people and it extolled all the attributes that I had recognised early on in life, including pictures of a large family, gathered round their fireside and studying a volume of the work with enchanted gaze. There seemed to be an awful lot trying to read from the same book and, remembering the fine print, I marvelled at the acuteness of their eyesight. The leaflet lacked one important detail however. They forgot to mention the price of this invaluable aid to education.

I wrote and asked.

They wrote back and said a representative would be calling.

I wrote and said that I was not interested in a social relationship, merely a business one, where they would tell me how much, I would send a cheque, and they would deliver the goods.

Two days later, a young man arrived on my doorstep with an evangelical smile on his face. I assumed he was either a Mormon or a Seventh Day Adventist but it was winter in Michigan and he seemed eager to come in. Seeing he had a book under his arm bearing the cryptic sign, Reti- Solovets, I wondered if he was from The Rosicrucians. But no. He was from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I enquired if he had the rest of the work with him, at which he seemed confused. No, he said, this was his demonstration volume. I pointed out that Reti-Solovets was barely scratching the surface of the fount of learning promised by his company and that, in my opinion, a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Conversation languished for a bit while he was trying to recall the page in his manual relating to nutty clients.

“Perhaps you can gather the family together so we can go through this,” he beamed, finally, “I need to explain just how valuable this will be to your children.”

I pointed out that we had no children and offered to call the dog in from outside if he thought it would help. She was ratting, but I was sure she would be happy to spare him a minute or two.

He seemed to be losing his grip on the situation so I told him my anecdote about the doctor’s waiting room and that, having given up on doctors ever since, had felt all the better for it.

I then remembered a friend of mine, who, when at a low financial ebb, had taken a job selling encyclopaedias, door to door. They had given him a segment in London’s East End where the citizens had an enviable reputation for a fruity command of the English language, coupled with a lively sense of fun and a fine disregard for book learning. He said it was a soul-searing experience. He made no sales but says the experience taught him a great deal about life and enlarged his vocabulary enormously. He had, however, never been quite the same man afterwards.

So, now feeling kindly disposed, I patted my evangelist on the head as he tried to persuade me to attempt to tear the book apart to show how well made it was. I stuffed the various payment plans back into his briefcase, tucked Reti-Solovets under his arm and shoved him off into the night.

I wrote to Mr. Britannicus, complimenting him on his salesman, pointing out that, in spite of his best efforts, I still wanted to buy a set and would they please give him the commission.

Eventually they came back to me with a price. The inference was that I had somehow upset the status quo of the encyclopaedia world but that they would, on this occasion, overlook the matter.

The volumes duly arrived and still grace my bookshelves. And what a cornucopia they have proved to be. For instance, whilst looking up Shomu, the 45th. emperor of Japan, as one so often does, my eyes wander down the page and I find that shonkinite is a rare, dark coloured, intrusive igneous rock that contains augite and felspar as its principle ingredients.

Now all I need is a party where I can work that into the conversation. And it’s all due to Encyclopaedia Britannica and, in this case, to Reti-Solovets.


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