by Dan Piepenbring
Three years ago, I was browsing a used bookstore in West Saugerties, NY when I came across an anomaly from FSG’s past. It was published in 1974. It was titled, simply, The Best. And it comprised . . . a list of things that are the best.
You know, like the Best Electronic Pocket Calculator.
The Best Pepperidge Farm Cookie.
The Best Illustration of the “Convergence Theory” That Communist and Capitalist Societies Will Come Increasingly to Resemble One Another.
If you’re confused, so was I. Actually, perusing the pages of The Best never fails to leave me a little flummoxed. Compiled with affection and not inconsiderable wit by Mssrs. Peter Passell and Leonard Ross, The Best is a strange and wonderful slumgullion of the helpful, the frivolous, and the unabashedly topical. The Library of Congress files it under “Consumer education” and “Curiosities,” neither of which quite works. It’s a book that seems almost stridently out of place in 2012, and for this reason, among others, it has a cherished space on my shelf.
At times, its earnest mission is merely to name things that are superior to other things. Thus we learn that “PreSun Lotion is the cheapest and least slimy.” “Probably the most versatile ski for the good to excellent skier . . . is the Dynamic VR17.” “Jif simply smells and tastes more like peanuts. There is no real competition.” Elsewhere, it offers a cheeky and charmingly dated précis of 70s politics and culture. H.R. Haldeman, Standard Oil, and Leonid Brezhnev all receive mentions; “telephone answering machines are even better than they sound,” we’re told, and “television has never been very good”; “nicotine may be physically addicting.” But at its, um, best (sorry), the book is willfully trivial—the entry for the Best Random-Number Table reads, “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates by the RAND Corporation, beginning with ‘3174388901’ and ending with ‘216847593.’ Some of the middle passages can be skipped.”
Publishers sometimes don’t know what to do with uncategorizable books like this. On occasion they’re marketed, unconvincingly, as pure novelties, as if they’ve drifted in with the tide and washed up next to the cash registers at Urban Outfitters. Maybe The Best can be seen as an ancestor to the latest generation of “point-of-purchase” titles, but it doesn’t sit well. It’s not Schott’s Miscellany or Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. Its closest relatives might be The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, which offers deadpan but not impractical advice about how to escape from killer bees, or Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice, which turns the glossary into a repository for lexicological advice, stray factoids, shaggy riffs, and good-natured grandstanding. But neither of those books reach for such singularities as
The Best Patriotic Prep-School Poem.
The Best Way to Assess Property Taxes.
The Best Estimate of the Number of Angels in the Universe.
Where have books like this gone, and where do they belong today? It’s probably true that the internet has obviated the need for a reference shelf. All the handsome leatherbound mainstays—your dictionaries and thesauri, your yearbooks, your encyclopedias, travel guides, and field guides, your Bartlett’s and whatever other compendia I’m too young to even know about—we can now summon all these on one glowing screen or another. I find it hard to get too riled up about that; it’s the disappearance of the reference shelf’s kooky cousins that worries me more. Were it conceived today, The Best might be a Tumblr, and probably not a terribly popular one. (Too many words; too few GIFs.) There are plenty of worse fates than Tumblrage—and I shudder to think of a world without GIFs—but part of me fears that a species of book is going extinct. Even A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates was reissued in 2001. (You can buy it here; my birthday is June 5.) A specimen like The Best may not be so lucky.