“Can we read the almanac?”
My 10-year-old son, Daniel, asks 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. 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.
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. (No. 1: 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.
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.” Which is to say that the modern almanac is meant to be both useful and a comfort. And like a lot of comforts, it’s escapist.
Facts aren’t everything, alas; the synonym of data isn’t truth. And facts are only so much fun. I recently tried to graduate Daniel to the big-boy World Almanac, and we were both disappointed in “Most Popular YouTubers, 2019.” But as we figure out how to balance correct information with the divorced-from-fact opinion that keeps trying to shout it down, I still think of almanacs as a baseline anchor: If we have some kind of common ground, it might as well be there.
Novels offer their own kind of salve and escape, and Daniel and I have been pleasantly immersed in Charlotte’s Web and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. And he enjoys the wit and playfulness of poetry, thanks to heavy doses of Shel Silverstein, T.S. Eliot’s cat poems, and Alastair Reid’s delightful 1958 nonsense book, Ounce Dice Trice. But after months of family quarantine, combined with the confusion and exasperation of school-Zoom days, more of our wind-down reading sessions have involved the sureness of facts, picayune details about dogs and skyscrapers and coral reefs. In a year when everything seems in desperate need of fact-checking, when every day feels uncertain and suffused with import, the Kuiper belt and the water cycle offer a blessed kind of irrelevance.
When it comes to almanacs, I know I’m projecting a bit. Daniel is into them because he’s a sponge for facts. Dad’s into them because Dad’s been doomscrolling for much of the afternoon and is nostalgic for the time when he, too, was a sponge for facts — and was once certain he knew what facts were.