I mentioned last week how if you want to buy me something, any nonfiction book will be quite nice, thank you. I want you to understand this is not exaggeration. Before the pandemic shut down the libraries I sought out a book about the building of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Why? Because I felt I didn’t know enough about it. I knew only what anyone growing up in a Mid-Atlantic state might know about postwar bilateral water route management. Surely I should know more.
Gary Croot, whom I hardly need explain is the Associate Administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation’s Operational Headquarters in Massena, New York, called to reassure that no, I already did, but he thanked me for my interest. Still, I went on to read the book and learned that, in fact, building the Saint Lawrence Seaway went about like you’d imagine. A whole lot of digging and a lot of people agreeing this would have been swell if they’d done it like eighty years earlier. Well, they can’t all have the drama of the Mars candy company. I still say it was a good choice.
So here’s some books you might pick up for me, if the bookstore employees don’t believe your “find me something more dull than that” request:
J: The Letter That Shifted Pronunciation, Altered Etymologies, Made Electrical Engineers Cringe, and Changed The World. Of course, I have a partisan interest in the letter ‘J’. But who isn’t fascinated by the way a letter can take on vowel and consonant duties and then gradually split between them? Or how it is we get to pick letters? And whether we are going to finally see the alphabet accept double-i and double-j as letters too? Why should u get to be the mother of letters? Perfect for people who want to be angry about things that not in fact unjust. 296 pages.
Hey-Dey: the Forgotten Amusement Park Ride that Saved Amusement Parks, Earned Fortunes, and Changed The World. Who doesn’t love the Hey-Dey? Everybody because who’s heard of the thing? But there we are, some old pictures of what sure looks like a ride what with how it has a platform and advertisements and stuff. How popular was it? What did you actually do on the ride? It seems like spinning was involved. Maybe a lot of spinning. Why doesn’t anybody know about it anymore? And does it have anything to do with the Lindy Loop? Includes a sweeping view of history including the discovery, in 1896, that people would pay reasonable sums of money to do things that are fun. 384 pages including 20 glossy pages reprinting black-and-white pictures of things we can’t make out anymore. Also 40 pages of the author cursing out Google for assuming that they wanted every possible six-letter, two-syllable string other than “Hey-Dey”.
Humpty Dumpty: the Nonsense Rhyme that Delighted Children, Befuddled Scholars, Made Us All Wonder Why We Think He’s An Egg, and Changed The World. There’s a kind of person who really, really wants Humpty Dumpty to have some deep meaning. Like, saying it’s some deep political satire or is some moral fable about buying on credit or maybe it’s just making fun of the Dutch? No idea, but that’s no reason to stop trying. 612 pages. Spoiler: we think Humpty Dumpy is an egg because both his parents were eggs, and they say their only adoption was his littlest brother, Rumpty Dumpty. Rumpty Dumpty is, as anyone can see, a shoe.
Busy Signal: the Story Behind the Tones, Chimes, Rings, Buzzes, and Beeps that Tell us the State of Things — and Changed The World. An examination of how humans use language and turn a complicated message like “that phone number is busy” into a simple buzz instead. That seems a bit thin to the author too. So then we get into other audio cues like how sometimes construction equipment makes that backing-up beeping noise even when it’s not moving. 192 pages.
So, I mean it. If you want to buy me something, look for any nonfiction book explaining a thing. If it seems like a boring thing, great! 568 pages about the evolution of the NTSC television-broadcast standard? Gold! You are not going to out-bore me in a book contest like that. Look, I know things about the Vertical Blanking Interval that I have no business knowing. And that is everything I know about the Vertical Blanking Interval. And yet I want to know more. Find a topic dull enough that it’s putting neighboring books to sleep, and you’ve got me set. Thank you.