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The Book of General Ignorance
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219 of 228 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"This book is for the people who know they don't know very much." This comment, in the introduction of The Book of General Ignorance, sets the stage and presents the authors' challenge. I started reading it with a "Who do they think they are fooling" attitude.

They made me a convert. This book only gets more interesting as you continue reading it.

Some of the knowledge nuggets aren't big secrets, and in fact read as "trick questions," like "What is the tallest mountain in the world?" The trick is, "tallest," not "highest." Got it? Mauna Kea in Hawaii, not Mt. Everest.

Then, what is the most dangerous animal that has ever lived? Answer? A mosquito, responsible, the authors say, for the deaths of about 45 billion humans. Of course (and they know this), one mosquito isn't responsible for these deaths, there are many species of mosquitos, and mosquitos really don't (directly) kill anybody.

Trick question again.

Then there were the questions that didn't hold any surprise at all: "What is the main ingredient of air?" Answer: nitrogen.

But it got more interesting. What man-made objects are visible from the moon? None. Many are visible from "space" (a mere 60 miles above the surface of the Earth), but the moon is too far away. What is the biggest thing that a blue whale can swallow? What are violin strings made of?

There are so many questions answered, that there is something here for everybody.

This is better than Trivial Pursuit, because of the explanations given. This should be an entertaining book on CD to listen to on a long trip, and can easily be turned into a game for adults and kids.

So I started reading it with a chip on my shoulder, and the authors made me a believer. Interesting, indeed. The book just kept getting better.

And my favorite factoid? What is the longest animal alive today?

Hint... it is not a blue whale.
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84 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
At last, the American release of what is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating books you could ever hope to delve into! Whereas most trivia books contain "facts" of dubious origin and little consequence, it's clear that the authors of this book have gone through great pains to dig out and verify the most interesting tidbits from the realms of history, nature, science, and culture. Let's go for a few examples (edited heavily for space; the book is far more detailed).

Q: How many words do Eskimos have for snow?
A: Actually, no more than four. Although it's often said that Eskimos have dozens or even hundreds of words for snow, there are at most only four root-words for it, and that's drawing from all Eskimo languages. (They do, however, have more than thirty words for demonstrative pronouns, where speakers of English only have four.)

Q: Who invented the telephone?
A: Contrary to what you've been taught, it was not the famous A. Graham Bell! Credit goes to Antonio Meucci, a brilliant but ailing Italian inventor, whose patent fell into the hands of Bell, a young Scottish engineer. Meucci died before his case against Bell could come to fruition.

There are hundreds of more questions to the end of fascinating and delighting the reader. However much you think you know, there will be mountains of information in here to surprise you--and that's quite the point. In the words of co-writer John Lloyd, "This book is for the people who know they don't know very much." As the authors hope you will come to understand, one's best hope in life is to recognize that one is generally ignorant, for it is simply impossible to know any but a sliver of the wealth of knowledge contained in and about the world. By admitting this, one is then motivated to ask questions that matter, for everything can be interesting when looked at in the right way . . . it's just that most people fail to look.

But it goes further than that. "The Book of General Ignorance" is just one piece of a cultural phenomenon that has its roots in Britain. It was originally written as a textual accompaniment to the hugely-popular television show "QI", which operates under the philosophy that curiosity--for its own sake--is worthwhile. The show is unlike anything broadcast on American screens, featuring panelists who try desperately to claw their way to the answers to questions they are posed (questions not unlike those appearing in the book). While they're rarely correct from the off, it's the mere delight in discovering the truth that ends up being, unfailingly, uproariously funny. The show's a joyful celebration of the fact that questioning the world around us need not be an impenetrably erudite or boring endeavor. [...]

In the meantime, pick up this book, and once you've been thoroughly impressed, buy it for your friends as well. It'd make a lovely gift for birthdays and the holiday season, assured to please scholar and dilettante alike. Recommended with cherries on top.
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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
_The Book of General Ignorance_ by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson is a remarkably fun book to read, essentially a collection of questions followed by an essay answer for each one, not organized really into any significant way (though questions dealing with the same subject might follow one another).

This book would be fun for any lovers of trivia and deal often with questions that people think they might know the answer to but really don't. What's the tallest mountain in the world? Think you know right, Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet? Nope, it is Mauna Kea. Though it is a modest 13,799 above sea level, measured from its seabed base to its summit, it is a whopping 33,465 feet in height, almost three-quarters of a mile higher than Mount Everest. What's the driest place in the world? The Sahara right? It is dry alright, getting just one inch of rain a year but it is the third driest place on Earth. The driest in fact is Antarctica, as some areas of the continent have not seen rain for two million years. The second driest is the Atacama Desert in Chile, which averages 0.004 inch of rain a year, and some areas have not seen rain for four hundred years. You have been told that Eskimo is a rude term right, that the preferred term now is Inuit? True, Inuit is the preferred term in Canada, but Alaskan Eskimos are perfectly happy with the name as they "are emphatically not Inuit, a people who live mainly in northern Canada and parts of Greenland." In fact there are many types of Eskimo, of which the Inuit are just one type (the others include the Kalaallit of Greenland and the Yupiget and the Alutiit of Alaska). Think the first turkeys eaten by English-speaking peoples were the Pilgrims? Nope, Turkeys first reached Europe in the 1520s, brought from their native Mexico by Spain and sold throughout Europe by Turkish merchants, by 1585 becoming a Christmas tradition in England. Perhaps you have heard that chop suey is actually an American dish. Not so, according to this book, it is a local dish of southern Canton, where it is called tsap seui, which means "miscellaneous scraps" in Cantonese, brought over by early Chinese immigrants to California. How many states of matter? Three right, solid, liquid, and gas? Nope, more like fifteen, as the list includes such states as plasma, superfluid, degenerate matter, fermionic condensate, Bose-Einstein condensate, and strange matter.

Others questions and answers deal with just plain odd things that I didn't know. Croatia for instance gave the world the necktie, as Hravat is the Croation word for "Croat" and where the word cravat comes from. In the 17th century, Louis XIII of France kept a regiment of Croatian mercenaries during the Thirty Years War who as part of their uniform wore a wide, brightly colored neck cloth by which they became known, a style that was later much copied in Paris. St. Bernard dogs have never, ever carried barrels of brandy around their neck; the myth comes from an 1831 painting by a young English artist named Sir Edwin Landseer, who in his work _Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler_ painted two St. Bernards, one with a miniature brandy barrel around its neck which he added "for interest." _Ursus arctos_ is not the scientific name for the polar bear, it is the name for the brown bear, as ursus is Latin for bear and arctos is Greek for bear. The Arctic, interestingly enough, is named after the bear, not the other way around, as it is "the region of the bear."

I have only one complaint about the book. Though it does include a helpful index, it lacks any mention of sources. Though not presented a serious scholarly work but merely a fun book to read, it might have nice to include some list of references.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was given a copy of this for my birthday two months ago, and have had it by my bedside ever since. It is by turns excellent, flawed, insightful, ignorant, pedantic, sanctimoniously smug and fascinating!

Once you get past Stephen Fry's cringeworthy introduction; not his best piece of work although admittedly Fry's less-than-best is still better than most, you are left with a series of questions to which the authors anticipate you will guess an answer that they gleefully reveal as "wrong". This has been a staple of pub quizzes and history teachers' trick questions through the ages of course, and consequently all the usual suspects are here; Mauna Kea gets a mention, so does Nelson's "Kismet", the Irishness of the Duke of Wellington, Richard ap Meryk (here as Richard Ameryk) and Antarctica (as the driest place on earth - which depends entirely on whether you regard frozen water as still water or not)

Occasionally, the pedantry rebounds on the authors. They observe there are more tigers in the USA than any other country, which is true because they are commonly seen in zoos and private menageries. But elsewhere they tell us that there are no buffalo in North America, which isn't true at all (I saw one earlier this month in a local safari park). Either zoos count or they don't. Pedantry, to be effective, has to be uniformly applied, And people who claim that coffee beans are not really beans do not understand how language works. A computer mouse isn't a real mouse either.

Occasionally, the book gets caught out by the changing times. At time of writing a chihuahua is back again as the world's smallest dog, and the authors admit that the number of states of matter is an evolving number. This doesn't make what they have to say any less interesting, but it does challenge the book's status as a repository of knowledge.

I think part of the problem is that for most of the book it is spun as a fact booklet. "Everything you think you know is wrong" proclaims the book's cover. In the afterword, the authors claim that actually they don't claim to be quite right: they only want to be interesting. This cranks the pressure up and raises questions about some of the inclusions. Does the revelation that air is mostly nitrogen really belong here? Even the authors recognise that every twelve-year-old knows that.

My favourite gripe is the first question in the book. The authors claim that Henry VIII's annulled marriages cannot be counted and so he had only two wives, not six. It's a great story, but it's flawed. The claim rests entirely on a strict rendering of the term "annulled" in the legal paradigm. At the time Henry was married to any of his six wives, no one would have claimed the lucky girl was not his queen. To do so, indeed, would have been very foolish.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a gimmick book--but a pleasant one at that. The front jacket matter includes the following comment that lays out the essence of this work: "Misconceptions, misunderstandings, and flawed facts finally get the heave-ho in this humorous, downright humiliating book of reeducation based on the phenomenal British best-seller." Or, as the author puts it (page xix): "This book is for the people who know they don't know very much. It contains hundreds of things that the average person doesn't know."

Let's get to the book, then. One nice way of giving the reader a sense of what's involved is simply to note some of the questions and answers. Enough to give a taste, not enough to spoil reading the book.

"What speed does light travel at?" (Pages 56-57) It depends. In a vaccum, 186,282 miles per second. In 2000, a team at Harvard University managed to stop light, shining it into a bec (not clear what that is!) of the element rubidium. "Where do most tigers live?" (Pages 66-67) In the United States! These are captive animals. In the wild, numbers are dropping dramatically. "Where do camels come from?" (Pages 93-94) North America. Here's a new one for me (among others): "What Edison invention do English speakers use every day?" (Page 131-132) According to the book (and this is one on me), the word "Hello" was an Edisonian invention.

"What rhymes with orange?" (Pages 208-209) Orange is a dread word for poets. According to this volume, there are two words--Blorenge and Gorringe, both of which are proper nouns.

So, there you are. A lot of fun. I don't pretend to know if all the answers to the questions posed are correct, but it's quite enjoyable to run through the questions and test your knowledge against the answers provided in the book.
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Most people like to be well informed, and are often pleasantly surprised when being corrected on a common misconception. And so the cover of "the Book of General Ignorance" sets up its premise: "Everything you think you know is wrong." And the image of a boy in a dunce cap visually communicates how "ignorant" we all truly are, for believing that Mt. Everest is the world's tallest mountain, or thinking that Henry VIII had six wives.

Great, let's open the book and have some fun while being enlightened to the true facts.

The trouble is, it soon becomes apparent (at least it did for me) that "The Book of General Ignorance" is going to "set us straight" mainly by resorting to trick questions, games with semantics and phrasing, undocumented conjecture, unproved theories, personal opinions and downright contradictions.

Hence, a volcano measured from its base in the depths of the ocean becomes the tallest mountain, Anarctica can be both the driest and wettest place on Earth, Henry VIII only had two wives by strict Roman Catholic theological interpretation, or the most common material in the world is something never seen nor even proven to exist!

A perfect example of opinion or conjecture being passed off as fact is the question of how many wise men visited Jesus. Because of tradition, people generally assume three, even though the Biblical accounts mention no specific number. Yet, somehow, "The Book of General Ignorance" can correctly inform us that the number is between two and twenty. One may well ask, If the Bible is obscure on this point, then how is this figure arrived at? The inarguable answer: because - "most scholars agree!"

Others have mentioned this book being humorous, but that is an example of where the true humor and entertainment value of this book lies.

Another example of this silly approach to factual information is in the answer to "How many moons does the Earth have?" We are told, "At least seven." The chapter then begins to identify six asteroid-like objects that don't even have a regular orbit and that it even admits most astronomers refuse to identify as moons. All I can say is, be careful with how much money you put down at the local pub if you hope to trap the lads with this trick question. But to make matters worse, as it begins listing these nebulous hunks of matter, the book states "six more have been identified..." and then proceeds to list only five!

The obvious observation is, if you are going to accuse others of being dunces, better be careful about the ignorance you yourself may be displaying.

But the greatest flaw of this book is that too much of it deviates from the advertised premise, that common knowledge is often wrong. Maybe it's just me, but it seems to me that subject matter like how many crocuses it takes to make a kilo of saffron or what were the original color of the Oompah-Loompahs belongs more in a collection of obscure, bizarre trivia than a book about common misconceptions.

It doesn't help either that these British authors, even in a book like this which is supposed to be fun, and one you would just take for granted to be religiously or politically neutral, can't help but get not-so-subtle digs in at Christians, Americans and conservatives in non-sequitur fashion.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I bought this book based on a Wired magazine review and was not dissapointed by any means. it is a great easy reading about curious facts that we'll amaze, make laugh or just make you wonder. The short unrelated chapters format makes for a great commute book or just for a quiet time. I recommend this book to anyone that loves curious and not well known facts.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 23, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The British panel game-show "QI" is, I think, the best show on television, even given the sad fact that it *isn't* on television in the US, and could well be runner-up to the fabled "Mystery Science Theater 3000" for the best show in the history of television. That sets a pretty high standard, therefore, for books associated with the series, and "The Book of General Ignorance" by and large stands up to the pressure.

Drawing from the TV program's custom of giving large negative-point penalties to contestants who give answers that "everyone knows" are true but are in fact incorrect, Johns Lloyd and Mitchinson list a bunch of questions that have conventional-wisdom answers (Who invented the theory of relativity? Why is a marathon the distance it is?) or have popular urban legends attached to them (What did Thomas Crapper invent? What man-made objects can be seen from the moon?) and show why "everything you think you know is wrong." Some of their information is debatable (for example, in response to the question "How many states does the USA have?" they answer 46, saying that Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts are technically not "states" but commonwealths), but even the most educated reader would probably come away from these pages having learned a few things.

More to the point, she'd also come away entertained. While this book doesn't have the outright comedy of the TV show (granted, it's not meant to), the pedigree is still evident, which puts this a step ahead of much of the raft of "interesting stuff you probably never knew" books out there. Combine this with a series of Cecil Adams books, and I bet the connoisseur of obscure knowledge and shooter-down of urban legends will come out very well armed indeed.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Boook of General Ignorance may be fun but it is not right - just well-named. Lloyd and Mitchinson have riddled it with oversimplification, casuistry, and downright error. A few examples enough?

Oversimplification:

Many of the inventions they attribute to the Chinese (like calendars, crossbows, flush toilets, mechanical clocks, paper, and water pumps) have been independently invented by many peoples at different times; there's no special reason to award them to China.

The Scots did have a tartan system of clan recognition; the fact that it was banned in 1745 does not mean it never existed.

Casuistry:

Bananas grow on a kind of palm, which (though not an angiosperm or a gymnosperm) is still a "tree" by any reasonable definition of the word "tree".

The fact that the first camel-like critturs evolved on what later became the North American continent does not mean that they "come from" NA; they were imported in modern times to fill zoos. (Someone once had the idea they might be useful draught-animals in the southwest deserts, but apparently it never worked out.)

The office of President of the United States was created by the Constitution passed in 1786, and George Washington was the first person to be elected to it; previous Chief Executives under the Continental Congress and its successor-organizations were not "Presidents".

Errors:

Pliny never described an orca, because he never saw one; they don't live in the Mediterranean.

A puma of any color in the US is also called a panther; there IS such a thing.

The sphinx is not 6500 years old; 5000 would be a better estimate.

St Paul's epistles did not precede Mark's gospel; they were composed several decades later.

Fountain pens did not have to be regularly dipped; the whole point of the fountain pen was that it had a flexible rubber bladder which could be filled by suction, so it did not have to be dipped.

Skeletons and eye lenses are not calcium carbonate; skeletons are calcium phosphate (apatite) and lenses are protein.

Enough?

OK. It's a fun book, but don't cite it as a reference for anything serious.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book is insightful without being condescending. I enjoyed the information provided in this book, and some of the information is quite entertaining.

I will no longer accept conventional training at face value.
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