The Just the Facts, Please, Almanac

Ever wonder who's the most influential non-existent man in history? Well, Marlboro Man narrowly defeated Santa Claus and Sherlock Holmes to claim that title.

What about the number of hotel rooms in the United States? (There are more than 4 million.)

This is not trivia, according to Ben Schott, this is "significa": Random information that Schott inhales daily. Such as the number of Americans who died in recreational boating accidents in 2006 (a total of 697).

"It's sort of walking with a purpose through information. You're looking at everything from news, magazines, listen to the radio, visiting museums, and just see what catches your eye," said Schott, sitting at a busy desk in his London apartment.


While the 24-hour news channels spew the immediate headline, Schott digests all he can and once a year regurgitates his take on the past 12 months.

"What I'm trying to do is filter information that I think is interesting and put it into an almanac," Schott told me. "If you wrote an almanac, or anyone else wrote an almanac, it would have very different information."

In his 2006-07 edition, Schott includes significant events like political rumblings in Pakistan, which generates three and a half lines of copy. Donald Rumsfeld's resignation gets a line. Paris Hilton's jail time gets six lines. And he adds whatever else tickles his fancy.

"I love secret knowledge. I love taxonomy. I love the idea that there's a vocabulary that people in a field know, that they take for granted, and other people don't," he said.

For example, he shares the sign language the New York oil traders use on the floor. No one outside the industry needs to know it, but as Schott enthusiastically described it I couldn't help but smile.

That's why his books sell: two million and counting. People really do want to know that Marlon Brando once patented a drum tension adjuster.

The Winners and Losers

"Hypnosis shows that we take in far more than we can actively comprehend," Schott told me as we wandered around one his favorite haunts, Sir John Soane's Museum in London. Schott is a very English figure: Good tailoring, floppy hair, a reincarnation of a 19th century aesthete, perhaps. "I mean, it would be a torture if we recalled everything and a torture if we recalled nothing," he opines. "So somehow there's a balance of normality."

Schott is not normal. His breadth of interest stretches from the health benefits of pet ownership to celebrity break-ups, which he lists in each edition. In the current edition Schott chronicles the end of Britney and Kevin, Reese and Ryan and Whitney and Bobby.

"The intersection between politics and celebrity is so blurred," he told me. And celebrity matters. So much so, says Schott, that if you ignore it, "you can't possibly pretend to be interested in current affairs or news or media."

Schott blurs the division between politics and celebrity further when comparing the year's winners and losers in his "astronomer" on the back cover.

In Schott's eyes, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared just a little better than Rosie O'Donnell in 2007.

Schott is an almanacist, a journalist, a writer, a curator of knowledge, a constant questioner and an overgrown schoolboy.

I asked if he's afraid of the day he might lose his curiosity. "That had never occurred to me," he replied with a befuddled air. "But now I'm going to worry about it. That's perfect. Thank you."

In the meantime, Schott tries not to worry about errors. There are very few. Among those he's fessed up to: "On page 23 the accent on Guantanamo erroneously slid onto the third a. Page 118, Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock married in Saint (not San) Tropez."

'I'm Probably a Geek'

Schott writes, designs and even typesets his books.

"The way the book looks and feels, the way the information is presented changes the way you think about it," he said.

The font he uses is Garamond, by the way. And as for the content, he says he's interested in the accumulation, not the retention, of facts.

"I'm not interested in one individual fact. I'm interested in systems. That sounds incredibly grandiose. I'm interested in systems of knowledge."

He loved, for example, finding out about the oil market hand signals that traders use, but he doesn't need to remember them.

"Who cares? It's in the book, go and look it up. I write it down so I can forget about it."

And so we can wallow in it. Get this … vomiting is considered the worst sound in the world. Penelope Cruz wore Versace to last year's Oscars. Sixty percent of high school kids cheat on tests. And 47 Americans were killed by lightning in 2006.