Reading Anecdotes
© 27 Jun 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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A random blurb about a thing I do.


Several months ago I added to my growing library of dictionaries and dictionary-like reference books a 1985 edition of The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes by Clifton Fadiman, Jennifer Speakes, Laurence Urdang, and Alan Isaacs. In the past few weeks I have been lucky to get a few minutes together in which to read or unwind, and the mostly single-paragraph nature of the anecdotes has been a welcome way to pass these spare moments. I have been working my way through in the order the anecdotes appear, which is alphabetically by the name of the most famous person involved.

I don’t have any grand things to say about reading a book of anecdotes. There is no kind of flow and only rarely a really good chuckle or “‍wow‍” moment—unlike, say, reading Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations which is both more cohesive (because people tend to say many things on a similar topic) and more often amusing. But some of the anecdotes are quite diverting, and the sheer variety sort of tickles a brain that is as accustomed to seeking out patterns as is mine.

Sometimes an anecdote throws me. For example, after reading the following about King Alfonso XIII:

One would-be assassin leaped suddenly in front of the king’s horse as he was riding back from a parade and pointed a revolver at him from barely a yard away. “‍Polo comes in very handy on these occasions,‍” said Alfonso afterward. “I…

my brain, trained on reading fiction and humorists, expected the next line to be something along the lines of “‍…made an excellent swing and sent his pistol flying a full fifty yards.‍” The actual conclusion, “‍…set my horse’s head straight at him and rode into him as he fired‍” left me filled with questions. Did the horse take the bullet? How does playing polo help you ram horses into pedestrians? Etc.

Another brain-tickling aspect of the book is that many of the anecdotes require and contain more background information than actual anecdotal material. That imbalance usually causes me to re-read the paragraph looking for ways to shrink the background material to be more proportional to the anecdote itself, but room for such reduction rarely makes itself manifest. Again, my fiction-trained brain assumes that the prologue will be shorter than the main matter, and the book of anecdotes tickles it by violating this expectation.

Tickling is an odd thing, a pleasurable discomfort. I’d not want a steady diet of this kind of reading, but the occasional mental tickle of book of anecdotes has proven pleasant in a way most other reading is not.

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