Saturday, 25 May 2013

Stuff I've Learned From Books

Pretty much anyone who has ever gone to a school has had access to books; they're one of the main resources used in education and, speaking as someone who works for a publishing house that publishes academic titles, there is pretty much a book for just about any subject, no matter how bizarrely specific. That's par for the course, though; you buy a non-fiction or educational book, you expect to be told something new. However, recently I've started to notice that I'm actually learning things from fiction, and not just stuff like 'if you start out single at the beginning of a book, you'll either be in a couple or dead by the end of it', or 'the killer is invariably someone you have previously established as a decent sort early in the story.' No, I am talking actual pieces of information I have now gleaned from just reading, and here, for you entertainment and education, are some little bits of knowledge that have sufficiently impressed me enough to remember.

FACT: The collective noun for a group of kittens can also be referred to as a kindle.
FROM: Bart Simpson's Guide to Life, by Matt Groening.
Does anyone else remember reading this as a kid? I never owned it but I remember borrowing it several times off a boy in my class at school, and I always liked it. Years later, I was trying to describe it to The Boyfriend, and was not doing very well; it's hard to describe a book you read over 15 years ago. So I bought it for him as a present and, in typical me-style, I read it before he did. It's basically just a collection of Bart-esque facts and advice, designed for children, but I was surprised to find that, in between all the silly, there were actually a few snippets of real information. One of these was a page of collective nouns, in which I discovered that a group of kittens can also be called a kindle, as well as a litter. I was so stunned by this simple fact I even had to look it up to make sure Groening hadn't fabricated it, but it's true! Makes me wonder if Amazon knew that when they created their world-dominating e-reader...

FACT: Squeezing a tea bag in a cup of tea releases tannic acid, which causes the tea to go bitter.
FROM: Before I Go To Sleep, by S. J. Watson
Before I Go To Sleep is a thriller about a woman who wakes up every day, having forgotten nearly all of the past twenty or so years. Each morning she has to rediscover her real age, her husband,  her house, come to grips with it all, and then forget it all again when she goes to bed at night. With the help of a doctor, however, she begins to remember more and more every day, and starts to make startling discoveries about her life, including a few secrets that are being kept from her. It's a great story, truly gripping, but I have to admit there was a part of it that lifted me out of the novel a bit; for, smack-bang in the middle, the protagonist goes to make a cup of tea and marvels at the fact she remembers not to squeeze the teabag, lest the tannic acid makes the tea bitter, but doesn't remember major events in her life. As an avid drinker of tea, I was so surprised to read this that I even changed my tea-making habits; and do you know what? It definitely does taste better. A good read and a handy tip to boot - not bad for a morning's read!

FACT: There is a wall in Postman's Park, London, that is dedicated to everyday heroes who sacrificed their lives for others.
FROM: Charlotte Street, by Danny Wallace
I wouldn't say I'm a big fan of Danny Wallace, but I do find him quite funny, so when he released a novel last year, I decided to read it whilst on holiday. It's not a fantastic book; whilst the story has an interesting premise (a man accidentally steals a disposable camera from a woman he briefly met, and became smitten with, and uses the photos on it to try and find her), but the characters sound a little too like the author - it's obviously Wallace writing it, if that makes sense. However, it does take you on a few little trips around London, and one of these trips is to Postman's Park where, I was stunned to find, there is a wall called the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, which is full of plaques dedicated to those who lost their lives in efforts to save others. It's a poignant reminder of how good people can be, and even just thinking about these kinds of people makes me feel humbled; it's definitely a place I now plan to visit.

FACT: You can theoretically catch trout by tickling their bellies
FROM: Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
I love this book; it's one of my childhood favourites that I still love as an adult. It's one of Dahl's more serious offerings; despite some ludicrous scenes, the main focus of the story is on the beautiful relationship between Danny and his beloved father. The plot revolves around a snobby social-climber, Mr Hazell, with pheasants a-plenty on his land and a bad attitude. In revenge for his rudeness and threats, Danny and his father concoct a plan to poach the pheasants from Mr Hazell, and thereby ruin a big hunting event for him. In discussing poaching methods, the respectable Doctor Spencer admits to indulging in a bit of poaching himself - namely, trout-tickling, the art of sending a trout into something of a trance by tickling it's belly, so that it would be easier to catch. It sounds ridiculous, yet another of Dahl's fantastical creations, but as it turns out, there is a possibility that it works. I couldn't find anything that confirms it's a viable method, but the mere fact that there is debate on it is marvellous enough.

These are just a few of the things I remember learning from novels, and there's bound to be loads more 'facts' I can reel off now that I got from books - even if I can't remember the actual books they came from. If you've ever stumbled across something in a book that not only amazed you, but turned out to be true in 'real life', I'd love to hear it!

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