A world of information: Why I love the World Almanac
Facts in an almanac can make the head spin like a globe
December 29, 2013 12:00 AM
By David M. Shribman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This I learned from the Internet: “The World Almanac” first appeared in 1868 and the word “World” in its title refers not to its global scale or reach but to its origin as a publication of The New York World newspaper. It provided Calvin Coolidge’s father with the text of the presidential oath of office when, in 1923, he swore in his son, by the light of a kerosene lamp at 2:47 in the morning. The U.S. government asked that special print runs be commissioned because so many G.I.s read it during World War II.
Fred MacMurray talked about the almanac in an exchange with Edward G. Robinson in “Double Indemnity.” (Note to younger readers: Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson were actors, and “Double Indemnity” was a movie.) The almanac makes an important cameo performance in “Miracle on 34th Street” (also a movie; look it up on the web if you didn’t see it on your laptop last week).
This I learned from the latest edition of the 2014 “World Almanac and Book of Facts,” just now in stores and what you might think of the Internet before there was a Web: A small-craft advisory is prompted by a forecast of winds between 23 and 38 mph. The circumference of the Liberty Bell around its lip is 12 feet and one-half inches. William Wirt ran for president in 1832 on the Anti-Masonic Party ticket. The ZIP code of Crestwood, Ill., is 60445. Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadiens won the Hart Memorial Trophy in 1928.
Some 5.6 percent of white high school girls were in a physical fight on school property in 2011. A prokaryote is a single-celled organism that doesn’t have a distinct nucleus. The first transcontinental television broadcast was on Sept. 4, 1951. The island of Navassa lies between Haiti and Jamaica. Montenegro has 155 miles of rail track.
This I know without looking it up: The first “World Almanac” I remember was the 1959 edition, and I remember it only because my father brought home the 1960 edition and threw out the 1959 number. As a young boy I spent hours with the trim little volume filled with agate type and the sort of worthless knowledge I would eventually spend my life acquiring and then sharing, repeatedly and remorselessly, with others in a newspaper column.
For leisure, and this I know is pitiful, I flipped through the book — today the term would be “surfing,” though in the beach town where I grew up that word had a different meaning — for hours and, also pitiful, I was riveted by irresistible attractions such as its summary of the history of the Kuomintang Party or its list of agricultural products of many nations, which invariably included sugar beets. I was a very dull boy, destined to become a very dull man.
This I also learned from the newest edition of “The World Almanac”: Romanesque cathedrals have concealed buttresses. Some 82 percent of cell-phone users texted in 2012, up from 31 percent in 2007. The Newberry National Volcanic Monument is in Oregon. Those who travel for medical treatment can deduct part of their expenses from their federal income taxes.
France adopted the Gregorian calendar before Hungary did. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Norfolk, Va., was minus 3 degrees. Tom Brady is from California. The Library of Congress closes at 5 p.m. on Saturdays. The source of the Tombigbee River is Prentiss County, Miss. Gabon has 403 miles of rail track.
This is what I learned from Sarah Janssen, a senior editor of “The World Almanac,“ in a telephone conversation. Only 20 people work on the book. Some of the editors’ offices are messy. As deadline looms, the staff works as many as 80 hours a week. Sarah has on occasion worked at home in her jammies. This year the almanac added a section on marriage and shortened the biography of George W. Bush. The staff proofreads the almanac on paper. Sometimes there is a party when the project is completed. This year there wasn’t one. There is no office cat.
This is more of what I found in the newest almanac: The monetary unit of Papua New Guinea is the Kina. Wilhelm Steinitz of Austria was the world chess champ between 1886 and 1894. Both towers of the Century Plaza in Los Angeles have 44 stories.
There are 12 commercial banks in Maine. Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, was founded in 1850. Some 1.2 million people died in a drought in Bengal in 1900. Allan Nevins won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Grover Cleveland.
Crushed stone, sand, salt, gravel, cement and wollastonite make up a $1.3 billion industry in New York State. The area code for Brown Deer, Wis., is 414. The flag of Somalia has a very pretty shade of light blue. Jehovah’s Witnesses participate in an annual Lord’s Meal ceremony. Some 3.3 percent of males completed distance education programs in the 2007--2008 academic year. Togo has 353 miles of rail track.
This is more of what Ms. Janssen told me. The almanac staff is divided about equally by gender. Many of them have beats — broad subject areas in which they cultivate expertise and experience — and sometimes they suggest adding elements (such as: more information this year on how often people check their email). Sarah can’t think of anything the group does together for fun. But everyone who works on the World Almanac, she says, “thinks the work is fun.”
This is more of what I found in the 2014 almanac: The purple finch is the state bird of New Hampshire. Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks was born in Unionville Center, Ohio. African Americans account for 9 percent of the population of Indiana. In a public auditorium, the American flag should be placed at the speaker’s right as he or she faces the audience. The westernmost town in the 48 continuous states is La Push, Wash. The first reliable measurement of the speed of light was made by the French physicist Armand Hippolyte. Middlebury College has a graduation rate of 94 percent. Denmark has 1,657 miles of rail track.
This is what I think about “The World Almanac”: I hope it never goes away.
And one more thing: Panama has 41 miles of rail track.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).
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