Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Most Boring Book Ever Written


William James Sidis (1898-1944) was an enigmatic character and a child prodigy. He spoke his first word ("door") at six months and was reading the New York Times at 18 months. He mastered numerous languages and even created his own language, called Vendergood. At age 9, he lectured the Harvard math club about the fourth dimension and entered Harvard as a student at age 11. Although his IQ was never formally tested, it has been estimated it was in the range of 250-300. His father Boris, a psychologist, and his mother Sarah, who graduated from medical school but never practiced, claimed their child-rearing methods were responsible for their son's genius. Despite his early promise, after an abortive attempt at teaching math at Rice in Houston, William James Sidis avoided academia as an adult. His preferred job was operating a comptometer, a calculating machine at which he was quite adept, but which did not require significant mental exertion on his part. He refused to take a job with any potential for promotion, and lived alone in a modest furnished apartment in Boston. His story is fascinating, and I would refer the interested reader to the biography, The Prodigy, by Amy Wallace.

Sidis received a lot of negative press for his eccentricity and perceived lack of success in life. He did, however, write extensively, usually under pseudonyms, on a variety of topics, including cosmology, history, and language. Only two of his book-length manuscripts were published. The first, The Animate and the Inanimate, which was published with the author's real name, predicted the presence of black holes. The second book, Notes on the Collection of Transfers, is a 300-page tome about peridromophilia, Sidis' peculiar hobby of collecting street car transfers. Sidis used the nom de plume Frank Falupa when he wrote the book. In The Prodigy, Amy Wallace states, "This book is arguably the most boring book ever written." In it, Sidis describes in excructiating detail the principles behind transfers, their physical appearance, and even how to collect discarded transfers off the street. For instance, if the paper transfer is frozen in ice, it is better to chip out the ticket and surrounding ice and take it home to thaw out, rather than to risk damage by trying to peel the paper off the ice on site.

And so forth.

Wallace mentions a few other contenders for the honor of most boring book. Nothing, by Methela, consisted of 200 blank pages. The Feminin Monarchi, written by Charles Butler in 1634, was a history of bees in phonetic spelling.

And so forth.

Now, there is a book--a book that has already been hailed as having the the oddest title of the last thirty years--with soporific potential which may approach that of Notes on the Collection of Transfers. As The Guardian reported on September 5, 2008:

The people have spoken and the oddest book title of the past 30 years has been selected: Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers. The impenetrable-sounding book, a comprehensive record of Greece's postal routes, is published by the Greek Hellenic Philatelic Society of Great Britain, which "exists to encourage the collection of Greek stamps and to promote their study".

In previous posts, I have mentioned the Diagram Prize, awarded annually by Bookseller magazine for the oddest book title of the year. This year, Bookseller awarded the Diagram of Diagrams to the book with the oddest title of the last 30 years. While the cover of Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers looks equally as boring as the cover of Notes on the Collection of Transfers, I'm not sure the scant 72 pages of text of the newer book can seriously challenge the 300 pages of Sidis' work. If any readers of this blog have access to these books and the stamina to slog through both, please report back.

Click on this link to see a gallery of some of the past annual Diagram winners which were considered for the Diagram of Diagrams Prize.

2 comments:

sledpress said...

Woah! I haven't seem W. J. Sidis mentioned since I read Samuel Rosenberg's Confessions of a Trivialist.. Which is not a boring book at all. I even remembered the bit about how to pick up transfers safely...

Bizarre News said...

What are the basics of Vendergood, the language invented by William James Sidis?
Where i can find this book?

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