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Book Review : Just the Start of Things--to Little End

October 06, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Charles Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (Harper & Row: $19.95, hardcover; $9.95, paperback; 480 pages)

What does a reader expect from a book? There are, no doubt, as many answers as there are readers and books. But in the category of serious nonfiction, say, a book might provide facts or it might provide ideas--i.e., an interesting and novel synthesis of facts.

Rarely are the two poles completely independent, which, if nothing else, is what makes Charles Panati's "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things" noteworthy. It is 480 pages of fact piled upon fact without any synthesis whatsoever.

Perhaps there are people who enjoy reading the encyclopedia--not looking something up, but just sitting down and opening one of the volumes at random and reading an article about something or other.

Thus some people might enjoy Panati's effort, which consists of an endless number of short articles on the origins of things, from silverware to roller skates, and assembled into a book.

Just a Lot of Stuff

For this is a book in form only. It is bound between two covers, which certainly makes it look like a book, but there is nothing that holds it together but the glue in the binding. There is no argument, no thesis, no insight put forward here. It is just a collection of a lot of stuff, ably amassed and ably written but having no more significance than a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Panati, who used to be a science writer at Newsweek, seems to be making a career of writing such pseudo-books. In 1984 he published "Browser's Book of Beginnings," a similar compilation of newsmagazine-length articles bound together without rhyme or reason.

Perhaps I am too harsh. Panati is a good explainer and has an easy style, and a book that "merely" provides information should not be dismissed out of hand. Information is important in its own right, and the conveyance of information is a great practical benefit of the written word.

First 'Happy Birthday'

But a reader who invests the time to read a 480-page book should be rewarded with more than a lot of facts. When the reader finishes, his reaction should be something more than "So what?"

If, on the other hand, this sounds like your cup of tea, be advised that Panati is very good at it. Do you want to know how "Happy Birthday to You" got to be written? You'll find it here. Does it astound you that "Father's Day is the fifth-largest card-selling occasion" in the United States or that Americans "strike more than 500 billion matches a year, about 200 billion of them from matchbooks"? If so, you might like this book.

As for me, I'm prepared to stipulate that odd facts abound, that everything started somewhere and frequently took a circuitous route to its present incarnation, that uses and meanings and attitudes change over centuries and that not everything is as it seems. (These last two points are syntheses that I have added. I have no idea whether Panati intended readers to draw those conclusions--or any conclusions, for that matter.)

I prefer to learn something more from a book than a lot of useless facts, though they may be entertaining. I suppose it's worthwhile knowing that antacids have been in use since 3500 BC, but it's the kind of thing I'm not going to remember very long. I'd rather read an author who has massaged his material, not just compiled it.

On another day or in another week I might have been in a more receptive mood for this sort of thing. Ah, the vagaries of book reviews. The same book might strike a reviewer differently at different times.

But right now I want something more substantial than Panati has brought forth.

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