Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia


How David Wallechinsky created listicles and redefined the trivia environment


I don't like articles that begin with authors interjecting themselves into their own stories, but the two early pillars in my trivia library, in the days long before the internet, were Fred L Worth's trivia encyclopedia, and the various editions of the People's Almanacs and Book of List series.

I found the People's Almanac, somehow, in the library of my Catholic grade school and pored over the entries. It all seemed so … transgressive … as though there were a whole other world secretly buried under what I saw on four TV channels and heard in class.

I've now had the honor of talking to both Worth and to David Wallechinsky, the guiding force behind the People's Almanac, along with his father, novelist Irving Wallace.

Revolutionizing the almanac

At the time, Wallechinsky was just beginning his writing career, having already written books on organic gardening and the history of laughing gas. His father was known for crowd-pleasing best-sellers, but despite this Wallace was a man of considerable intellectual heft, who did massive amounts of research for his books.

"Before he became a famous novelist, he published 300 magazine articles and several books of non-fiction," recalls Wallechinsky. "One of them was about the real people who inspired famous fictional characters. He always did a lot of research. So he was always interested in everything."

For Wallechinsky, bringing his father on to help with such a massive project made perfect sense. The People's Almanac itself began with Wallechinsky's frustrations with standard reference works.

"I loved almanacs as a boy even though they were just mostly statistics," he says. "I read there were some sort of colonial war going on in Mozambique and Angola. So I looked it up in the almanac but it didn’t say anything about what was really going on. So I got the idea, 'What if you could have an almanac that dug a little deeper, told different stories?'"

The end product, published in 1975, was an unapologetically progressive take on the world, one unafraid to poke and pick at icons and sacred cows. Rather than simply list the capital of Mozambique, for example, the books looked behind the scenes, comparing the difference between "who rules" (officially) and "who really rules" (unofficially, and in fact).

The interest in the difference between who rules and who really rules still interests Wallechinsky today. His site, allgov.com, grew out of an article he was doing for Parade on where our tax money goes, that turned into a piece on the ten most ridiculously wasteful government projects. "But it's not just right or left or Democrat or Republican," he says. "The way government policies are being sold on television is just a small part of what was really going on."

The rise of the listicle and the world before Google

As for the People's Almanac, it sold well enough to merit to two sequels, and one of the most popular features of the almanacs, a chapter full of lists, was spun off into a separate series of books, called The Book of Lists.

It was here, oddly, that the authors encountered their first taste of controversy, thanks to a list of the seven most popular sexual positions, which led to the book being banned in many school libraries, as well as in Saudi Arabia.

One of the overlooked elements of the Book of Lists, though, is what a prodigious feat of research it was, especially in the days before Google.

"We did a lot of going to libraries to photocopy things," Wallechinsky recalls. "With the quirkier things like 'people who died having sex' or '17 historical events that happen in the bathtub' we would just start files. You start a file folder and every time you come across something in a book on newspaper or somewhere, you photocopy it pop it in the file and then if you got enough of them maybe there would be enough for a list."

Eventually, there was enough money for staff, who would be sent to the UCLA library on particular trivia errands. "We would say, 'Here are 25 things to be looking for. Run through biographies and see if you can find anything.' Then they would photocopy these pages and that would go into 30 different file folders."

Sometimes, researchers could multi-task. Go to the back of biographies, find out how people die and see if there are patterns you can turn into lists. This is how the list of people who died in bathtubs came about.

Of course, in the years since, list-based journalism has become the bane of considered thought. Wallechinsky sympathizes. "You put a number at the beginning of a headline and it gets read more. I don't hold it against people. It's an easy way to grasp the overwhelming amount of knowledge. I know it's irritating to a lot of journalists. But I don't like lists where you have to click for number one, then number two. That's just click bait."

Shortly after the Book of Lists got people talking about facts, Trivial Pursuit came out and made a fortune on facts. I couldn't help notice the timing. People asked about it all the time. I saw the millions of dollars these guys were making but we did books."

Avril Lavigne: dictator and sports trivia

Even after the People's Almanacs and the Book of List series ran out of steam, Wallechinsky kept up his interest in the odd and the unusual, and in looking at the weird and wonderful from the left-hand side of the political spectrum. For example, for years he did an annual piece in Parade on the world's top 10 dictators.

This was at the time when George W Bush was mustering public support for the invasion of Iraq. "I knew there were a lot worse dictators than Saddam but I think the piece made Parade squeamish because they put Avril Lavigne on the cover. But that was one of things that made the article popular because Jon Stewart talked about it and asked, 'Now, let's see which of the dictators they put on the cover,' and he held up the picture of Lavigne, so from that point on it was the cover story every year."

He has also been active in the International Society of Olympic Historians, which he helped found. He has been interested in the Olympics ever since his father took him to the Rome Olympics in 1960.

"When the Olympics were in Los Angeles I thought I'd really like to read a book that has all the stats and all the best stories but it didn’t exist, so I just wrote the book."

July 2015