In which a goofy trivia book leads to serious discussion topics

Well it has been a little while since I checked in here. Both the holidays and the flu intervened with my best-laid plans. You’d think by now my family (kids aged 8, 12, 15) would be able to do stuff without me constantly directing traffic <eyeroll>, but it turns out the older they get the more I am needed.

Anyway, while I was sick my husband made one of his massive trips to the library. My dear hubby has (undiagnosed) ADD which means, among other things, that he is quite an impulse shopper. I dread his trips to the grocery store because he always goes over budget and, what’s worse, comes home with all kinds of strange crap that we will never eat. Like powdered gravy mixes. Or weird tropical fruits. However, for the same reason I love it when he goes to the library because he always comes home loaded down with all kinds of strange books that I will happily consume. Books that — like powdered gravy mix — shouldn’t even exist. Ha ha, maybe I should do Library Loot posts about his hauls.

Anyway, one of the books he came home with was this unauthorized book about the New York Times bestseller lists, published in 1994 and now, not surprisingly, out of print. So no indiebound link for this one, alas. However, if your library has it, you can find out fascinating facts like what author had the shortest name (Amy Tan — only six letters total!), or that the only authors with the name Smith were Betty (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Lillian (Strange Fruit), and they were consecutive #1s in 1944.

When I first flipped open the book I landed on page 154 and learned something that I actually do find fascinating. Are you old enough to remember the book Gnomes? I was in junior high when that book came out and ohhhhhhhh did I love it. Like all the other pre-teen girls I pored over that book, admiring the charming illustrations and straight-faced encyclopedia-style presentation. I didn’t really believe it, but it was so close to believable that it made my heart ache a little.

Anyway, page 154 of this goofy trivia book has something very interesting to say about Gnomes, which hit #1 in December of 1979. It turns out Gnomes didn’t just hit the #1 spot — it hit the #1 spot for nonfiction. That’s right, I said NONFICTION. The book explains:

As Ian Ballantine tells the story, when Gnomes made the list, the Times called him up to ask if it was fiction or nonfiction. He thought they were putting him on, so he said, “If it’s all true, then of course it’s nonfiction. And if it isn’t true, then it’s satire, which is also nonfiction.” The Times agreed, and Gnomes is officially nonfiction.

Is that not absolutely priceless?

So I have two discussion questions.

1. Is it true that satire is considered nonfiction? Should it be?

2. Should reference works about fictional topics be considered nonfiction?

What do you think?

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Thomas Berger: Adventures of the Artificial Woman

Fed up with “real” women, a guy builds himself a perfect robot wife who makes it big in show biz and ends up being elected President of the United States.

Eh? Not the kind of hook that would normally pique my interest, but after all it is by Thomas Berger. I went through a Thomas Berger phase about twenty years ago. He is quite prolific, and I remember being impressed with his incredible versatility: he has taken on everything from westerns (Little Big Man) to detective stories (Who is Teddy Villanova?) to King Arthur (Arthur Rex), and much in between.

Adventures of the Artificial Woman is a satire, of course. (With a plot line like this one, what else could it be?) The robot, Phyllis, is a bit like Mr. Spock. She has no emotion and no sense of humor, but relies solely on logic to understand the world around her. Thus she is the perfect vehicle for taking potshots at everything from marriage and sexuality to politics and the entertainment industry. For example, on the topic of vice presidents, Phyllis observes:

“I’ve researched the subject. Running mates are normally lifelong members of a party, notable for their loyalty to it. Though they may have been, up to that point, of the faction that earlier opposed the person now nominated for the big job, they are expected henceforth to join hands in partisan unity against the enemy, uncompainingly assuming the Presidential candidate’s exact position on every issue, especially those that were most fiercely debated during the nominating process by these two very individuals. The reward for the resulting hypocrisy is that the ticket-partner of a victorious President generally has an inside track for his own future bid for the White House.”

“Where does that leave our problem, Phyl?”

“We have no party, and thus far I have not expressed an opinion on any issue, so these matters need not be taken into the equation. We can promise a potential vice-presidential candidate that he will have a great opportunity to run on his own eight years from now.”

This is a pretty typical passage. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever and a bit snarky. If you’re looking to escape into a cozy story with finely-drawn sympathetic characters, this isn’t it. Satire needs to be read in a certain way (I am realizing as I write this). You have to distance yourself from the story in order to appreciate it. You can’t get wrapped up in it the way you can with other genres. Or can you? What do you think?