The most interesting things about literary classics we learnt from the new QI book
Here at Interesting Literature we’re fans of the BBC TV show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry and created by John Lloyd, the producer of such British comedy classics as Blackadder and Spitting Image. We’re lucky enough to count the makers of the programme among our Twitter friends, and they’ve even cited us as the source for some of the facts in one of their previous books (namely the fascinating fact-filled 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways). We also love the QI spirit: for those of you who don’t know the show, the idea is to look more closely at widely held beliefs (and ‘facts’) in order to discover how true they really are. A cornerstone of the QI ‘philosophy’ is the notion of debunking misconceptions, something that can be traced back at least as far as Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century natural philosopher, who is the subject of one of our earlier posts (and who, quite neatly, was the first person to use the word ‘misconception’). Like Snopes.com (named, by the way, after a family from William Faulkner‘s novels), the QI spirit entails examining and then, where necessary, correcting the ‘truths’ we hold so dear.
So it was exciting to learn that there is a new QI book out, and, even more thrillingly, that it was another book in their ‘General Ignorance’ series (where so-called ‘general knowledge’ is shown to be misguided or just plain wrong). QI: The Third Book of General Ignorance came out this month and contains a whopping 180 things which we thought we knew … but don’t really know at all, complete with further interesting details about the subjects being discussed – everything from the world’s largest river to where the Mayflower really landed in America in 1620.
We don’t usually do book reviews as such here at Interesting Literature, and this might be considered less a review (as in an appraisal of the various merits and demerits of the book in question) as an overview. But as we’re a literature site, we’re especially interested (but of course) in what the QI researchers, or ‘Elves’, have to say about commonly held notions concerning our favourite authors and literary characters. We won’t cover all of the authors, novels, plays, and characters which The Third QI Book of General Ignorance mentions as we don’t want to steal the thunder from the QI team (there’s a literary phrase for you), but we hope that what follows gives a flavour of the book’s contents. In fact, we’ll even distill our impressions down into our five favourite things we learnt from The Third QI Book of General Ignorance.
Tarzan never swung on vines in the jungle. We’ve offered some of our own interesting Tarzan facts here, as we find the prolific creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, a fascinating author and his creation has proved one of the most recognisable literary characters of the last hundred years. But we missed the point about the vines, which never
happens in any of Burroughs’ books. Instead, it was an invention of the cinema industry – the Tarzan films, of course, proving even more popular than the books. Vines would be a rather impractical way of moving around the jungle, since they grow up out of the ground, after all.
Cassell & Co, the British publishing house, was founded by the man after whom ‘gasoline’ is named. John Cassell (1817-65) began importing crude oil into Britain from Pennsylvania towards the end of his life, and named the product Cazeline after his own surname. This became ‘gasoline’, after a rival businessman began selling counterfeit Cazeline and the altered form of the name stuck. Cassell was the founder of the publisher Cassell & Co in 1848, a publishing house that is still going today.
Popeye originally ate spinach for Vitamin A, not iron. We knew that Popeye didn’t initially derive his strength from spinach in the comic strip – instead, this was provided by rubbing the head of the ‘Whiffle Hen’ – but we didn’t know that, in the early days of the Popeye cartoon strip, Popeye actually stated that he was eating spinach for its high amount of retinol, not its high iron content (which is, anyway, something of a myth: thyme has far more iron than spinach).
Rudyard Kipling was the first person to refer to prostitution as ‘the oldest profession’. In his 1888 story ‘On the City Wall’, the Jungle Book author calls prostitution ‘the most ancient profession in the world’. (It isn’t true that this is the oldest profession, as the QI Elves reveal in the book.)
Buckingham Palace was originally built for a politician and poet. Buckingham House started life in 1703 as the private residence for John Sheffield, First Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648=1721). This is mentioned more in passing in the QI book, but we were intrigued. Further research reveals that among the Duke’s other poetic achievements, he adapted William Shakespeare‘s Julius Caesar, splitting it into two plays, Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus. He was also a friend and patron of Alexander Pope.
As we like to correct widely held assumptions here, we know how galling it can be when it turns out that something we ourselves held to be true turns out to be false, or at least spurious. Everyone makes mistakes. The Third QI Book of General Ignorance occasionally gets it slightly wrong: the quotation attributed to Maya Angelou in the book’s introduction was probably never uttered by her (as another ‘QI’, Quote Investigator, has revealed), and the deerstalker was first associated with Sherlock Holmes thanks to Sidney Paget’s illustrations for the Strand stories in the 1890s, rather than the later stage adaptations. On a more annoyingly picky note, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary contained an entry for ‘deosculation’ (not ‘desoculation’), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once bowled out cricketer W. G. Grace rather than ‘W. C. Grace’ (Gracie Fields?). But these last two are surely typos. All this only highlights how thrilling and fascinating the business of misconception-correcting and myth-debunking really is: we are all ignorant, all still learning. At least the learning can be huge fun, and QI: The Third Book of General Ignorance is certainly that, like its two predecessors (called, as you may have guessed, QI: The Book of General Ignorance – The Noticeably Stouter Edition and QI: The Second Book of General Ignorance). As trilogies of trivia treasure-troves go, this one’s a pretty good way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.