Why Things Are and Why Things Aren’t, by Joel Achenbach

Why Things Are & Why Things Aren't

I picked up Why Things Are & Why Things Aren’t in large part because of the author. I had read Joel Achenbach’s Captured By Aliens (which was written after this book, so I’m reading them out of order), and having enjoyed it very much I wanted to try more by the same author.

Compared to Captured By Aliens, I found this book to be a mild disappointment. I was impressed by Achenbach’s intelligence, insightful commentary, and entertaining writing style in Captured By Aliens. Why Things Are & Why Things Aren’t just never captured me to the same degree.

I don’t think it’s a matter of Achenbach having become a significantly better writer over the course of the years between when these books came out (about seven years, I gather). I assume it stems more from the genres and subject matters of the books. The type of book this is and the topics it covers have some appeal for me, but less so than Captured By Aliens, (which was an intriguing examination of the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, both in science and on the lunatic fringe).

Why Things Are & Why Things Aren’t is a trivia book, though not so much for interesting facts in general as for specifically explanations. It stems from a regular column in the Washington Post answering reader questions. The pieces have been reworked and rewritten for the book. (Which I appreciate, by the way. I don’t like when someone creates a book out of preexisting material—especially material from other formats, like blogs or newspaper columns—and does virtually no editing. A different format and a different audience should mean a different presentation, and it’s lazy to avoid making those necessary changes.) In fact, there was at least one previous such book made out of earlier columns, so this is one of a series.

The book, or really books, this puts me by far the most in mind of are the Imponderables books by David Feldman. I like those Imponderables books to some degree, but really just barely enough to have kept reading further books in the series. Why Things Are & Why Things Aren’t I’d say is about the same, or maybe marginally more to my liking.

The humor is close in style and quality to Feldman’s in the Imponderables books, again at most marginally sharper. But I would have expected better, based on my previous reading of Achenbach, something “hipper,” something more like Randall Munroe in What If?

I’ll make the same point about this book as I have made about the Imponderables series and trivia books in general: while I’m reading it it’s the kind of material that holds my interest as well or better than the average book I read, but I retain almost none of it.

If it were information I used in some way, or if it were something I looked up because I already was wondering about it and wanted to find out something specific, then there’s a good chance I would retain it. But when information is just kind of random facts like this, it’s like my brain doesn’t know where to store it.

There are a small number of the questions that I already knew the answers to, or at least had a pretty good idea, though the book’s answers don’t always jibe perfectly with mine in those cases.

Like the question of why in the airplane instructions they always tell you as an adult to put your own oxygen mask on before helping your kids with theirs. I never thought of that as some kind of mystery, as it seemed obvious to me it was because you may only have time to do one mask before being overcome, so you’d want to do your own and in that way remain functional to do others. If instead you do some little kid’s first, and then you lose consciousness, it’s highly unlikely the kid is going to be able to help you.

It’s the person that’s capable of helping others while functional that needs to remain functional.

Achenbach offers that as one possibility among multiple, though he does seem to favor it as the most likely.

Or the question about why Napoleon always seems to have his hand tucked inside his vest or jacket. My understanding from something I read a long time ago is that it’s just kind of a historical accident that that pose is associated with Napoleon in the popular mind, that really it was a conventional way to pose for portraits in general back then for statesmen and military figures and the like.

Achenbach offers several theories—of varying but mostly not high levels of plausibility, in my opinion—but not that one.

Anyway, Why Things Are & Why Things Aren’t is kind of a fun book, a moderately interesting read as trivia books go, but nothing special.

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