Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Guinness Book of Answers

This is how it all started. A fortnight ago Mary and I were walking around a car boot sale in Bridgend, and in a basket, under one of the sellers’ tables I noticed a book with the word – Answers- in big letters on the spine. Mildly curious I picked it up, and saw that it was a paperback copy of the 9th Edition of The Guinness Book of Answers. Having had the 1st, 4th and 10th editions in my library for the last few years I honestly had no intention of buying it, but the seller leapt in with “You can have that for fifty p. if you like.” Well, the fact is that my bargain detector has been finely trained by years of poverty ( cue violins playing in the background) and in almost pavlovian fashion I had the money out of my pocket before she had a chance to up the price.

Well, that started something. We were out again last week at a different boot sale, and this time I saw a copy of the 7th edition , from 1989. Once again, 50p changed hands, and the book joined the burgeoning collection.

I suppose that I’d better state in the interests of honesty, that “The Guinness Book of Answers” has never quite been an essential go-to book when I’ve been compiling quizzes. Which is not to say that I have no appreciation of it at all. I first encountered it back in about 1989, when I was really just a fledgeling quizzer. The first ever quiz team I played for – the Railway Club in Port Talbot - lost a quiz , mainly because we had bombed on a round of some of the more obscure US state capital cities. As I say, I was a bit of a novice in those days, and so I asked Noel, one of the stars of the team, where you could go to learn things like that. He pointed me in the direction of the Answers book. Now, back in those days it wasn’t unheard of for me to fritter away our precious 45 minutes of lunchtime on totally un-school related activities, and so a couple of days after the quiz I dug out the school’s library copy of the Answers book to look them all up, and I learned them. This was actually the 5th edition of the book which came out in about 1985, and it was still in its large, coffee table format, of similar dimensions to the Records book. The book remained in the school library for years, but there was a clear out some time ago, and it went before I even had a chance to offer to make a donation so that I could take it home. It’s a shame.

OK, lets fast forward to 1995. In the summer of 1995 I became a born again quizzer, after a couple of years of doing, frankly, not very much in the way of quizzes at all. After a stellar performance in a one-off charity quiz in Neath I was invited to join the Neath Workingmen’s Club team in the much missed Neath Quiz League. At pretty much the same time I was invited to join a team playing in the Aberavon Rugby Club on a Thursday night. Within a month I had set two of the quizzes for the club, and I’ve been playing and setting regularly ever since. I knew that if I was going to set anything approaching a decent quiz, then I’d best invest in a few books to get started with. Which is how I came to buy the 10th Edition of the Answers book. This was actually the last edition to bear the title “The Guinness Book Of Answers”. It’s the one with the turquoise dust jacket with Rodin’s Thinker on the cover. Back then I will admit that I found “The Pears Quiz Companion” far more to my liking, despite its inaccuracies. For one thing, all the hard work has been done for you with the Quiz Companion, since all the information is packaged to make it easier to slip into questions. But the Answers Book was always a useful source to fall back on, and especially a good source to use for verifying the answers to some of my more dodgy questions. For years it was one of a couple of books I always kept by my side when I was setting a quiz.

If we come right back to the present now, its been rather interesting comparing the different editions in the last few days, and you can see the way that the book continued to develop between them. Remember the long hot summer of 1976 ? Well, it was in this summer that the first edition came out. Like all of the first 6 editions of the book, this is in coffee table format, as I said. The general editor was Norris McWhirter, who contributed to all 10 editions. As it happens, the first edition doesn’t acknowledge any contributors as such. However it does name 15 associate editors, and 5 of these would still be contributors to the 10th Edition, namely Clive Carpenter, Robert Dearling, John Arbalaster , Alex Reid and John Marshall. The first edition weighs in at 255 pages, with 23 separate subject headings. This is quite a serious tome. There is hardly a centimetre of space wasted, use of colour is sparse, and compared to subsequent editions the use of pictures is minimal.

Coming forward 6 years, the next edition I have is the 4th edition. This one is far more similar to the 1st than the 7th. It’s a bit longer, at 270 pages, and has 26 separate subject headings, which is even more impressive when you consider that some separate headings in the first edition have been put together in one heading in this – for example Dance and Music are separate headings in the 1st, yet one combined heading in this. The 4th edition also covers Geology, Meteorology, Philosophy and Religion, which the Gradgrind-esque 1st edition doesn’t. The ways the information is presented , though, is not all that different from the first. Its still packed in, although pictures and diagrams are more in evidence in this edition. The outlines of countries , so useful in picture handouts, are absent from the 1st, but present in this edition, for example.

The last three editions, from the 7th in 1989 to the 10th in 1995 saw a change in size and format. All 3 are a similar size to Trevor Montague’s magnificent “A to Z of Almost Everything.” The seventh edition, has 596 pages. This compares with 800 pages in the 9th edition, and a few more than that in the 10th. All of which is not actually meant as a criticism of the 7th Edition. Comparing this one with the 9th edition just shows that they really did work on updating and improving the book, making it more comprehensive and more useful. For example, the 7th Edition names 17 contributors, and gives thanks to an additional 12. The 9th names 93 contributors. To be honest, there’s not that much difference between the 9th and 10th Editions – a different font, a slightly less crowded style, but basically the same , just updated a bit. However, the 7th edition lacks quite a lot that I’ve used the 10th Edition for. Let me give you a few examples – shipping forecast areas – patron saints – media. Not only that, but remarkably there is no separate section on History.

If we bring in the 10th Edition, this does have more information and detail in it than the 9th, even though the difference between the two is less obvious. For example, in this edition you have all the different alphabets, and a section on digital communications.

The Answers book had definitely become a worthy and useful work of reference for the quizzer and the quiz master, and I’ve wondered on several occasions why they never made another edition. I have a book called “ Getting Into Guinness” by an American journalist called Larry Olmstead. Its an amusing and entertaining account of his own forays into the world of record making and breaking, and particularly into the intricacies involved in getting into the Records book. In the book he explains how a new Managing Director was brought into Guinness Publishing in 1995. At this time the Records book was losing something like 5% of its sales each year. The new Managing Director instigated a radical reorganisation of the whole company, and a complete rethink over the design and direction of the Records book. From 1996 the Records book began to use many more colour photos, for example. Olmstead’s book doesn’t actually say that the Answers book was a casualty of the upheavals going on at this time, but I don’t think you have to be a genius to make the connection.

As a footnote, in 1997, two years after the 10th and final edition of the Answers book, Guinness Publishing brought out The Guinness Book of Knowledge. There are actually people who collect Guinness books, and in the course of researching this post I read on a couple of websites that the Knowledge book is very much looked on as the 11th Edition of the Answers book. I can actually understand why they say this. For one thing the section titles in the Knowledge book are either the same or similar to those of the 9th and 10th edition. Not only that, but the name of Clive Carpenter, who had contributed to all 10 editions of the Answers book, was listed as Consultant Editor. Just one other associate editor of the 1st edition is acknowledged – John Arbalaster. However I personally feel that the differences outweigh the similarities. You don’t have to look far within its pages to see that the book had taken the same direction as the Records book, with regards to redesign. To bring it in line with the redesign of the Records book, this one saw a return to coffe table format - albeit that it has almost twice as many pages as the first edition of the Answers book. Inside it looks gorgeous, full of colour and colour photos, and large, eye catching headings. Yet the whole thing feels somehow less authoritative than the answers book did. Maybe that’s because only 29 consultants are named – although to be fair many of these worthies did also contribute to successive editions of the Answers book. One other difference was that the name of Norris McWhirter is conspicuous by its absence . I’ll be honest, I’ve never really warmed to it at all.

Well, even if the Knowledge book really was the 11th edition of the Answers book, it really did prove to be the end of the road. From 1997 ownership of Guinness World Records – formerly Guinness publishing – was to pass through several hands. When Larry Olmstead wrote his book in 2008, the owners were now the same group who own Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, ironically one of Guinness World Records chief competitors.

Its been superceded as a quiz resource since, most notably by the afore mentioned “A to Z of Everything”. But I still have a soft spot for it, if for no other reason that its just full of . . . well, stuff, for want of a better word. And I’m a sucker for stuff.

No comments: