Online Edition: Summer 2006

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The Weekend Book by Francis Meynell

The Week-End Book

edited by Francis Meynell

Duckworth/Overlook Press ($23.50)

by Amanda Nadelberg

There is something both comforting and strange about old things coming back into fashion—comforting because it’s usually nice to see it again, strange because Someone Has Decided It Should Be So. And it happens with everything: fashion and appliances and it’s always happening with books—and thank the gods because there are so many books worth bringing back into print. One such lovely example is The Week-End Book, a miscellany of anything you might ever like to know.

The publication history of The Week-End Book is more of a narrative than anything revealed within the book itself. An instant success when it first appeared in England in 1924 (it sold out in a mere few days), the book was reprinted and revised continuously up until 1955, at which point it began a 51 year nap. As recounted by John Julius Norwich in this edition’s introduction, Francis and Vera Meynell, the founders of the Nonesuch Press, imagined “How wonderful [it would be] if they could pack just one book that would cater for all their needs” while vacationing—and this is how they thought to make the book. During those years, there were 34 printings, and when necessary the editors allowed the book to grow with new information, such that in 1955 it was, and still is today, a good 363 pages of things to know and say in decent conversation.

The loveliest part, and the part that makes this book infectious, is the juxtaposition of all this information. In case you go for a picnic, please remember, “For sandwiches themselves, bread is easier to cut and digest if it is a day old—much nicer if it is new. If rolls are preferred they must be fresh, or they can be crisped by sprinkling them with water and heating them for a few minutes on a backing sheet in a very hot oven.” How nice, then, also to be informed, that “When temperatures above five thousand million degrees arise, stars explode with unprecedented violence—the explosion of one star being equivalent to the simultaneous explosion of some 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 hydrogen bombs. . . . They are called supernovae.” In the chapter on games there are such suggestions as, “Kneel down putting elbows to knees and palms flat on floor. Place pencil at finger-tips. Then clasp hands behind back and pick up pencil with teeth.” In the section on first aid, one will find lessons on how to stop a nose bleed—“When the Nose bleeds do not bow the head over a basin, or you will very soon need another”—and the recommended course of action for when there are Foreign Bodies In the Nose—“To eject a foreign body from the nose stimulate sneezing with pepper or a paper spill.” For emergencies in drinking, there are directions on how to improvise a cup: “A cup of convenient size may be made of a piece of paper 7 to 9 inches square (or smaller with less convenience).” If you find yourself in the country there is good information on animals: “A female pig is called a gilt or hilt or yilt until she has had her first litter (i.e. farrowed); thereafter she is a sow. . . .  A sow suckling her piglets (which arrange themselves neatly in two layers) is a pleasing sight. . . . Sows are in general gentle creatures. They like to be talked to.” Too, there are tips for cooking: “DON’T eat boiled rhubarb leaves. This practice caused a large number of deaths during the war.” And that these editors found an expert to write the musical scores of more than fifteen birds’ songs and calls, including those of the chiff-chaff, the spotted flycatcher and the willow warbler, is not to be overlooked. What, you wonder, might you call birds in their communities? Perhaps “A murmuration of starlings,” “A covert of coots” or “A dopping of sheldrakes.” So glad you asked.

This plethora of factoids distances itself from other books, such as the recent and ever popular Schott’s Original  Miscellany, because of the gorgeous prose that disguises the lists and potential frivolity of The Week-End Book. In this way, the book demands to be read, not merely quoted at uncomfortable social gatherings. Its little entries allow for quick bursts of learning, similar to the practice of reading poems as opposed to stories. And all the more fitting, because this book is freckled with poetry: at the beginning of each section, and with several sections of its own—Great Poems, Late Poems, Hate Poems, State Poems, and The Zoo. In adhering to the book’s perfect spirit, the poems included are not the most popular poems of Sir Walter Scott, John Donne, and Robert Browning, but that only makes the reader more appreciative. I could go on and on—there is much here to be enamored of, like the checkerboard tucked into the front cover. Did I mention there’s a checkerboard? If you are a dullard enough not to enjoy anything in this necessary tome, then at the very least get it for that. (Checkers not included.)

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