Ben Schott is in New York City noticing things. This is pretty much how he makes his livingnoticing thingsexcept that he mostly does it in London, where he lives, and where he created a little book, Schott's Miscellany, which became an international best seller in 2003 and spawned Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany, which was published in the United States last month. Each of the books is a collection of perfectly unnecessary butonce you begin to consume them, like bags of salted peanutsabsolutely crucial bits of information on obscure subjects. Schott spent countless hours compiling material from arcane reference works, then designed each book to his own quirky specifications.
Given the erudite nature of these books, you might expect Schott to be wearing a patched-sleeve sweaterto be a librarian, perhaps, with reading glasses dangling from his neck. When he walks through the lobby of his hotel in Manhattan's SoHo, however, Schott turns out to be a 30-year-old who is impeccably dressed in a blue-gray hand-tailored suit. "I've tried to preserve the ephemeral," Schott says of his two books. Literally, each of the books is a long list. The Food & Drink Miscellany, for instance, includes a diagram of the traditional Amish family seating plan; McDonald's outposts around the world and some of their regional specialties (the mutton Maharaja Mac in India); English slang terms for drunkenness (has a guest in the attic, sozzled, tangle-footed). Figuratively, each is a collection of seemingly nonessential information that shows that life's grand vista comes from an arrangement of its smallest details.
Schott's humor is dry, to say the least, but it is not so much ironic as charmed. In their sly and slightly retro manner, his books seem to conclude that the world, in all its miscellaneousness, is amazing. "The original book is being printed in Germany, and the translation of the title there is Schott's Sammelsurium, which I think translates to 'collection of good things,' and I quite like that," he says.