The news in October, 2015 that Stephen Fry was to step down as host of the BBC panel show QI created a minor furore among a very specific set of viewers. Further word that he was to be replaced by the regular QI guest and former host of The News Quiz, Sandi Toksvig, was reassuring: QI would be in good hands.
Eight years before, when The Book of General Ignorance was published, QI had no outlet in America, and the only way to find it was through various online channels. I don’t recall how I first learned of QI, but by the time I had purchase the first three series on DVD (thanks to a region-free DVD player, UK Region 2 presents no worries at home), I was hooked. When I quite literally stumbled across an American edition of a book based on the series in 2007, a series which had never appeared on American screens, I was a bit surprised. Repeating the trick in 2010 with The Second Book of General Ignorance was surprising once more. A third book was released by Faber & Faber in the UK in October, 2015.
The Book of General Ignorance is the American publication of a continuation in printed form of the witty and often irritatingly sneaky BBC panel-show-for-clever-clogs, QI (“quite interesting”). Hosted from 2003’s “A” through 2015’s “M” series with considerable aplomb by the seemingly omnipresent Stephen Fry, QI is known as an impossibly unfair panel game: Fry’s questions are often misleading, there are regular traps for the players, the scoring is diabolical, and sometimes the producers trip up contestants by using their own answers from previous series against them (think Dara O’Brian and the “triple point of water” answer, or Alan Davies and the blue whale). QI manages for the most part to avoid descending into autodidacticism, and settles for just showing up the occasional British celebrity who knows something interesting or unexpected (I say British, but I can think of three Americans, two Australians, one Canadian and one German who have also taken part). It is a programme which has made limited in-roads in the American market, although some series have finally appeared on BBC America, and certain series are available either on Acorn TV’s streaming service or on Hulu (neither of which show the XL versions). Most of the time, YouTube actually proves the best way to view episodes, although the postings tend to be subject to takedown notices.
All that being said, the books could have been disappointing: QI has relied on the considerable and avuncular charm of Mr Fry, and the wit of some – but not all – of the guest “celebrities,” some of whom appear to be on the show not because they might know something, but because they quite clearly do not. Take Fry’s sometimes quite comically savage dressings down of the show’s resident jester and windmill fancier, Alan Davies, as an example: I can never quite decide if Davies is quite as foolish as he makes out (and I assume that he isn’t). Without these dynamics, though, the book could well have fallen flat, but for the most part, The Book of General Ignorance (after the round in the game of the same name) avoids the trap, and just presents some of the segment’s top hits in written form. It’s trivia, yes, but trivia of the sort that might have you saying, six months later, “How did I know that? Heard it on QI, I think.”
Having succeeded a first time, Lloyd and Mitchinson returned in 2010 with The Second Book of General Ignorance. What is interesting – but perhaps not “quite” interesting – in the second volume is that a number of snippets have been included, featuring dialogue from the show. If you’re reading the book, or this review, then you can already summon the voices of David Mitchell, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, or Rob Brydon to mind on command, but it was an odd choice, again, for a companion book to a show that had never been broadcast in the US. I’ve never seen a copy of these in their UK editions, though, so I assume that the book simply wasn’t revised at all from it’s UK printing, and included the same blocks of dialogue. I’m not sure what the pulled quotes add to the book overall, but I’m willing to let it slide.
The books do tone down the show’s inherent level of smut, which can sometimes be extraordinarily high, particularly with the right combination of guests. It’s not a bad thing, per se, as a little naughtiness can keep the punters interested, and QI is by far one of the most informative shows around, outside of proper documentaries and the like. But be warned, if you’re watching for the first time: the further you go into the series, the more likely it is that you may experience a moment of lightheadedness, especially if you are of a delicate constitution.
John Lloyd has been in the British comedy establishment for a long time, and was also partly responsible for a book published with the late Douglas Adams called The Meaning of Liff, a sort of made-up dictionary. As such, Lloyd’s comedic credentials are sound. Co-writer John Mitchinson comes to QI from the world of publishing, and the polish of the book shows that clearly. Both Books of General Ignorance are funny, just as the show is, and while reading it you may grudgingly feel that you are learning something, whether you like it or not.
My biggest complaint, for which I remove a half-star, is a lack of adequate sourcing for the information as given in either book. I know full well that in the internet age it is possible to quite easily look things up myself, but I’m more interested in the sources that the QI Elves themselves have used. Much of this is probably available on the QI website, but to be frank, if I’ve gone to the effort and expense of buying a book, I’d really like to see it there. In an age of open, but unfettered, information, sourcing is everything. Well, almost. So next time, chaps and chapesses, tell us where you read it, won’t you? Four-and-a-half stars. Worth reading (and viewing, if you can find it in your market).
Originally reviewed 18 September 2012.
Find a copy of The Book of General Ignorance on AbeBooks.com (the link takes you to the title).
Find a copy of The Second Book of General Ignorance on AbeBooks.com (directly linked again).