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How we craft Quite Interesting facts
James "Turbo" Harkin - QI's Head Elf - let's us in on the mysterious art of fact crafting...
It is often said that the greatest leaders in history tend to be short. At QI we don’t think that is wholly true. Queen Victoria may have been only 4’ 7”, but Peter the Great was 6’7”, Barack Obama is 6’1”, and even Napoleon, the archetypal ‘petit corporal’, although only 5 foot 6 (and a half) inches, was actually more than an inch taller than the average Frenchman at the time. While we don’t think it’s correct that great rulers come in small packages, we’re certain that the greatest facts do.
There are more than a dozen facts in our new book, 1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop that have five words or fewer; for instance: ‘Hitler bit his nails’, ‘Prozac makes fish angry’, ‘Woodchucks can’t chuck-up’, ‘Saudi Arabia imports sand’ and ‘Johnny Depp collects Barbie dolls’. These facts are the epitome of what we try to do at QI; our business is that of picking the most familiar of subjects and then explaining, in the simplest terms, what is extraordinary about them.
To unearth and collate these facts is a hugely time-consuming job: the index of our new book has just two entries for Scotland, but the QI office has at least seven hefty books on the country. When you take the number of books that we devour each year alongside the hundreds of magazines we read, and, of course, the various reports and articles that we find on the Internet, we end up ploughing through thousands of words for every fact. You could compare the formation of a QI fact with the creation of a Stradivarius or a Chippendale (the item of furniture, not the stripper): we begin with large, formless blocks, but after gradually whittling away and removing layer after layer, we are left with beautifully sculpted objects (actually, the analogy works with strippers too).
After all of the reading, whittling and stripping by our dedicated team of researchers, we find ourselves with a large collection of short but perfectly formed facts, with a little something on virtually any subject that you could think of; the index of our new book goes, rather pleasingly, from *N Sync to ZZ Top. In fact, the QI Elves occasionally exploit the wide range of facts that we have collected over the years in a Twitter game: we ask the followers of @qikipedia to send us a word, and we will then give them a fact about that subject; it’s a very rare occasion to find ourselves totally stumped.
An unsorted pile of facts can be unwieldy and difficult to read, but what we think sets 1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop and its predecessor, 1,227 QI Facts to Blow Your Socks Off, apart from other fact books is the way that we display our wares.
On every page we try to take the reader on a short journey. Take page 173 of 1,339: the reader is first informed that a pipistrelle bat weighs the same as a 2 pence piece; then that the metal in a 2 pence piece is currently worth 3 pence; next we hear about a Georgian woman who cut Armenia off from the Internet when trying to steal copper cables; and finally that the King of Bhutan gave his country Internet access in 1999 to celebrate his Silver Jubilee. At their very best, the pages read like koans, or haikus, telling you more as a group than the four facts ever could do on their own. Just as Debussy thought that music was the space between the notes, we think that a lot of the pleasure to be had from this book is from the spaces between the facts.
There will be a lot of moments in the reading of 1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop that you will doubt us. Can it really be true that Pope Benedict drank five times his own body weight in Fanta each year? And does Heinz really pass each baked bean that it sells through a laser beam? We actively encourage scepticism, and that’s why we have provided a list of sources online. Simply head over to www.qi.com/1339, where you’ll be able to find links verifying each and every fact in the book, and much more information besides. Maybe while checking these sources you’ll find some jaw-dropping facts of your own that you just can’t keep to yourself. If so, feel free to enlighten us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crafting Quite Interesting facts may be time-consuming but it is an addictive and extremely gratifying process, and there really is only one rule, a rule that Auguste Escoffier managed to squeeze into just five words: ‘Above all, keep it simple.’
James Harkin, for Waterstones.com/blog
Pre-order 1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop for £9.99