Book of the year. Matthew Engel gives a wary welcome to the newest member of the almanack club

Schott's Almanac 2006

Ben Schott <em>Bloomsbury, 352pp, £15</em>

ISBN 0747583072

Those of us in the almanack business tend to get rather sniffy about upstarts. Old Moore claims to date back to 1697. So it can look down, as British publications do, on its American cousins - Old Farmer's Almanac (1792) and the rival Farmers' Almanac (founded 1818, in what appears to be an early case of passing-off). The Almanach de Gotha ("the reigning and formerly reigning princely and ducal houses of Europe") goes back to 1763, looking down on parvenu humans as well as books, though there was an unfortunate 43-year hiatus after 1945, when Soviet troops destroyed the Gotha factory and archives. All these are entitled to snort with contempt at the little jeu d'esprit I myself currently edit, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack (1864), and also Whitaker's Almanack (1868).

Despite - or maybe because of - this antiquity, no one can actually agree how to spell almanack: this is not a straight disagreement between one side of the Atlantic and the other, though the Americans are particularly inclined to drop the "k". The gauleiters in the spelling department at Microsoft (irritatingly backed up by my edition of the Shorter Oxford) are now imposing their will, and so British newspapers omit Wisden's "k" at least half the time.

Furthermore, no one is entirely sure what an almanack is. The Shorter Oxford allows it to be only "an annual table, or book of tables, containing a calendar of months and days . . . "; Chambers is more relaxed and says it can be "an annual publication containing a variety of factual information". Most do still have tables, giving future dates of Easter, tide tables and the phases of the moon. The Americans like to concentrate on country lore and weather predictions. Old Moore predicts everything from terrorist attacks to Derby winners, in the vague manner of all shrewd forecasters. Whitaker's has a splendidly uncompromising belief in the beauty of unadorned hard-bound facts, with only the most delicate hint of anything that could be construed as editorial comment. Wisden, on the other hand, is full of opinions - expressed stylishly, we like to think, but not always softly.

So we look on a newcomer warily, without being unwelcoming. We have seen them come and go before now, of course. There was that Benjamin Franklin, who started Poor Richard's Almanack in the American colonies in 1732, stuffing it not merely with astronomical information but also his own aphorisms. It did brilliantly for a time, but had to stop when the colonists sent Franklin to London to mouth their discontents in 1757.

And now Bloomsbury, being a great believer in at least one of Franklin's dicta ("Drive thy Business, or it will drive thee"), has thrown another Ben into the ring: this time Ben Schott, who has caught the mood of the Christmas trade several times in recent years with books of miscellaneous facts.

Schott is a gifted trivialist with the most indispensable attribute for producing a successful almanack, or even almanac: he pretends to immerse himself in the past while having a shrewd idea of what the market will bear. This is taken to extremes on the back of this volume's dust jacket, which shows an astrometer, a device used to chart "the apparent relative magnitude of the stars". In this case the "stars" depicted are figures such as Benedict XVI, Asafa Powell, Brian Harvey and Saddam Hussein, some of whom I have heard of.

It continues this theme inside. The book is laid out with a certain timeless ele- gance, in a manner somewhere between Old Moore and the Wall Street Journal, and has XIII Roman-numeralled chapters, covering such un-Roman-numeral subjects as "Media and Celebrity", "Sci, Tech, Net" and one self-consciously called "Ephemerides". This is the bit that includes the calendar, done in Schottish fashion: 28 February - "Shrove Tuesday. Hind stalking season closes." Alas, there is no accompanying tide table. You need Whitaker's to discover that high water at London Bridge will be at 0143 and 1414.

There are hundreds of lists here, from the Abel Prize (for maths) to "Google Zeitgeist", the top searches for each month. However, a good many of these lists begin with the word "some": "Some radio stations of note", "Some websites of the year", "Some health scares of note".

Some! Some! What is this word? It may be good enough for dictionaries ("some words beginning with Z"). But we almanack types generally prefer comprehensiveness: Whitaker's does not list "some parliamentary constituencies"; Gotha does not list "some royalty"; Wisden does not carry "some cricket scores over 300". The beauty of a list is surely the fullness thereof.

Schott has fun, for instance, listing "political nicknames of note", but this is a ragbag section including some modern British politicians, some dead ones, a few Americans, and a couple of forgotten British ones: Sir Dudley Pound, Chur-chill's first sea lord ("Phoney Quid") and Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (aka Bullying-Manner), but not his even more elegantly named contemporary, the right-wing Labour MP Sir Hartley Shawcross (aka Sir Shortly Floorcross).

There is an explanation in the preface: "Schott's Almanac reflects the age in which it has been written: an age where information is plentiful, but selection and analysis are more elusive." Oh, aye. Well, one has to admit it's a fantastic bog read.

We learn that Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan are the world's only double-landlocked countries (in other words, they are landlocked, and so are all their neighbours); that Norway is "the ideal country for the idle" (Norwegians work 1,337 hours a year, according to OECD figures, while South Koreans work 2,390); that the aforesaid Brian Harvey was the first person to leave I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! in 2004; that the 75th anniversary, like the 60th, is a diamond wedding.

This is all fascinating stuff. It is to me, anyway. Schott's book is a wonderful achievement, and is evidently aiming at continuity: the 2007 edition is advertised on the last page. But does it really count as an almanack? Talk to me in another couple of hundred years or so.

Matthew Engel is the editor of Wisden