Reading is a solitary pursuit. There’s no better shield from the outside world than a book, and no more trusted witness to our terrible snack habits and bedtime hygiene. Paradoxically, books can also bring us closer together, enabling us to forge instant connections even with complete strangers—that is, if we manage to glean the right factoids from what we read. After all, there’s nothing people love more than a true story. Luckily for all of us, there are tribes of vitamin-D deprived scholars digging through Coptic burial records and Soviet broadsheets even now, all for the sake of providing us with something interesting to say on the bus. Here are five books just bursting with facts that can make you the toast of your next dinner party, or at least a bit more interesting in a crowded elevator:
The Private Life of Chairman Mao, by Li Zhisui. What better way to grab a fellow partygoer’s attention than to toss out an intriguing bon mot about Mao Zedong’s venereal disease (or the fact that he didn’t believe in bathing)? Of course, in order to execute this feat of wit, you’ll first have to read this 638-page tell-all written by his personal physician.
The Great Cat Massacre, by Robert Darnton. The true story of a cat holocaust wrought by a resentful group of printers’ apprentices in late 1730s Paris is just one of the episodes chronicled by this award-winning historian.
The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer. You’d think the eighteen-word title says everything you need to know, but the truly extraordinary thing about this book is the way it gives lie to the cliché that Buddhists are all kind, peace-loving people. Palmer’s Mongolia is teeming with orgies, murder, corruption, and mind-searing cruelty. Anecdotes from this book are particularly popular with people who hate yoga.
The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II, by Marvin Tokayer, et al. Not all history books are grim! The Fugu Plan tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Oskar Schindler,” who saved the lives of thousands of Jews through a seemingly insignificant act of bureaucratic kindness. If you’d like to try your hand at making people in line at the post office cry, then this, my friend, is the book for you.
Russophobia in New Zealand 1838–1908 by Glynn Barratt. The stranger and more cryptic the subject matter, the more conversational punch. At least, this was my thinking when I purchased Russophobia. The mysteries inherent in the title just keep growing. First you think, Why fear Russians? Then you reach the words “New Zealand,” and barely have time to register the idea of Russo-averse Kiwis before learning that this strange aversion lasted seventy years! I have to admit, however, that I haven’t made it past page seven. But when I do, I expect to have enough ballast to charm and fascinate my way through an entire summer’s worth of waiting-room conversations!
Alina Simone is the author, most recently, of Note to Self.
What’s your required-reading recommendation for ambitious conversationalists?