My Little Free Library War.

Subtitle: “How our suburban front-yard lending box made me hate books and fear my neighbors.” Dan Greenstone’s Salon piece is both depressing and hilarious. A sample:

At last year’s public library book sale, our family had, as a joke, played a game of “Find the Boringest Book.” And, not to brag, but we’d kicked some ass.

So imagine my surprise when, within 24 hours, a paper-bound copy of “Study Guide and Reference Material for Commercial Radio Operator’s’ Examination” (1955! edition) had vanished. 1965’s evergreen “Technical Analysis of Stock Trends” was next. “Aircraft Power Plants from Northrop Aeronautical” lasted just a few more days. And the winner of our boringest book contest? “Standard Mathematical Tables,” 22nd Edition, a nearly wordless and entirely incomprehensible collection of graphs, made it a week.

My only complaint is the use of quotes for book titles, but I guess that’s Salon style, for reasons best known to Salon.


  1. There was a time (and place) when everyone had a copy of CRC’s Standard Mathematical Tables.

  2. Right next to their slide rule.

  3. I was trying to find a worthy, truly dull book on my shelves to pit against the above. The best I can come up with is a pretend-dull book, Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Importance.

    I hope to get my hands one day on a copy of McColgan’s How To Knurl.

  4. While I personally find Brockelmann’s Vergleich. Gramm. d. Semit. Sprachen (to quote the spine) of considerable interest, I can’t imagine it would read as anything other than “superlatively dull” to anyone in our neighborhood.

  5. I don’t complain about Latin-Greek hybrids, but what’s the point of inventing librophile when bibliophile exists?

  6. First stab at a typology of boring books:

    1. Books of narrow specialized interest, opaque to everyone else, with extra points for size or funny title: Brockelmann, How to Knurl, etc. Probably all of us here have many of these that we enjoy.

    2. Books of no intellectual worth, but useful: printed catalogs.

    3. As above, but obsolete: random number tables, computer-generated concordances, case law indices, Northrop Aeronautical Aircraft Power Plants.

    4. Unreadable books with higher aims: some philosophical works, some badly-written business administration manuals.

  7. Standard Math Tables is the only book I still have that I owned in high school. I keep it next to my slide rule, which cost my parents $80 in ca. 1969 dollars — quite a bit more than my latest laptop, adjusted for inflation. High schoolers should know how both work, just to remind them how easy they have it. Of course, these days even STEM-teaching colleagues know nothing about either unless they’re almost as old as I am.

    If I needed to hide a document (e.g. list of passwords) among the 3000+ books in my living room, I’d probably tuck it into my copy of Goodwin’s Syntax of the Greek Moods and Tenses. It can be plausibly placed in easy reach of my desk, but even a Hellenist is unlikely to pull it down for browsing.

  8. Michael, I for one would be quite likely to inadvertently find that hidden document.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Let me suggest for the books-it’s-safe-to-hide-stuff-in category, the subgenre of the campaign-themed self-promotional book written by an ultimately unsuccessful candidate for high office. If you have a copy of e.g. “Our Plan for America: Stronger at Home, Respected in the World” (co-authored by John Kerry and John Edwards, 2004) or “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” (Mitt Romney, 2010) on your shelves, it seems unlikely anyone will ever discover what’s stuck in between pages 206 and 207.

  10. I have the 24th edition of the Rubber Bible around somewhere. When I find it, I’ll turn it into conceptual art. Er sumpn.

  11. The Collected Speeches of Enver Hoxha would probably be a formidable contender, even worse than the NIST’s A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates.

  12. TR:
    What kind of weirdo are you? OK, maybe the Index and Addenda volume (volume VIII) for Franz Bomer’s tedious but useful commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. No, a visitor might want to look to see if his own Ovidiana were reported accurately (mine weren’t).

    It’s really hard to think of a book that no one would ever want to look into, since tastes differ and even tedious and rebarbative works may inspire attention from people wondering just how bad they are.

    Case in point:

    I’ve never seen Hoxha’s works, and would probably leaf through them for five minutes just to see how bad they are in translation, and to try to surmise whether they would be less bad or even worse if I could read Albanian. (Some authors write so poorly that even mediocre translators can hardly help improving them a little bit.) So not the best choice for concealment.

    As for the Random Number Table, I’d be tempted to look inside just to see if there was an Errata slip. (I think that was a Stanisław Jerzy Lec [not Lem] joke.)

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    I would agree that Hoxha is a worse bet for obscurity than some dull-and-now-superseded U.S. statesman, because of the curiosity factor. I don’t actually think I have currently in my house any examples of that book-length campaign-press-release genre I was alluding to previously EXCEPT for “The Power of Reason: 1988” by Lyndon LaRouche (ok, I couldn’t tell you quickly which bookshelf it’s on, but I think I can narrow it down to which room …), whose high weirdness quotient means its potential interest for the curious inquirer has long outlasted the transience of the 1988 election cycle.

  14. My father won a copy of the (abridged) Standard Mathematical Tables for scoring an 88 on the 1965 Annual High School Contest in mathematics. (The prizes offered by various local groups to high scorers on these exams were extremely idiosyncratic. The next year, my dad did a bit better and won both volumes of Methods of Mathematical Physics by Morse and Feschbach. In the 1990s, I won a book that was donated to my high school on my behalf, a scientific calculator, and my senior year a HP 48G graphing calculator.)

    I found my dad’s abridged tables decades later. He had forgotten he even had it, and the folded award invoice was still attached to the overleaf with a rusty staple. He can’t have used it much, even though he went on to earn a master’s degree in applied mathematics. I, however, took it and treasured it through high school and college. The tables of logarithms were worthless, of course, but the pages and pages of integrals were still really useful, although nowadays Mathematica can do virtually any symbolic integral (and you don’t even need to buy the software; the integration package is all online).

  15. @Y, Michael Hendry: It was RAND that published that first table of random numbers (obtained by observing quantum-mechanical Johnson noise from a resistor). And I remember in one of his books, Feynman said there really was an erratum to the table (although the erratum only dealt with a technical issue involving the random deviates).

  16. Here’s a small sample of Hoxha. All of these wannabe-intellectual dictators with 20 volumes of speeches to their name are pretty bad, but there’s something about him that makes my eyes glaze midway through one sentence. He never for a moment pauses from soaking his language in the sauce of Communist clichés. It’s an endless slog through evil counterrevolutionaries, heros of the proletariat, etc.

  17. I don’t doubt that all random number tables of any size have typos. The question is whether that makes them even more random than if they didn’t. Perhaps a philosopher could help, but I suspect we’d have to make sure not to ask two philosophers if we want a definite answer. The only way I can see a transcription error making it less random is if it were say a whole page repeated digit-for-digit, or some kind of stutter effect where the same digit was repeated for a line or two. That would be less random, to my (totally untutored in scientific concepts of randomness) mind, while a single mistyped digit seems somehow more random.

  18. SFReader says

    Bark and Wood Boring Insects in Living Trees in Europe, A Synthesis. Springer, 2004
    (For the first time, a synthesis on the research work done in Europe on all Bark And Wood Boring Insects In Living Trees (BAWBILT) is presented.)

    If boring insects don’t bore you, here is a book about boring machines!

    Hardrock Tunnel Boring Machines [1 ed.]. Wiley, 2008

    Judging by Table of Contents, it’s very boring book, particularly the Chapter Three. The Boring Operation.

    If these two don’t bore you, here is

    Well-Boring For Water, Brine And Oil. A Manual Of Current Practice. E. & F.N. Spon, 1921

  19. @Michael Hendry: The errata (which can be downloaded for free online, although RAND still charges real money for the tables themselves) does not actually change the values of the any of the printed numbers. It just corrects a couple errors in the descriptions of how the normal deviates are actually distributed.

    But it’s sort of famous as a geek joke, because having errata for random numbers sounds absurd.

  20. Perhaps a philosopher could help, but I suspect we’d have to make sure not to ask two philosophers if we want a definite answer.

    Facilius inter philosophos quam inter horologia conveniet, as a text I was reading with students today (which also contains some of the best ever, if apocryphal, last words) has it.

  21. I had a copy of the Thomas Cook European Timetable from 2003 or so, but I dispensed with it years ago.

  22. Peter Gosson, A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two – The Welsh Coast

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I have a book called Why David was a Threat to Goliath. As I said in my review in The Biochemist, the title is by far the best part. After that it’s downhill all the way. “One can open the book at more or less any page and find more or less the same thing being said. In a novel of D. H. Lawrence two people would be having a conversation about the Meaning of Life, but here we are more likely to be reminded that alligators are bigger than shrews.” Nonetheless, the title may tempt some unsuspecting person to take it down from my bookshelf.

  24. So I followed a few links — clicking is free, you know — and found this nice sentence: Affect emerges as the most likely account for the effect.

    If you want the context, you’ll have to expend the time to locate it…

  25. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I have the 24th edition of the Rubber Bible around somewhere. When I find it, I’ll turn it into conceptual art. Er sumpn

    Mine is the 48th. I used to use it a lot, to the extent that it is losing its cover. I used it mainly for the mathematical tables, especially the integrals, and these were dropped from later editions, so I was never tempted to downgrade.

  26. @Squiffy-Marie von Bladet – I for one have been known to read through old TCETs. The romance of them is second to none.

    The books I own which would probably be best for concealment are my several 1000+ page books of EU law – now enjoying a brief final flourish of relevance before being consigned to obscurity here, of course. Perhaps in a century’s time idealistic youth will be inspired by those faraway days, when we somehow managed to prevent continental conflict via fish quoats, in the same way that Utopian manifestos of the 1900s are interesting.. I doubt it.

    Actually, reconsidering, perhaps the Festschrift for Edward Said which I own for no very good reason would be in the running.

  27. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Affect emerges as the most likely account for the effect. Having now read the abstract of which this is the last sentence I don’t feel any the wiser. The effect they seem to be talking about is our liking for freebies, but, at least as applied to books I don’t think that’s usually true: books we get for nothing are usually left unread and are not worth the shelf space they occupy. There are exceptions, of course.

  28. A local technical library had a book containing a million random digits– the introduction mentioned that there wasn’t much need for proofreading. What matters in such collections is the probabilistic testing– it’s easy to get a collection of single digits that have the right probability distribution, but what about pairs of digits, or strings of n digits? Much more complicated, and much more subtle.

    And then there’s the business of random number generators– deterministic algorithms that generate ‘random’ digits. Someone (I’m thinking John Von Neumann) called that the mathematical equivalent of a state of sin. Back in the ’50s, IBM had a random number generator function in its FORTRAN library called RANDU, which was notoriously non-random.

    The classic reference for random number generation is Chapter 3 of Donald Knuth’s Seminumerical Algorithms, where he states Knuth’s Rule: Do not assume that a randomly designed algorithm will generate random numbers.

  29. Having now read the abstract of which this is the last sentence I don’t feel any the wiser.

    In effect it didn’t really affect you?

  30. Our family favourite is The History of the Cement Roof Tile….

  31. En effet, no.

  32. It didn’t effect an affective transformation.

  33. @Athel Cornish-Bowden — the offer of free books effects an affect that makes you ignore the effort needed to lug home books you’ll never read.

  34. Uff da!

  35. Rodger C says

    In a novel of D. H. Lawrence two people would be having a conversation about the Meaning of Life

    Surely they’d be more likely to be talking about Life Itself.

    @SFReader: wasn’t it Daniel Dennett who defined a Heidegger as an exceedingly tough boring instrument?

  36. January First-of-May says

    I’d expect that, over a million digits, there would have been at least one case of a typo turning a digit into something that is not a digit, such as a letter (which would make it useless for its intended purpose). They should’ve done some proofreading just for that case.

    Looking quickly at a bunch of bookshelves in my home, the first title that jumps out to me as “completely boring” is Topologicheskie metody v gidrodinamike (Topological methods in hydrodynamics) by Arnol’d and Khesin – looking at the nice cover picture, it might not be quite as boring, but in any case I’m interested in neither hydrodynamics nor, usually, topology. (It’s probably from one of the huge bunches of books given to me as prizes in the Moscow Mathematical Olympiad. Why would they constantly give loads of university-level books, on multiple different subjects at that, in contests that are explicitly for schoolkids only, I have no idea.)
    I cannot now recall the title of the collected works of Efim Samoylovich Fradkin, my first cousin three times removed, which had been gifted to me by the guy who tried (and, in my case, failed) to teach me and a bunch of other people basic quantum mechanics when he found out that I and Fradkin were related (apparently he personally knew him). I do recall that I tried to read it and understood pretty much nothing, and I’m not sure where the book even is now anyway.
    Of course, if I wanted to actually hide something, I’d probably use a not that obviously useless title – looking at those same bookshelves, it could be the Cosmopolitan for May 1997.

    But… there’s a similar “free library” at our university department, and apparently the people there do realize that, regardless of what it says on the label, they’re supposed to take the book, read it and put it back. (Or not read at all as the case may be.)
    A few years ago, someone put a 20-odd volume early 1930s edition of the collected works of Marx and Engels in there… last I checked most of the volumes were still there (they’re probably not there anymore right now, but that’s only because the whole department is moving this summer). The similarly large and old collected works of Lenin, and the mid-1930s four-volume Mayakovsky, also continued to stay.

  37. Why would they constantly give loads of university-level books, on multiple different subjects at that, in contests that are explicitly for schoolkids only, I have no idea.

    “Children’s books, like their clothes, should allow for growth; and their books at least should encourage it.” —Northrop Frye

  38. @John Cowan. Topological methods in hydrodynamics looks like precisely the book you don’t give to a bright young kid unless you want to stir her away from science.

  39. Yeah, it sounds horrible for a high school kid. On the other hand, I would really appreciate having a well written book about that subject today.

  40. @Michael Hendry: I doubt that typos will be as random as the intended data; and if not, then their effect will be to reduce randomness. (For example, if the numbers are entered using a 3×3 keypad, then I would guess that it’s more likely for a sequence of ’39’ to be miskeyed as ’36’ than the reverse.)

  41. More on the production of those random numbers. It really was machine produced all the way, the pages were typed by a card reading typewriter and photographed.

    Of course it’s possible that the original electronic noise generator was misadjusted and produced skewed results, but there was a permutation step intended to eliminate bias in the output. And of course that algorithm was designed by humans and might have introduced subtle correlations, but there was also a battery of (human designed and programmed) statistical tests that didn’t find any such thing.

    Most likely human error sources: Dropping a deck of cards or swapping two decks, though it looks like there are index numbers on each card. Most likely source of printing error: Card reader misreads. The cards were probably punched in Hollerith code where digits have exactly one hole, so added or missing sense signals give letters or blanks — which a human will easily spot on a printed page — but it could conceivably read one column twice and skip the next, giving a spurious repeated digit.

    Pseudorandom numbers: I’ve actually had to troubleshoot a reported ‘random’ error in the floating point calculations on a computer where it turned out the programmer had used the system pseudorandom function in a way where its almost-cyclic behavior after 65537 calls f’d up their results on some runs.

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