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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, January 07, 2018 1:00 am

Sow what? Almanacs' place in an age of fake news

Reviewed by Scott Huler

A couple of months ago, a writer friend proudly tweeted about his annual donation to Wikipedia. He noted its function as the world's first resource when looking into factual topics and admitted that it had replaced the almanacs he once bought every year. He even kvelled over its capacity to surpass them: The Wiki entry on rivers by length, for example, runs on for a highly un-almanac-like 181 rivers.

He's right, of course. We no longer breathlessly await the publication of, say, the World Almanac and Book of Facts. Yet this time each year almanacs still come out, and we still buy them.

They must offer something more than simple information, which makes me think about the Old Farmer's Almanac – the nation's longest-running almanac. You know the one: with its homey, Ye Olde-style cover, bearing portraits of Ben Franklin and founder Robert Thomas, who published its first annual edition in 1792. The 2018 edition is No. 226. The title page announces that it contains a “large number of Astronomical Calculations and the Farmer's Calendar,” along with “a variety of New, Useful, & Entertaining Matter.” If stilted syntax and 18th-century capitalization don't get the point across, note the hole drilled in the top left corner. So you can hang it on a nail. In your outhouse.

The Old Farmer's Almanac has always been our cutest almanac, with a broad wink and a game of let's pretend served up with information. Apart from the fact that it contains horoscopes and guidance for things like “Setting Eggs by the Moon's Sign,” the Old Farmer's Almanac inspires a predictable discussion each year about its famously vague weather forecasts, based on “a secret formula” devised in 1792. At a time when much of our population dangerously dismisses actual climate science, we have to think hard about whether this jokey pretend science is OK.

But first: What is an almanac? The very word is shadowy. With its mathematical-looking tables, the almanac conjures the passage of ancient Greek texts to Europe through the Arabic translations that saved them for the Renaissance, and probably has some of that in its history. Just the same, even the Oxford English Dictionary admits that nobody quite knows where the word came from.

Before they became desk encyclopedias, almanacs had a simple job. They were calendars, tables of daily celestial information: sunrise, moonrise, tide tables, moon phases, planetary positions, along with things like religious festivals and, yes, horoscopes. Calculated for particular latitudes and longitudes, they functioned as a kind of universal handbook to life when life was guided by seasons, by sunrise and sunset – and by where we were in Lent and whether Mercury was in retrograde. As astronomical observation improved by the late 18th century, nautical almanac tables became extremely precise, vital to navigation.

In this country, almanacs proliferated and settled into a cheerfully American type of publication, full of information, folksy wisdom and pure bunk in about equal measure: a bathroom book for the household that likely had only a couple books (and no bathroom). Today's Old Farmer's Almanac, for example, has a “Secrets of the Zodiac” table, identifying which part of the body is influenced by which zodiacal sign. The 1753 edition of Poor Richard's Almanack, published by Ben Franklin, offered almost exactly the same diagram.

The modern Old Farmer's Almanac, though it contains a lot of hooey interlarded with its tables of sun declination and length of day, is much less a remnant of our degraded information ecosystem than a harbinger of it. America, it seems, has always thirsted for fake news.

But the Old Farmer's Almanac may now slyly urge us to do better. In those lovely two-page monthly spreads, the right-hand pages are filled with delicious arcana like planetary symbols, in multiple typefaces conveying specific meanings. Their visual satisfaction encourages close study, the delight in figuring things out. And as you look closely, you find little facts, often celebrating science: the first rendezvous of two manned spacecraft, say, or the birthday of Joseph Priestley. The informative “Glossary of Almanac Oddities” explains that “Cat nights,” which start Aug. 17, hark back “to the days when people believed in witches.” With Breitbart whipping up hysteria about feminist witches hexing the president, which publication is more modern? More trustworthy?

So I find myself with a resigned appreciation for the Old Farmer's. If nothing else, it reminds us: Check your sources; believe only what can be proved.

You'll never be able to hang a website on a nail.

Scott Huler's next book, “A Delicious Country,” will be published by the University of North Carolina Press. He wrote this for Washington Post Book World.