THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING ELSE: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird, by Dan Schreiber
There was a time when library shelves fairly sagged with strange reference works. Readers could peruse “The Best,” a 1974 hit that cataloged all things superlative, including bedsheets, sunscreens and life insurance policies. They could plunge into the RAND Corporation’s “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates,” something of a bible among data scientists. Or they could cozy up with “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places,” containing entries on El Dorado and Jurassic Park.
The rise of the search engine, reference text ad infinitum, spelled doom for many books such as these. So it’s a pleasure to encounter Dan Schreiber’s “The Theory of Everything Else: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird,” a willfully miscellaneous survey of the bizarre beliefs that people have held over the centuries: the kind of random, strange-for-the-sake-of-strange compendium that’s seldom published anymore.
Here, united in a single volume, are hollow-Earthers, plant-talkers and Satanists; here is the inventor of a bean that causes less flatulence; here is “the world’s first pubic louse hunter.” “The Theory of Everything Else” isn’t quite a reference text — it lacks so much as an index — but its aimless esoterica makes it feel like one. I mean that as a compliment. I can imagine needing to consult this book in the middle of the night, though I can’t imagine why.
Schreiber, a BBC radio panelist and the host of the podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish,” believes that all of us possess a “small nook at the back of the brain that ensures we never fail to get goose bumps when we’re told a mad-as-hell idea.” He applies a single term to this fascination, one that a family newspaper might call “bat guano.” This particular epithet is his raison, and perhaps his favorite word. He’s swept it from the corners of our brightest minds and sorted it loosely into categories. His motives are a bit of a mystery. Though Schreiber writes that “great things have been achieved by those who believe in weird ideas,” he also states unequivocally that “none of these theories are to be believed in, and indulging in them too much can turn into an unwanted addiction.”
It’s up to the reader, then, how closely to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Edison, who slept in his work clothes because he was convinced that “changing into pajamas at night messed with your body’s chemistry and gave you insomnia.” Or to support Kary Mullis — the chemist who invented the polymerase chain reaction that helped give us the Covid-19 PCR test — in his assertion that he was once politely greeted by a glowing raccoon outside his cabin in Northern California.
As those examples suggest, scientists, mad and sane alike, are veritable fonts of absurdity: the natural byproduct of all their hypothesizing. Maybe it was only a matter of time before one of them proposed that drinking gin makes women spontaneously combust, or that life on Earth blossomed from aliens’ cosmic jetsam. Some of science’s wildest guesses achieve an elegance in their folly. In the 17th century, Charles Morton ventured that birds disappeared every winter because they migrated to the moon.
But nonsense also emerges from less expected quarters. In professional sports, where superstition collides with lavish budgets, players and owners will indulge every whim in the name of victory. Between 2005 and 2010, the Los Angeles Dodgers secretly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Russian scientist named Vladimir Shpunt who believed he could “transmit powerful energy through his hands and thoughts,” thereby improving the team’s batting average.
Similarly, the owner of the English soccer team Leicester City would regularly engage the services of Buddhist monks, who blessed the players, the goal posts and the changing room before retiring to meditate in a special room for the duration of the match. And Novak Djokovic, currently one of the most visible tennis players in the world, has made routine pilgrimages to bask in the energy of Visoko, a Bosnian town believed — by a select few — to have harbored an ancient civilization. “If there is a paradise on Earth,” Djokovic told reporters, “it’s here.”
Schreiber is at his best when he’s digging into renowned loci of weirdness, like the White House — where William McKinley insisted on wearing his lucky red carnation and Nancy Reagan sometimes consulted an astrologer eight times a day — or the Bermuda Triangle. Thanks to him, I know now that some seafarers attribute the Triangle’s famous tempestuousness to “Burps of Death,” or “huge expulsions of methane that have been trapped on the ocean floor, housed within pockets of subterranean rock”; I know, too, that the nation of Bermuda once minted triangle-shaped coins with an image of a sinking ship on them, and that one of these coins can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. I know that time travelers may have sunk the Titanic by visiting it in excessive numbers.
By now you can see that “The Theory of Everything Else” is all over the map. Its broadness is mainly an asset — it makes the book suitable for beach reading or for mainlining before a dinner party. Schreiber brings a formidable amount of research to bear, and he’s careful never to mock any of his subjects, even those who may deserve it.
But he’s sometimes too adept at quarantining the weirdness, too certain of where the rational ends and the irrational begins. Readers who feel that it’s possible, even beneficial, to believe something and disbelieve it at the same time will wish that he had more to say about his own attraction to Chiroptera. Knocking around somewhere amid his skepticism is a head-spinning story about the nature of belief: about how simple it is to pick up or abandon the ideas that dictate our basic orientation toward the world.
Everyone has their own inexplicable tenets, Schreiber posits. Having finished the book, I began looking in earnest for mine. I didn’t attest, as Sylvester Stallone’s mother did, that “the buttocks represent areas of your personality,” and I couldn’t agree with Bram Stoker that Queen Elizabeth I was actually a man. Nevertheless, I felt I’d fallen headlong, happily, into the pit of relativism. What looked like bedrock had become a glorious quagmire of conjecture, dogma and thoughtless habit. We know what Schreiber would call it.
Dan Piepenbring is the co-author of “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.”
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING ELSE: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird | By Dan Schreiber | Illustrated | 352 pp. | William Morrow | $29.99