Interview with Futility Closet blogger Greg Ross

Futility Closet is a blog about surprising passages found chiefly in out-of-print books. It's one of my favorite blogs. Greg Ross, who runs it, describes it as "An idler's miscellany of compendious amusements."

Mark Frauenfelder
You find such wonderful material to post on Futility Closet. Where do you find it all?

Greg Ross
Most of it comes from university libraries. I live in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, so there are a lot of big libraries to work in. About 80 percent of the job is prospecting and fact-checking. I keep a big list of story ideas, and the readers submit some great ideas, too, for which I'm grateful.

How do you go about "prospecting?" Do you browse aisles looking for interesting titles?

No, I've tried that, and it's just too hit-and-miss. I experiment with strategies like surfing catalog metadata and reading bibliographies, and then I track down each title in the stacks and evaluate it directly. Once I've decided on the most promising ones, I take them home to read more closely. Then I start the whole process over again. It takes a lot of time, but in the end I find there's no substitute for just reading a lot of books. And there's a surprising amount of luck involved; I think I've stumbled over most of my favorite books while looking for something else.


Tell me a bit about yourself: your interests, your background, your occupation, etc.

I'm basically a magazine editor, working mostly on science and engineering magazines. For the last 10 years I've been an editor at American Scientist magazine in Research Triangle Park. I started the blog six years ago, mostly as a way to mess around with web development, but it's grown so popular that now it takes up most of my free time.

I think most of my interests are reflected in the blog. When I started it I resolved to make a site that I myself would want to read, following O. Henry's dictum "Write what you like, there is no other rule." I'm continually surprised that other people like it so much.

You seem to have discovered a secret world of literature about surprising things. Could you name 3 favorite books that most people don't know about but should?

I haven't been able to find a general collection of interesting facts that's reliably accurate, alas, which is why I'm reduced to such wide reading -- the facts are out there, but they have to be gathered. My favorite books tend to be written by specialists who are passionate about their topics -- here are some:

Bad Acts and Guilty Minds, by Leo Katz, is a collection of puzzles in criminal law. "When a traveler smuggles some French lace past customs, and the lace is in fact duty-free, should he be punished for attempted smuggling?" Katz, who teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania, began collecting legal conundrums while clerking for Anthony Kennedy, and his fellow clerks "endured many a lunch hour conversation about cannibalism, overcrowded lifeboats, the killing of ghosts and the shooting of corpses." The book is wonderfully thought-provoking, and Katz's enthusiasm makes it great fun to read.

In the same spirit, There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book, by Dalhousie University philosopher Robert M. Martin, is a collection of 250 philosophical enigmas, puzzles, and conundrums. It reminds me of a book I loved as a kid, How to Torture Your Mind, by Ralph L. Woods, a collection of classic paradoxes, sophisms and fallacies. Woods gave no discussion, and he offered no answers -- he trusted you to see the point of each problem and to puzzle it through for yourself. In that way the book was a compliment to its audience, a model I've tried to follow with Futility Closet.

David Wells has produced two wonderful collections of mathematical oddities for Penguin: The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers and The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry. Both are written for an educated lay audience; the topics are of varying mathematical significance, but they're always interesting. Another good one in this area is The Universal Book of Mathematics, by David Darling.

Finally, some remarkably good older books are now available through Google Books, including William Shepard Walsh's Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1909), Eugene Beauharnais Cook's American Chess-Nuts: A Collection of Problems (1868), and Tryon Edwards' Dictionary of Thoughts (1891), a themed collection of once-famous quotations. Eventually I'll write a book myself -- I just need to find the time.