"Who Doesn't Love an Umlaut?": An Interview with Ben Schott


Anyone who has trouble with l’esprit de l’escalier—that feeling when you come up with the perfect comeback, about twenty minutes too late—should consider keeping one of Ben Schott’s inimitable books close to hand at all times. They’re catalogs of those aspects of the human condition that you’ve always wondered about but have never been able to find in a traditional reference work. See, for instance, his comprehensive list of all of the injuries Evil Knievel ever suffered in Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany; his guide for giving after-dinner toasts in Food and Drink Miscellany; and a page of information on Buckingham Palace’s supplier of bagpipes.

In his latest, Schottenfreude, Ben Schott takes a more continental approach: looking at the unique ability of the German language to come up with (often multisyllabic) words for just about any facet of the human condition. We asked him about his new book.

First, I know that you typeset your own books, so design and layout are obviously things you think about very carefully. Schottenfreude is about 9 1/2" by 5", similar to comic strip collections or photography albums, and a big departure from your pocket journal-sized Miscellanies. What does that convey about this book?

The curious shape of Schottenfreude was dictated by the length of the new German words inside. In some cases, these are more than a little elaborate. The longest word in the book is the majestic "Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss" – a 47-letter monster that means "new car smell." Of course, not all of the words are so unwieldy. One of my favorites is one of the shortest: "Mahlneid" – a handy term for "Coveting thy neighbor’s restaurant order." I take real delight in designing my books to make them unique and curious object. None has given me more pleasure to create than Schottenfreude.

I was surprised to find references not only to literature and pop culture, but also to philosophers like Michael Oakeshott and mathematicians like Euclid—you even cite a dentistry journal in one entry. Do you have difficulty marshalling such a wide array of knowledge, especially in more specialized fields?

Researching Schottenfreude was like taking a footnote for a walk. An idea would unearth a footnote, which would lead to another idea, and another footnote … and so on. For example, I wanted to create a German word for “repeatedly catching and avoiding people’s gazes when approaching them down a long corridor.” This prompted a memory from a book by the sociologist Erving Goffman, which led to a quote by the writer Cornelia Otis Skinner, which reminded me of something I read in Alexander Solzhenitsyn. So, I skimmed through all of the Solzhenitsyn books I own, until I found it.

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