When I heard of this publication, I was intrigued to learn that author Max Cryer had discovered instant coffee was invented by a man in Invercargill, New Zealand, well before it was created in America. I presumed Is It True? would be full of similarly fascinating facts demonstrating how false information becomes accepted as common wisdom.
Essentially, this is the nature of this book and there are insights to be gained, but they are mingled with snippets most people would be aware of and anecdotes which aren’t particularly mind-boggling.
It is fascinating how researchers find the first time a word or phrase is used by discovering it in an obscure poem, play, novel or newspaper article; it is no great surprise that artists, writers, politicians and celebrities ” borrow” phrases which gradually become attributed to them.
We are probably all guilty of using phrases such as “American as apple pie” without realising that apple pies originated in England, and many people wouldn’t realise that the phrase “what the Dickens” doesn’t refer to Charles Dickens. I was aware Christ’s birthday celebration is actually the continuation of a pagan festival that celebrates the winter solstice and the coming of spring, but I didn’t know that the shifting dates of Easter are calculated according to the phases of the moon. Most people are aware the poem Desiderata wasn’t actually written in 1692 but in 1929 by Max Ehrmann, and certainly Australians are aware that koalas are not actually bears, but Is It True? has been written to appeal to a wide audience.
It is interesting to read corrections to authoritative school textbooks which were not aware that Sir Walter Raleigh wasn’t the first to introduce tobacco to England, the Wright Brothers may not have been the first to fly, Edison didn’t invent the electric light bulb and Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t the first to invent the telephone. It is of less interest to read whether Paul Hogan should have said “shrimp” or “prawn” on a television ad, how many times Henry VIII was married (legitimately), and that no boy in Holland ever plugged a dyke with his finger.
Cryer has written a number of entertaining anecdotes, including one about the White House playing “Edelweiss” for the Austrian president, believing it to be the Austrian national anthem. However, in a book such as this, one starts to wonder whether the author is sometimes having his own fun and putting stories in print that will, over time, become accepted widely as common knowledge.
Is It True? is full of interesting facts and figures and stories about erroneous ideas that come to be regarded as truth. There is a range of chapters and topics, some of which will appeal to readers more than others, but there is enough in this book to amuse, surprise and interest most people.
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