On a June day in 1978, I boarded a Trailways bus in a small Iowa town, bound for Phoenix, Ariz., where my parents had moved a few months earlier. I was 19, having just finished what nowadays would be called a “gap year”—although, in my case, that would be a charitable euphemism for what amounted to 12 months of part-time work and full-time goofing off. I was ready for something different, and I had never traveled to the Southwest. Adventure beckoned.
But first I had 48 hours to kill on a bus, the first 24 of which would traverse some of the most boring scenery in America.
This was long before cell phones, iPods and streaming video. The Walkman—Sony’s portable cassette player, which made music mobile—hadn’t been invented yet. Entertainment options were pretty much limited to reading or listening to a transistor radio through a scratchy AM signal.
I had brought along a book, an impulse purchase made the day before I left. It was called The Book of Lists. In it, the authors had assembled hundreds of compilations of quirky facts and fascinating ephemera. Imagine Ripley’s Believe It or Not marries Harper’s Index. A few examples: 10 potential Jack the Ripper suspects; objects named after people (ever heard of Harry Shrapnel?); best dinner guests from history (Jefferson or Jesus?). There was a grisly account of the murder of Rasputin. An unsparing depiction of Napoleon’s anatomy. Vignettes about people who overcame severe physical deformities. And so on—521 pages of bizarro trivia. I was so completely, utterly absorbed by its contents, I barely noticed as towns and miles slid past across Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. By the time I reached Utah and the Wasatch Mountains on Day Two, looking out the window became an additional pastime, but by then I had devoured most of the book. As travel companions go, The Book of Lists was a Hall of Famer.
It also spawned a genre. The book has inspired decades of imitators and what is now a cottage industry of nonnarrative storytelling. Interesting lists, it turns out, are enormously popular even if you’re not entombed in a smelly bus in Cheyenne at 2 in the morning. We thought it would be fun to apply The Book of Lists format to Stanford; our staff spent several months excavating material for the unusual section that begins here.
Our cover makes a somewhat extravagant claim—133 things you don’t know about Stanford. That’s probably not literally accurate—at least a handful of these inclusions may be known by at least some of our readers. But it is certainly true that most of this stuff will be unfamiliar to most people. Did you know, for instance, that three former Trees now work as veterinarians? Or that Stanford owns an X-ray of Adolf Hitler’s skull? Or which salacious TV show a Nobel-Prize-winning economist watches? Well, you will after reading this issue.
And if you happen to be taking a road trip soon, I suggest tucking this issue into your luggage. (There is plenty of good non-listy stuff in it, too.) It won’t take you halfway across the country, but it might make for a nice diversion somewhere along the way
Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford. Email Kevin