Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: One of QI’s ‘Most Interesting’ books of 2016

It is with great excitement that I have discovered Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins has been included as one of QI’s 10 Most Interesting Books of 2016!


QI (Quite Interesting Ltd) is delighted to announce the first annual Quite Interesting Book of The Year award. qi-badge

This is a list of ten books, selected from the many hundreds read over the course of 2016 by the staff researchers at QI (in Stephen Fry’s affectionate coinage ‘The QI Elves’), which have particularly astonished and delighted them.

A place on the list entitles the publisher of the book to put one of these on the jacket of the winners:

A Quite Interesting Book of the Year 2016

Just as an Academy Award is colloquially known as an Oscar, this magnificent golden sticker also has a name – a Sorrento – after the neologism for ‘the thing that goes round and round as a YouTube video loads’.

The list of ten Quite Interesting Books of the Year will be announced in the first week of each December in good time for Christmas shopping.

Here is the 2016 list:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman (Current, hardback)

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey (British Library publications)

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing (Borough Press)

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, by Astrid Lindgren Translated by Sarah Death (Pushkin Press)

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe (Faber)

 The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright (Bloomsbury)

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet publishing)

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the

Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

 I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (Bodley Head)

1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted  by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller (Faber)

There is more information about each winning title on the list below, in the form of a mini-review written by one of the QI Elves.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the Elves have rather immodestly included one of their own books at number 10 on the list.

This is because the interesting nuggets of information in 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted have been painstakingly mined from the contents of dozens and dozens of books, including (of course) the other nine on the list. So, if it’s not quite interesting, something has gone seriously awry…

Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘The QI Nisse (Danish for Elves) as I call them, constantly have their noses in books as they ferret out facts for QI. Now I know their favourite reads, all my Christmas shopping just got a whole lot easier.

John Lloyd writes: ‘Over the last 14 years, I’ve found the QI Elves’ taste in books to be extremely reliable. Or else.’

Anne Miller, QI Elf, writes: ‘At QI we read everything from cereal packets to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These are our favourites and the ones we would hope to have if stranded on a desert island.’

Those titles in full:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman

Sam Arbesman is a brilliant ex-Harvard mathematician and complexity scientist. His last book, The Half-Life of Facts, is about how almost everything we think we know eventually goes out of date and becomes wrong. We liked it so much it was featured both on QI and in our last-book-but-one 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways. The theme of Overcomplicated is that modern technology is so complex no one really understands it, so that everything from phones, aircraft and cars to hospitals and financial systems behave in unexpected ways and seem to have a mind of their own. Fascinating, alarming, insightful, full of examples and funny.

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey

This book reveals nature through the eyes of those who first encountered it, gathering first impressions of exotic plants and creatures from across the globe. As well as being packed with gems – like the fact that in 17th-century India, mangoes were shaken up inside their skins and drunk as smoothies; or that pelicans’ throats were once used as tobacco pouches – it’s an exciting, firsthand insight into the mindsets, language and beliefs of our ancestors.

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

Ewing’s debut novel is set on a Scottish island where five children are the only survivors of a virus that has wiped out everyone else. Narrated by eight-year-old Rona, the children organise themselves into a new life. They go ‘new shopping’ by raiding the houses of the deceased, visit the ruined school to practice writing and try to take care of each other. Written by a Scottish GP, who spent time living and working on the Barra in the Outer Hebrides, this book is chilling, compelling and impossible to put down.

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 by Astrid Lindgren.

Translated by Sarah Death

Astrid Lindgren kept a painstaking diary during the Second World War which has only recently been translated into English. She had a job working at the Postal Control Division that involved steaming opening letters to check their contents. She also scoured newspapers for updates on the war, which she recorded carefully in her diary along with dispatches from her life in neutral Sweden. Stories about 12,000 Russians perishing in Finland sit next to her deciding to buy shoes for the family before the prices go up or taking everyone to Skansen, an open air museum on Christmas day. An early entry sums up the feelings of deep confusion: ‘Anne-Marie came round this evening and we have never had a more dismal “meeting”. We tried to talk about things other than the war but it was impossible. In the end we had a brandy to cheer ourselves up, but it didn’t help.’

Animal: The Autobiography of A Female Body by Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe’s debut blends her trademark wit and humour with autobiography and evolutionary history as she examines our collective pasts for clues as to how and why certain behaviours and norms have developed. From ancient diets: ‘The skinny women of pre-history perished. We can cry for them later’, to body confidence, and from consent to childbirth, Animal is packed with jokes, smart observations and comes with an extensive further reading list. A brilliant read which is as funny as it is remarkable.

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The scarcely believable cruelties of the slave trade have been visited before in fiction, but never with such harrowing precision. The story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, escaping from a Georgia plantation using an underground railroad, pursued by Ridgeway, a slave-catcher of Terminator-like relentlessness, explodes off the page, swiftly asserting itself as one of the great mythic journeys in modern literature. In his sixth novel, Colson Whitehead has produced a classic: lyrical, deeply shocking yet somehow full of hope.

The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright

This is the book that the QI Elves were fighting over during research for Series N. It’s absolutely crammed full of brilliant facts including that most ‘Latin names’ aren’t Latin. It’s full of naming mishaps – the Hydrangea serratifolia has smooth leaves but its name means ‘with serrated leaves’ because the sample examined had been nibbled. There’s also the unfortunate case of William Hemsley who wanted to name a bramble species to honour the Cockburn family and christened it Rubus cockburnianus.

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

As well as being one of the most vital figures in the history of botany and zoology, Humboldt was an intrepid adventurer and a fascinating character. Darwin volunteered for the Beagle voyage because he was inspired by Humboldt, and once wrote of him, ‘He, like another sun, illumines everything I behold.’ Wulf captures all of this in her biography, which is littered with Humboldt’s own brilliant writing and observations, and leaves you wondering why he doesn’t occupy a permanent spot on every school curriculum.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

Science journalist Ed Yong’s weekly email ‘The Eds Up’ is an office favourite so we were excited to get our hands on his first book. I Contain Multitudes takes an in-depth look at a subject which is tiny (physically) yet huge (significantly) and reexamines the world around us by focusing on all things microbes. Among the book’s revelations is the fact that the bacteria on your arm are more similar to those on a stranger’s arm than they are to the bacteria inside your own mouth.

 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller

A sparkling new selection of 1,342 facts from the QI team, including the humdingers that Google searches for ‘How to put on a condom’ peak at 10.28pm, emoji is the fastest growing language in history, tanks are exempt from London’s Congestion charge, 1 in 3 children pretend to believe in Santa Claus to keep their parents happy, black coffee drinkers are more likely to be psychopaths, the world’s only Cornish pasty museum is in Mexico, and in 2015, America’s ‘National Hero Dog Award’ was won by a cat.


Meet the explorers

The Age of Discovery was fuelled by the dreams of a number of fascinating characters who set sail to find unknown lands, collect new commodities and pursue glory. Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins uses the first-hand accounts from a wide variety of explorers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries to bring to life the wonder of encountering exotic animals, foods and peoples for the first time. The story behind these voyages and the people who made them possible are themselves compelling.

I thought it might be nice to introduce some of the explorers whose vivid accounts of their travels furnished me with a wealth of information for the book.

Meet the explorers

George Barrington (1755–1804) provides the perfect story of redemption. Arrested as a petty pickpocket, Barrington was shipped to Australia on a convict ship, later gaining emancipation and proving himself to be an upright sort of fellow he was made high constable of Parramatta.

George Barrington

Andrew Battel (1565–1614) was an English privateer (some may say pirate) who was kidnapped by the Portuguese in 1590 and taken into the interior of Africa where he spent many years under the control of his Portuguese masters trading with the natives. When he was released some twenty years later in 1610 he travelled back to his home in Essex. There he recounted the fascinating story of the people, cultures and animals he had encountered to Samuel Purchas, a keen collector and compiler of travelogues, who published Battell’s account which provided the first European description of Angola and the Congo.

Hapless sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Mendez Pinto (c.1509–83) suffered several shipwrecks, was sold into slavery on at least three separate occasions and was attacked by pirates but lived to tell the, at times far-fetched, tale.

John Saris (c.1580–1643) captained the first British ship to land in Japan and secured a trade deal with the Japanese. However on his return to England he disgraced himself by showing off his collection of Japanese Shunga (erotic paintings) in polite society.

William Dampier (NPG 538)
Captain William Dampier, Oil on canvas, c. 1697-1698

Captain William Dampier (1651–1715), was the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times and during his voyages was involved in a wealth of adventures, including getting court martialled for cruelty, becoming involved in piracy and rescuing Andrew Selkirk from an uninhabited island in the South Pacific where he had been marooned alone for over four years (and is thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

Lionel Wafer (1640–1705): After quarrelling with Captain William Dampier on a journey through South America he was abandoned on the Isthmus of Darien in Panama and went to live with the Cuna Indians. Wafer studied the Indian’s culture and language and became assimilated, taking on their dress and sporting a nose ring. After jilting the Indian chief’s daughter he eventually reunited with Captain Dampier and travelled back to England where he wrote an enthralling account of his travels.

An image from Lionel Wafer’s travelogue

It is interesting to note that many of these men dabbled in criminality, indicating perhaps that to adventure into the unknown at that time an individual needs a certain devil-may-care attitude. However we are greatly in their debt for recording their stories and sharing with us the wonderment of discovering new lands, foods, animals and peoples.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic is published on 7 April 2016 by British Library Publishing.