Life was easy for the Renaissance Man. All he had to do was cut a dash with sword and rapier wit alike, be au fait with the latest developments in cosmology and geography, draw a perfect circle freehand, bang off a couple of Petrarchan sonnets and maybe invent a flying machine, and there he was, master of every discipline. The entire sum of human knowledge could fit into a single brain, in theory. Nowadays, the amount of information in the world doubles every eight years, according to Alan Fletcher’s doorstop tome. Its 1,000-plus pages prove him to be a would-be Renaissance Man, an autodidactic polymath with a voracious appetite for learning; it includes sections on international road signage, crop circles and countless quotes from Arthur Koestler. It may no longer be possible to know everything, but Fletcher makes a valiant effort. This book is the sum of his learning.

The Art of Looking Sideways is the modern heir to the “commonplace book” – those old notebooks in which inspirational passages from other works would be copied down for personal use – as well as to Michael Caine’s fascinating-fact almanac Not Many People Know That! The book abides by the Reithian mantra that was once the cornerstone of BBC output: “to educate, inform and entertain”. Here the reader will come across – among many other things – a table of “erotic Surrealist hand signs”, the theological paradox of Adam’s navel, the dress code for a Lyons Corner House waitress, and a reference to the Institute of the Brain in Moscow (containing the cerebral matter of Lenin, Stalin, Tchaikovsky, Eisenstein and Gorky preserved in pickle jars). The purpose of ramming all this together in a single volume is to encourage a bit of Edward de Bono-style lateral thinking, making connections where none were previously apparent; to see things in a new way. And it works.

Alan Fletcher is by trade a graphic designer, and accordingly The Art of Looking Sideways is a visual feast. Vibrantly coloured pages, phrases printed in huge bold type, any number of arresting symbols and massive gimmicks. However, the defiantly design-led approach does lead to something of a quibble. Throughout the history of writing there have been many ways of setting out type – books in Japanese, Hebrew and Arabic are read from what we would consider to be the back page; writing in the Ancient Greek boustrophedon system was read alternately left-to-right and right-to-left; but only graphic designers consider it acceptable to print text sideways on the page, so that one has to turn the book through 90 degrees and read it like a calendar. The reason no-one else demands that readers “look sideways” in this way is that it is both impractical and annoying.

First published in World of Interiors issue 232. Reproduced with permission.

The Art of Looking Sideways

by Alan Fletcher  (Phaidon)

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