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The Book of Odds
Amram Shapiro, Louise Firth Campbell, & Rosalind Wright
Harper Collins, 2014
Convincing people to read a book full of columns and tables and lists of numbers is not an easy sell. Nothing says “gripping narrative” like actuarial tables. And yet, The Book of Odds is one of those books that I will pick up any time I have a few moments.
As its name proclaims, The Book of Odds contains thousands of events that could befall the reader and the odds that such events will occur. Want to know the odds of meeting you’re a love interest through a blind date? Want to know the odds of going on a cruise for your honeymoon? Want to know the odds that a high school senior will binge drink? How about the odds that you will die from heart disease? (Answers provided at bottom of this post)
The authors have been compiling data from many sources since 2006 and these sources are cited with each collection of information. Much of the information comes from the U.S. census and other government or academic studies; however, polls and research by more popular/commercial sources such as Cosmo, ABC News, and AskMen.com also appear.
The book design is very sparse: solid colors, geometric graphics, and a smattering of silhouette watermarks. Each page contains anywhere from two to five tables and columns filled with numbers along with short analytical sidebars that connect common trends. The design isn’t crowded but it is busy.
So what’s the attraction?
Maybe it’s the gamer in me.
Probability is at the heart of most games. Even those games like chess that do not use random events require players to understand the possible outcomes of any particular move. I would hazard a guess that the best games are the ones in which events are predictable but not certain. Players take action on the predictions they make and they take actions that will increase the accuracy of their predictions, but there must always be some degree of uncertainty. Great game design balances the rational with the uncertain.
But I think this book taps into something more profound than our ability to create simulations and diversions. Certainly we are a curious species—an information species. We gossip. We share bits of trivia, and in that regard, The Book of Odds is a like the Tree of Knowledge’s weedier cousin: the shrub of data.
It helps that almost all the odds are expressed in terms of “1 in something.” In this fashion all the events can be compared. Your chances of being hit by lightning can be matched against your chance of being killed by the flu (1 in 1,101,000 vs. 1 in 733,871) and these matched against your chance that your baby will actually be one of a set of triplets (1 in 723). We like to compare ourselves to others. We want to see where we stand. The Book of Odds is a great way to learn about the statistical outliers like lightning strikes, shark attacks, and Ebola outbreaks, but I think it is really at its most engaging when you recognize yourself in the numbers.
And the authors aren’t above a little prurient titillation to keep you moving through the chapters. Chapter One is titled “Sex” while the final chapter is “Accidents and Death.” The intervening chapters move chronologically (more or less) through a typical life cycle addressing dating, marriage, birth, childhood, school, health, psychology, and beliefs. Everything is here for thousands of sound bites for our 24 hour “news” culture: sex, drugs, and all the dangers and threats that will keep the audience coming back after the commercial break.
Your friends might give you grief about having a book like this on your coffee table, but leave them alone for a few minutes with it and chances are they will be flipping through the pages and asking you, “Hey can you guess the chances of…”
ANSWERS for paragraph 2 (in order): 1 in 34.1 / 1 in 10 / 1 in 3.2 / 1 in 427