Graphics by Nigel Holmes
The Millennial Edition of Historical Statistics of the United States was published last year—the first significant revision to our national numeric archive since the Bicentennial Edition a generation ago.
Creating this new edition was more than a matter of adding births, personal-computer sales, cable-TV packages, and cell-phone subscribers, while subtracting everything dead or outsourced to China. It seems that fully three-quarters of all facts and figures from America federal, state, and local authorities have been generated since 1970. Likewise with about 80 percent of scholarly historical calculations. (The rise of the Internet and the fall in the price of pocket calculators turn out to be pretty damn historic, statistically speaking.)
Indeed, faced with an undertaking so expensive and complex, the United States government itself—an organization notoriously fond of cost and complication—said thanks, but no second helping for us. The project was taken on instead by Cambridge University Press, with the cooperation of the U.S. Census Bureau and scholars from, among other places, the Economic History Association, the Social Science History Association, and the Cliometric Society. (Clio is the muse of history, and her measurements, I’m led to believe, are va-va-voom stuff when she lets down her hair and takes off those glasses.) Eighty-three professors provided essays, analyses, and critiques. The list of research assistants and supplementary experts goes on for three pages. In case you’re still unimpressed by the magnitude of the enterprise, let me put it another way: The Millennial Edition sells for $1,100.
So this is an important research work. After all, we cannot, as a nation, know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been, even if I’m not exactly sure what I mean by that statement. Should we barrel down the highway to the future with our eyes glued to the rearview mirror? Should we keep in mind that if we forget history, we’ll end up repeating it, per that famous quote of Santayana’s? Yet consider the way history is taught these days: A survey of history students probably would show that they admire Santayana’s genius but hope his next CD won’t be just a remake of Supernatural with different vocalists.
Excuse me if I’m sounding a bit cracked and warped here. The Millennial Edition of Historical Statistics arrived at my office a fortnight ago weighing in at 25 pounds in five volumes totaling 5,286 pages and containing 37,339 data series quantifying everything that’s got quantity from the earliest Colonial period until the end of the 20th century. Wholesale price of New England codfish in 1634: 10½ shillings the hundredweight. Number of organized bowling teams in 1996: 1,023,785.
This would be enough to bend anyone’s mind. And it’s bent my mind the way it’s bent my IKEA bookshelves. I am a writer. I spend my days kneeling in the muck of language, feeling around for gooey verbs, nouns, and modifiers that I can squash together to make a blob of a sentence that bears some likeness to reason and sense. Imagine my ecstasy when I come across a hard, clean, bright, shiny number. Behold this gem of precision, perfect in its clarity and radiating mathematical reasonableness and arithmetical sensibility in every direction. I am free at last from the slime of words. Are shadows stretching their spectral arms to embrace the decline of day? Do vespers sound their quotidian knell? Does the gloaming echo with prelude to the nightingale’s descant? No! The sun sets at 7:56, and shut up.
Historical Statistics is an Aladdin’s cave full of such exactitudes. The size of its treasure trove virtually guarantees that it contains an answer—a dazzling, vivid integer of an answer—to every question about America and how it got that way. And I’ve spent the past two weeks plunging my arms deep into the Millennial Edition, then raising my hands high above my head and letting the diamonds, rubies, and pearls of enumeration dribble between my fingers while I cackle madly with glee.