Out of things to talk about? Let this book make you more interesting

There are many good reasons to pick up Mike Lowery’s new book and devour it like a haggis ice cream cone from Scotland or a hunk of the world’s most expensive cheese that happens to be made from donkey milk.

Sure, it’s cool learning that such, uh, delicacies exist. Or that there’s someone out there who actually ran a 26.2-mile marathon while knitting a 12-foot-long scarf. Or even that the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein once wrote a best-selling romance novel.

But the best reason of all to commit Lowery’s “Random Illustrated Facts” to memory?

You’ll never again be at a loss for words. Friends, maybe …

“I’ve always been the most annoying person at parties,” Lowery, 37, chuckled. “Now it can be you!”

You should be so lucky. For one thing, Decatur resident Lowery is the opposite of annoying in conversation. The married father of two young children genially answers even the most nonsensical questions about his book and occasionally apologizes when talk of one of his random facts takes him off on an even more interesting tangent.

For another thing, Lowery’s name is on the cover of so many books, even he’s not sure of the grand total. “A ton,” is how his website puts it. When pressed, he estimates it’s “about 40,” many of them irresistibly titled series of books for kids — exhibit A: “Dr. Proctor’s Fart Powder” — for which he’s provided the clever illustrations. That includes the “Ken Jennings Junior Genius Guides,” a series of books written by Jennings, who’s become something of a nerd pinup boy as a result of holding the record for the longest winning streak on “Jeopardy!”

From the writing to the artwork, “Random Illustrated Facts” is all Lowery’s work — something Jennings points out in his jokingly envious cover blurb:

“I have spent my whole life collecting random facts, but Mike Lowery has discovered something even better,” Jennings writes. “Facts that are random and illustrated.”

And pretty much impossible to stop reading. Divided into five sections — random facts about history, animals, food and drink, science and the catch-all “everyday things” — the book is a reflection of Lowery’s lifelong interest in lesser-known bits of information that may sound too curious or weird to be true. But the fact that they are true (he’s verified everything in the book) only adds to their allure.

“My parents were big travelers, and my dad was a fan of books on tape about the etymology of words and weird news and random informational stuff,” said Lowery, who was born in Tennessee and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. “We had those kinds of books around the house that were about weird history and things like that. I kind of grew up around it.”

But it wasn’t until about 2 1/2 years ago that he started sort of obsessing over it professionally. Back then, Lowery taught illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, and he tried to get there about an hour early most days to have time to draw for himself. “My whole job is drawing,” explained Lowery, who, even now that he’s no longer at SCAD, spends about an hour each day “warming up” that way before getting to work on what he describes as illustrating “other people’s projects,” like books, greeting cards and calendars.

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One day, not sure of what to draw, he found himself illustrating a bizarre but true factoid he’d come across: A chicken nugget had sold on eBay for over $8,000, because it looked like George Washington. If it’s not officially his first-ever random fact (Lowery’s not certain himself), it should be, for the way it remains uppermost in his mind to this day. And for how it sort of perfectly encapsulates what qualifies as a random fact.

Here are a few others, randomly (what else?) culled from the book:

  • There’s a Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia that “showcases objects from bad breakups.”
  • You’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than by a shark.
  • The shiny coating on jelly beans is made from a goo secreted by bugs.

Clearly, this isn’t some polite game of Trivial Pursuit that Lowery’s playing here.

“I try to find things that are surprising when you hear them for the first time, or maybe every time,” chuckled Lowery, who started out posting one whimsically illustrated or slyly punchlined “random fact” per day on his Instagram account, a practice he’s maintained to this day. “My hope would be that some of them are so unbelievable, you have to look into them more.”

Indeed, that one on Page 49 about a reindeer that briefly lived on a British submarine during World War II almost begs for further research (and a big-screen movie treatment). The one on Page 68 that says, “Without bats we wouldn’t have tequila” absolutely demands it, if only to ensure the future of the world’s margarita supply.

In part, that’s by design. The format Lowery came up with early on of a one-sentence fact accompanied by a humorous illustration.

But the end results can be randomly wonderful.

“People read a surprising thing and they say, ‘Here’s what I think about that,’ or ‘Here’s my experience,’” Lowery said. “I really like the conversation that comes out of it.”

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