Sunday, February 22, 2009

One for the records

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, books about books

I could gush wildly about the Guinness record books, but that would simply be redundant. Larry Olmstead doesn't gush, but he definitely presents a thorough run-down in Getting Into Guinness: One Man's Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World's Most Famous Record Book. What began as a sporting article with a 'hook' turned into a mini-obsession for a few years. Olmstead came out of it with a couple of records of his own, but writing the book got him blacklisted by the Guinness World Records editors!

The author's original attack on a record involved playing 18 holes of golf in Australia, flying to Los Angeles, and hopping off the plane to play another 18 before the day ended. Crossing the International Date Line helped extend the day enough to make the attempt even possible. For several months he held the record of playing two courses the farthest apart on the same day. Then someone repeated his deed, but going a few suburbs farther away for the second game, to break his record.

A couple years later, egged on by "What have you done lately"-type comments, he played poker for 72 hours and two minutes, setting a record that still holds. Writing this book doesn't constitute any sort of record, but I think getting blacklisted by the Guinness editors does!

To prevent this becoming a rather short exercise in 'look what I did', Olmstead gives us a thorough history of the famous, fifty-year-old endeavor that is Guinness World Records (and several variations on the title), which is now published in about forty languages worldwide. It has become the second-most-read book, second only to the Bible. One chapter, plus bits here and there, are a mini-biography of Ashrita Furman, who holds the record for having the most records. Furman seems uncannily able to dash off records such as pogo-stick-hopping up the CN Tower in Toronto or rolling an orange many miles by pushing it with his nose, or carrying a brick (hand downward) for several hours while walking thirty miles or so.

What makes Guinness so popular? In a word or two: Human Interest. Ostensibly about the highest, lowest, longest, shortest, biggest, smallest, fastest (even slowest?) and a host of other -ests, it is about people, people, people, and to a lesser extent about animals and some less animate creations…which are mainly human artifacts. Though the book was set up originally by the brewery whose name it carries, it has long been an independent entity. Recently acquired by the Ripley organization, a publishing rival, it'll be interesting to see how Guinness World Records and Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not continue to coexist, if indeed they do.

What I and the author, and many others, find odd is that so many of the records the Guinness organization collects remain unpublished. Less than a tenth of new records are published each year, along with a few percent of the entire database of old favorites such as the two Roberts (Wadlow the tallest, Hughes the fattest—Actually, Robert Hughes's nearly 1,200-pound weight has been surpassed, so recent editions no longer list him). The privately-held company that publishes the books continues mum on the subject.

Getting into Guinness closes with four Appendices, including detailed instructions for applying to have a record set and recorded in Guinness. The book is a good companion volume to your own set of record books—you do have a few, don't you?

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