Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review - Getting into Guinness

I used to love the Guinness Book of World Records when I was a kid. As a big sponge for facts, my preteen self would eagerly digest all of the book's various superlatives, the biggest, the highest, the fastest, and so forth. The only part of the book I didn't care much for was the Human Achievements section, the chapter with the Largest Salami and the Oyster Opening records. They just seemed stupid to me, hardly achievements at all, and, as recently as 1992 (the last edition I could find on my shelves), constituted a small portion of the text.

In subsequent years, then, I was dismayed to see the book get more focused on these tasks and less on the records like Noisiest Land Animals (howling monkeys, if you must know). The book had more pictures of guys pulling buses with their teeth, and it was obvious to me that the media empire that the book became enjoyed the TV shows with the record-breaking attempts. I did not, and Guinness was no longer a must buy.

Writer Larry Olmsted was equally fascinated by the book, but, for him, the important part of the book was all the stuff I didn't care about. He, like many others, became involved with the quest to get into the book, believing that it was some small part of immortality that was accessible to Everyman. So he wrote his own book, Getting into Guinness: One Man's Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World's Most Famous Record Book (2008).

In it, he chronicles his own two Guinness records, and tells stories about others who have "worked" to find a place in the record book. In particular, he tells the story of Ashrita Furman, a man who has devoted a remarkable amount of time and energy to setting records (216 of them at last count). And he goes back to Furman, again and again.

We find out that the most difficult part of setting a record is contriving the category in the first place. Most of Furman's records are in events he has made up himself, and it's this arbitrariness that I find the most obnoxious. Maybe it's impressive to run the fastest on stilts, but in the end I find it pretty uninvolving. Olmsted, despite some nods to the clear obsessiveness that afflicts some of these aspirants, has fallen under this spell himself, so his lengthy chapter on playing poker for 72 hours is of far greater interest to himself than it could be to anyone else.

I'm willing to concede that this book may just not be my cup of tea, and I understand how difficult it can be to tell the story of a book; that doesn't explain why he tells us the sequence of covers and editions three separate times (I suspect Olmsted's is a book that grew out of magazine articles, which could explain the repetitiveness). So he made a choice to focus on the people rather than the records, and I just didn't find it pleasurable to spend time with them; some of them are clearly somewhat addled, and I found them discomfiting, not inspiring.

Getting into Guinness is not a terrible book. Olmsted is a professional writer and storyteller, and there are a few tales and people of interest. But there's always a danger when a writer falls too much in love with his subject, and I fear that's the case here. There is probably a serious book to be written on why setting arcane records is so important to some people, but this isn't it. It's pretty much a 320 page-long magazine article, and, if you're like me, you'll probably see your interest wane somewhere along the way.

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