March 10, 2016


Guinness World Records: Biggest and Smallest! By Christy Webster. Harper. $12.99.

Guinness World Records: Super Humans! By Donald Lemke. Harper. $12.99.

Guinness World Records: Wacky and Wild! By Calista Brill. Harper. $12.99.

Guinness World Records: Daring Dogs. By Cari Meister. Harper. $3.99.

Guinness World Records: Wacky Wheels. By Cari Meister. Harper. $3.99.

Guinness World Records: Amazing Body Records! By Christa Roberts. Harper. $5.99.

     This is such a clever marketing idea that the only wonder is that no one thought of it before – especially in light of the fact that Guinness World Records is essentially a marketing organization, having long since given up its original status of chronicling genuinely interesting and unusual accomplishments (as opposed to things that are simply weird, bizarre or, as two book titles here correctly indicate, wacky). In a video-saturated, Internet-driven age, it has become harder and harder for Guinness records to attract and maintain attention. Even the ones that do momentarily become the talk of the day, or Internet memes, stay in focus very, very temporarily among the public at large. The Guinness records are now of interest mostly to people determined to see their names and photos listed, to achieve what they think of as some sort of immortality or at least recognition. But there is nothing in the Guinness books that cannot be found online, and of course as records fall, which most inevitably do, the Internet knows far faster than anyone reading a book possibly can.  Yet there is something attractive, for fans of human foibles and the outrĂ©, in seeing just what sorts of people and other creatures hold this or that weird record. The usual Guinness books, though, are simply too much of a good (or not-so-good) thing: page after page of strangeness to, ultimately, little or no point. What is so clever in these six new books is the way they focus, in 176 or fewer pages, on some Guinness records, inviting people with an interest in particular things that Guinness measures to see and read about lots of those specific things.

     The three volumes where this works particularly well are the exclamatorily subtitled Biggest and Smallest! and Super Humans! and Wacky and Wild! The format of the three books is identical: lots of attractive glossy pictures with very, very brief descriptions of what the pictures show and when they were taken. The contents of the volumes do, in a sense, overlap: the largest chopsticks in the world, for example, appear in Biggest and Smallest! But they could fit just as well in Wacky and Wild! The longest ongoing pilgrimage is mentioned in Super Humans! but could just as well be in Biggest and Smallest! And so on. Still, the authors of the three books do a reasonable job of staying focused on what the books are supposed to be about. And although the old term “freak show” is long out of fashion, the modern, glossy equivalent represented by these books is as well-presented here as it is likely to be. The largest collection of food items (all plastic), biggest cooked ham, largest fish stick, smallest jet aircraft, longest rubber band – all are in Biggest and Smallest! The people who have eaten the most jelly with chopsticks in one minute, gone fastest on a skateboard, done the most consecutive chin-ups, done the largest solo ocean row, and had the most needles inserted into their head are in Super Humans! And yes, some of those “accomplishments” certainly sound as if they belong in Wacky and Wild! In fact, that book includes such records as the largest batch of scrambled eggs, largest trick roping loop, and world’s heaviest lemon (which, yes, is also in Biggest and Smallest! – there is indeed some repetition in the books). In a sense, the book that comes closest to the whole modern Guinness concept is Wacky and Wild! Readers interested in this sort of thing and looking for a miscellany will gravitate to that one; others may prefer the other focuses.

     And just to be sure young readers are introduced as soon as possible to Guinness records, hopefully becoming fans of the concept just as they are learning to read, there are now a couple of Guinness books in the 32-page I Can Read! series – at level 2 (“high-interest stories for developing readers”). Being quite short, these books contain only a smattering of records, which should be plenty for just-learning readers to enjoy, or to decide that they do not enjoy. Daring Dogs shows the world’s smallest living dog and smallest service dog, both Chihuahuas; the dog with the longest tongue, a Pekingese; the dogs that can hold the most tennis balls in their mouth and the most biscuits on their nose; and, in an entry that really does show daring (most of them do not), the dog that did the fastest tightrope crossing, a Border collie-Kelpie mix. For its part, Wacky Wheels includes some vehicles that are decidedly not wacky, such as the largest mining truck and largest land vehicle, also a piece of mining machinery; and some that certainly fit the title, such as the world’s largest rideable bicycle, tallest limo, longest golf cart and fastest motorized stroller. Both these books will be fun for kids looking for silly stuff that adults do.

     The only one of these bits-of-Guinness books that misfires is Amazing Body Records! Smaller than the other books and between them in length at 112 pages, this book says on the cover that it provides “The Stories Behind the Records,” which would be a niche of sorts if the statement were true. In fact, though, the book simply includes the usual minimal amount of information about the vast majority of the people pictured in it – although it does give a small bit of additional information on a few of the entries. Here can be found the record-holder for most bottle caps removed with one’s teeth in one minute, the man with the longest tongue, the man who broke the most baseball bats with his hand in one minute, the one with the widest unstretched mouth, the shortest woman, the heaviest woman, and so on. A missed opportunity here would have been to find out what motivates some of these people to do some of the things they do to get into the Guinness record book – breaking baseball bats with one’s hands? But exploring that topic too deeply would risk undermining the whole Guinness mystique, in which records of this sort and that are assumed to have inherent meaning even when they really do not. Guinness record holders are celebrities of a sort, within a rather constricted definition of the term, and that appears to be enough for them – and for Guinness to continue searching for and encouraging them. The clever repackaging of Guinness books is just another way to try to reach out and convince people that everything seen here has some meaning and importance beyond the patently obvious, if politically incorrect, “modern freak show” notion of the whole enterprise.

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