Growing Up Weird with the Guinness Book of World Records
Mills revisits fond memories of reading the Guinness Book of World Records as a child (it sure beats Nightmare on Elm Street), and the lasting distortion the series has wrought upon her life.
A while back I was reading an article on the potential of celebrity children to feel frankly a little silly about being named, say, Peaches Honeybloom Geldof, once they come of age and start wanting careers of their own.
Besides real sympathy, the whole thing -- as things are wont to do to me at the oddest moments -- triggered off nostalgic flashbacks to my boon companion of rainy afternoons past: the Guinness Book of World Records. Now, I'm not talking about the post-millennium "Guinness World Records'; in fact, leafing through these new 'relevant' editions, all foil-gilt covers and colourblocked gossip ("Most Successful Plastic Surgery!") makes me kind of sad.
The Guinness book of my preteen-hood was a fat Bantam Books paperback, densely packed with doggedly businesslike prose ("The claims of M. Michael Lotito to have eaten a bicycle must, however, be regarded as apocryphal.") The combination of kaleidoscopic detail and determination to make sense of it was just endlessly charming to me. I can't really recommend a better way to inspire wholesale fascination with the human experience.
My favourite section, as you might suspect, dealt with Languages and Literature. This is where I first encountered Mr. Adolph Blain Charles David Carl Friedrich Gerald Hubert Erwin Jahn Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfschlegelstein...wischensternartigraum (this name goes on for miles), Senior, of Hamburg.
Unfortunately, he was kicked out of the hallowed pages around 1985, after it was discovered his 'medieval German' surname actually translates to:
Before old times there lived conscientious shepherds who maintained their sheep carefully. Then 12 thousand years ago appeared before the first earthly humans rapacious enemies. Their spaceships used light as their source of power. On their search for habitable planets they had made a long journey through outer space. The new race reproduced itself with reasoning mankind. They enjoyed their life, without fear of aggressions by other intelligent creatures from space.
...Come to think of it, this could explain the 269-year-old Russian guy, too ("For now, any claims far exceeding the current verified limit of 122 years must be viewed with deep skepticism.")
Closer kin to the Geldofs and Paltrows of the world is a later entry: "The longest name to appear on a birth certificate is Rhoshandiatellyneshiaunneveshenk Koyaanisquatsiuth Williams who was born on September 12, 1984, to Mr. and Mrs. James Williams of Beaumont, Texas. Three weeks later Mr. Williams filed an amendment that expanded his daughter's first name to 1,019 letters and he added thirty-six letters to her middle name."
I love that last bit. 'Added thirty-six letters to the middle name.' Like they were standing in the records office when they suddenly realised they'd left out Aunty Phyllis and Uncle Clyde.
The basic idea here, of course, was to screw The System over in as many ways as possible... although I'm guessing that backfired big-time about 16-years later, right after little Rhosha, etc., applied for her first drivers' license. Poor kid probably would've joined the Young Republicans on the spot, if she only could've filled out the membership card.
On the other hand, sometimes it just works out that way. Victor Borge in My Favourite Comedies in Music (which he swears is all true) tells the charming story of 19th-century conductor Jullien, whose dad was a bandmaster:
"Unfortunately, all the players in the band insisted on being the boy's godfathers, so his full name was Louis Georges Maurice Adolphe Roche Albert Abel Antonio Alexandre Noe Jean Lucien Daniel Eugene Joseph-le-Brun Thomas Antoine Pierre Carbon Pierre-Maurel Barthelemi Artud Alphonse Bertrand Dieudonne Emanuel Josue Vincent Luc Michel Jules-de-la-Plane Jules-Bazin Julio-Cesar Jullien. By the time they'd called him for lunch it was almost dinnertime."
Among the other treasures of the Language and Literature section was the Longest Words in Various Languages. Floccipaucinihilipilification, for instance. Man, I loved that one. Floccipaucinihilipilification, floccipaucinihilipilification, floccipaucinihilipilification. Too wonderful to be real, but according to Oxford it is: the act of estimating something as worthless. Despite that depressing definition it's impossible not to smile as you say it. I personally pored over it for days until I had the pronunciation down cold -- really. Next time we're at a party together, ask me to demonstrate.
I could even claim that this one little section was the beginning of the end of my innocence.
"Mom, who's Jacqueline Susann?" I asked one day, lifting my 11-year-old eyes from the Best-Selling Books of All Time.
"Why?" was the supicious response.
"Well, she's got Valley of the Dolls right up here on the list with the Bible, so I figure she must be, like, a really great literary figure, right? I was thinking of checking her out."
I don't think she's stopped chuckling since. Except at the moment she confiscated my library card until I turned 18. (Years later, when I saw the 'Ahhhh...the giants' scene in Star Trek IV, I giggled a little, too.)
For real drama, of course, nothing beat The Human Body. Here again time has not been kind; the focus these days is on such trifling novelties as 'Most Extreme Eyeball Popper'. Feh. What price popping peepers, against such delights as the photo of the 19-inch-tall shortest woman set on a table like a Dresden dolly? Imagining the almost-nine-foot tallest man trying to navigate around low-hanging streetlights and head-banging doorways? Envisioning a typical breakfast for the 1,064 (and later 1,400!) pound man, torn child-like between envy and horror?
Speaking of horror, how about the 65-year case of hiccups? That one haunted my dreams; all the explanation they ever gave. This was another beguiling feature of The Guinness Book of World Records, the explanations always stopped at the most interesting part. In this case, the incurable hiccups had been 'contracted while butchering a hog'. Frankly I couldn't see any logical connection, so I was forced to conclude that any random life event at all could result in my going through life sounding like Red Skelton on a bad day.
At least I knew I'd be safe from kuru -- laughing sickness -- listed as the disease with the highest mortality rate (tied-in with rabies, actually, which to this day causes me to look askance during walks through the park). Apparently it was found only on New Guinea, among members of the Fore tribe...whose funeral rites included a ceremonial chomp on the deceased's brain matter. No, I am not making this up! Years later I saw a Learning Channel report on the mad-cow outbreak, and there it was under related illnesses -- tribespeople falling all over themselves, literally giggling helplessly. You really do have to wonder at what must've been the seriously convoluted Fore theology.
The really creepy one, though, was longest coma. The current entry is largely unchanged from the original:
"Elaine Esposito (b. December 3, 1934) of Tarpon Springs, Florida, USA, never stirred after being anaesthetized for an appendectomy on August 6, 1941, when aged 6. She died on November 26, 1978, aged 43 years 357 days, having been in a coma for an incredible 37 years 111 days. Elaine was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Esposito. During her coma, she became known as "Sleeping Beauty", and experienced states between deep sleep and open-eyed unconsciousness."
Who needed Nightmare on Elm Street? Forget not showering; then and there, I resolved never to have surgery, never ever ever. Even if I received the world's most severe bear mauling, or was hit by lightning more than the record seven times. (And then he promptly killed himself over unrequited love of all things. Note to self: "Hey, wanna hear about how I got hit by lightning seven times?" is evidently not as great a pickup line as you'd think.)
Then there was the '15-year-old female patient' who 'yawned continuously for five weeks'. Or roughly the length of a Merchant-Ivory film festival. Seriously, what was up with that? You'd think the oxygen tank would've been wheeled in on day three at the latest.
On a lighter note, there was also the longest fingernails... as carefully maintained by a guy, hee hee hee twelvecakes. Longest hair, that was a good one. Some Indian swami had attained 26 feet (tactful footnote: "Unfortunately he was afflicted with the disease plica polonica, which causes severe matting.")
Then there was Life Sciences: the teeny pygmy marmosets, the huge prehistoric birds, the three-foot Stinking Corpse Lily (now you know why the world's largest flower has never become a Trump wedding accessory). Thirty-six-year-old cats (named 'Puss', which somehow offended me a little as a poor return for the achievement) and rarest dog breeds.
Rarest languages (imagine the frustration at being the only Eyak speaker left in the world?)....most valuable diamonds, most valuable shoes (mink-linked golf numbers with gold spikes and ruby-tipped laces)...windiest place, hottest place...
Highest-proof commercial alcohol - Everclear, @ 190 proof; society scion Gordon Bennett, who after a raucous New Year's Eve committed the greatest faux pas (he decided to head over to his gently-bred fiancee's family mansion without stopping at the little scion's room, and "mistook the fireplace for a facility more usually reserved for the purpose." (Aaaand the innocence slips another notch.)
Sweetest substance, smelliest substance, fastest, biggest, highest, craziest...
Ah, Guinness...what would I have done without you? Besides grow up normal and well-adjusted, I mean?