Guinness World Records, 2002


In 1951 the managing director of the Guinness Brewing Company came up with the World’s Greatest Promotional Idea. While a member of a shooting party, he got in an argument over what the fastest game bird in Europe was, the golden plover or the grouse. Deciding that what the world really needed was a final arbiter for such arcane matters, he commissioned a pair of fact-checkers to come up with a Guinness Book of World Records.

In order to keep the public interested in what has now become an institution, the people at Guinness have to constantly find new records. In some cases this isn’t too hard, since our knowledge of the universe keeps expanding (the “most massive extrasolar planet” and “largest solar flare” are new this year) and there seem to be no end of people who will do anything to get into the only record book that counts.

Unfortunately, a lot of the “good” records – the ones that really strike the reader as impressive – are already taken. Robert Wadlow, at 8’11’’, has been the world’s tallest man for as long as the book has been published. And the Russian woman who gave birth to 69 children in the 18th century will likely remain the “most prolific mother” for some time. Compared to achievements like these, who cares that Lil Bow Wow was the youngest No. 1 rapper on the U.S. charts? Given the nature of today’s entertainment industry, most records in the arts categories are meaningless. Meanwhile, the only new records in the animal world seem to be novelty acts like the “most romantic guinea pig” and (this one held by a Canadian!) the “highest freestyle jump by a dog.”

If the 2002 edition is any indication, the people at Guinness are having to scrape the bottom of the barrel in order to keep their material fresh. Nothing is too trivial or obscure. The world’s tallest and heaviest statues are worthwhile categories; but the largest sculpture made of absorbent cotton? Or hornet nests? These are just stunts.

Then there are the collections. The largest collection of active credit cards and largest collection of four-leaf clovers (over 72,000, many of them gathered within a prison yard, alas) are silly stand-bys because most people can relate to such afflictions. But the inclusion of categories like the “largest collection of navel fluff” (15.41 grams), “largest collection of airline sickness bags” (2,112), and “largest collection of lawn gnomes” (2,010 of them on a private “Gnome Reserve” in England) takes obsession too far. Guinness shouldn’t be giving people ideas.

Something else they shouldn’t be doing, or at least doing so much of, is product placement. Categories for best-selling consumer items like videogames should be reconsidered. Records shouldn’t be branded with corporate logos. Including someone like Donald A. Gorske, who has consumed over 17,500 Big Macs (at least one and sometimes as many as nine a day for the past 29 years), is a downright dangerous plug.

Guinness World Records has always been a book to browse rather than read, and this year’s design, which imitates the look of an Internet browser complete with link codes to the Guinness Web-site, brings the point home. Throw in some gratuitous pictures of sexy celebrities (what records do Anna Kournikova, Britney Spears, and the Brazilian woman’s beach volleyball team hold?) and you might as well be clicking on a mouse as turning pages.

And yet it is possible to actually learn something from this giant, trashy book every time you pick it up. And yes, it is still a lot of fun.

Review first published December 8, 2001.


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