Alex Trebek’s inclusion in the Guinness World Records – for most episodes of a TV game show hosted by the same person (6,829) – has occasioned much reflection on the avuncular presenter’s impressive history and his great charm.
It’s fitting that the master of trivia be honoured by the world authority on trivia.
But for me, it also occasions a keenly nostalgic yearning for the old Guinness Book of Records, its powerful role in my childhood, and its sad devolution from actual reference book to glossy sidekick of the entertainment industry.
It was always a form of advertising, of course. It was conceived by a Guinness Breweries executive in 1954 as a free promotional giveaway.
Once it started being sold in bookstores, it broke records itself: In a few months, it was a No. 1 bestseller, and it now claims to be the world’s most-sold copyrighted book.
I was given a thick paperback copy of the Guinness Book of Records when I was 11 years old, and I read it gluttonously, cover to cover, paying special lip-smacking attention to all the incredibly gruesome chapters about the violence of human history.
All of its records about war were powerful evidence of horror. (“The country that suffered most in proportion to its population was Poland, with 6,028,000, or 17.2 per cent of its population of 35,100,000, killed.”) It’s where I learned about Elizabeth Bathory and the cult of Thugee and the largest non-nuclear explosion (in which, to my pride, my own home town figured prominently).
The Guinness Book was filled with useless trivia, sure – the hot dog-eating contests – but it was genuinely educational. And it came with its own troubling history. On the front page of editions after 1975 was a photo of one of its writers, Ross McWhirter, with the solemn notice that he had been assassinated “on his front doorstep” by the Irish Republican Army. It didn’t say what he had done to enrage the IRA, but that shocking image and its mystery prompted me to ask a lot of questions about the Irish conflict and then to read even more thrillingly upsetting accounts of war.
There was an odd tone to the writing in early editions of the book, all due to the strange personalities of its compilers, the twins Ross and Norris McWhirter. They were obsessive sports reporters, chosen to collect and verify records for Guinness because they were already running a sports statistic-gathering service, a sort of predigital, two-man search engine, in the early 1950s. They had amazing memories and often participated in quiz shows. They also had stern right-wing views.
You can tell which entries they wrote themselves, because they had a stiff Victorian style and a fondness for euphemism that remained unedited until editions of the 1980s. I remember puzzling over the cryptic entry for “greatest faux-pas,” which described an evening in America in 1877: “[Gordon Bennett] arrived in a two-horse cutter late and obviously in wine. By dint of intricate footwork he gained the portals to the withdrawing room, where he was the cynosure of all eyes. He mistook the fireplace for a plumbing fixture more usually reserved for another purpose.” I had to look up cynosure and ask my dad what “another purpose” was supposed to mean. Even then I knew that was ridiculously silly writing.
At the height of their success, Ross, aggressive conservative that he was, offered a bounty of £50,000 for the capture of some IRA bombers. The IRA saw that as a challenge, and killed him as he stepped out of his house. So it was by idly reading about the largest snail and the most expensive divorce and the most virulent parasite that I gained my first understanding of the bizarre Irish troubles.
I bought the book every year, well into adulthood, until I noticed, some time around 2000, that it was thinner. It didn’t have any of the historical stuff in it any more, just a lot of entertainment trivia and pictures of Madonna and Michael Jackson.
And that’s what it is now – a sort of illustrated advertising supplement to large media corporations’ menu of diversions. The organization still adjudicates world records in all sorts of categories, but it no longer prints them all in the book, or even make them all available on their website.
Why did this happen? Surely the classic book of records was still lucrative?
Norris McWhirter had continued to be an editor after his brother’s death, but he retired in 1985. The book enterprise was at that time run by a publishing company owned by Guinness, which was, in turn, owned by the giant alcohol conglomerate Diageo. In 2000, the name of the book changed: It was no longer called a book, in fact, but just Guinness World Records, to reflect the fact that the print edition was but one manifestation of the enterprise – there were now museums and TV shows, making it a brand rather than a book.
Nobody wanted thick reference books any more. Since 2001, the company has changed hands many times, ending up in the possession of Canadian billionaire Jim Pattison, who also owns Ripley Entertainment.
You can still look up a few of the old entries about war and famine – the ones that are the most thrilling for bored teenagers – by searching the website, but searching for something specific is not the same as reading sequential pages. I wouldn’t have known how fascinating famines were had I not just happened on their stats.
And, of course, the idiosyncratic language of the eccentric McWhirter brothers is long gone. All the truly scary record-setting is now excluded from competition: no more beer chugging, no more holding your breath underwater – it’s too dangerous.
One can’t help but see this evolution toward the light-and-innocuous as symbolic of media agglomeration and corporate communications generally; the bigger things get, the blander they get.
It’s great that I can look up a fact instantly on my cellphone, but I miss the days in my room with a dog-eared, text-heavy paperback, immersed in the statistics of crime and punishment and lunacy, completely alone with the narrative of human depravity.