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A little knowledge

John Hodgman’s hodgepodge of faux facts


One of the consequences of having so much information at our disposal, all the time, is that the mind demands a filter. It just can’t handle the sorting anymore. A human head weighs 9 pounds; Sam Cooke was born without the “e”; the British refer to flatulence as “wind”; George H.W. Bush used to pee out the upstairs window at his in-laws’ home so as not to wake them up. What does one do with all these disparate facts?

You can rest easy now that writer and humorist John Hodgman is on the case. Man, does this guy like categories. The Areas of My Expertise, his new autobiography-cum-almanac, contains all sorts of cubbyholes for the world’s tidal wash of details. If you want to know some common hobo names, for instance, there’s a list of 700 here. Hodgman can also tell you how to read any number of omens, such as the sight of an obese boy eating corn on the cob: it means in-brain television will soon become a reality.

And so it goes throughout this book: Hodgman begins with a category (such as typical literary plots) or a piece of information (like the fact that hockey players wear mullets) and then quickly veers off path. In this fashion he digresses through the history of bad haircuts, the use of catfish in trimming beard hair, and how prolonged eye-contact can help you win a fight.

Hodgman’s journal of his trip to the Mall of America is a perfect study of how he lays his booby traps for humor. “At 200 million square feet, the Mall of America is the largest mall in the United States,” he starts off, then proceeds to list a few true facts. Then comes, “It is not, I should point out, the largest mall in North America. That distinction belongs to the West Edmonton Mall, which contains 7,000 baseball-cap shops, a sausage factory, a complete medieval castle, twelve monorails, and the entire township of East Edmonton, preserved like Pompeii at the exact moment it was devoured by the West Edmonton Mall.”

The trick to this kind of humor lies in how easily it seeps from fact to fiction without your immediate knowledge—or with your knowing but not remotely caring. A former literary agent who now writes factual articles for newspapers, Hodgman is a good mimic of various kinds of official language and he can make you second guess the obvious untruth of what he is writing. Perhaps being among the more gullible of readers, I found myself Googling half of what I thought might be true. (I did know better than to accept Hodgman’s assertion that Chicago is in fact a made-up city.)

The almanac as a literary genre has been spoofed like this before, notably by Ricky Jay in Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, but no one has done quite what Hodgman does here in taking the subjective intelligence that crept through the cracks in Poor Richard’s Almanac or the Farmers’ Almanac and blowing it way up into a funny little thought-balloon of self-ridicule.

Throughout the book, Hodgman refers to himself as a “professional writer,” reminding us that he is an expert, and that he should be trusted. “You may recall my work,” he writes on several occasions, but of course we don’t: this is his first book. There is a limit to this type of humor, but unlike, say, fellow McSweeney’s alum Neal Pollack, who built an entire shtick around ironic boasting, Hodgman is never belligerent. Rather he is more than happy to play pathetic. Thus, halfway into his compartmentalization of common literary plots, Hodgman suddenly announces that he recently found himself “once again at three in the morning cleaning up one of my cats’ vomit, moving swiftly of course, so that the other cat would not swoop in and eat it.”

Okay, so perhaps that’s too much information. But it is not a stretch to say that some of what’s included here is in fact useful. Hodgman’s “tipping guide to the great hotels” will make the cosmopolitan gentleperson’s life that much easier. And I never understood before, for instance, that snow forts ought to be located on higher ground.

Still, the vast majority of this material is likely to make a reader think the book belongs on top of their upstairs bathroom toilet, where it can be read in quiet and a contemplative mood. Not charmed by the idea of Roland Barthes applying his intelligence to the Muppet Movie? Skip ahead and drink down Hodgman’s nifty list of euphemisms for alcohol, including “Mystery nip,” “Zip Sauce,” “Stutter milk” and, my favorite, “French mayonnaise.”

There’s a lesson to be learned in this creative jiggling of the flotsam of factual life: true power never comes with knowing. If you study old almanacs, you recognize that knowledge is always changing. And doing so frequently will make you question what exactly knowledge is, anyway. No, the truest power comes with naming—as in giving your St. Bernard the name Thom, or your sweetheart a nickname only he or she can recognize. It gives the world an order which did not exist before, or did so only in one’s own head. And so it is with full awareness of my imperfect knowledge as a critic of literature that I’ll have a go at naming this little book. I think it’s a hit.

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