Another thing I will miss at the end of July are the questions asked by customers at the Book Fair. It’s a result of that year I spent working a reference desk: the thrill of tracking down an obscure book, the fun of learning about a book you didn’t know existed, the challenge of figuring out exactly what the eager questioner is talking about.
In the excitement of the moment, and given the penchant of some authors for long titles, can lead to some wonderful titles. Charlie Wonka and the Candy Company was easy enough to track down (don’t know why the moviemakers had to change the title of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just to make things more confusing) and Over the River and Through the Woods was easier once the questioner mentioned Ernest Hemingway (whose novel is actually called Across the River and Into the Trees: easy mistake.)
A Midnight’s Summer Dream would actually be a great title for a book, but Shakespeare’s most difficult title is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes, I know. I always want to make it a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream myself. This is why I always laugh WITH the questioners. The mistakes are minor, and as long as you know what is meant, you don’t have to correct the questioner. (No, honest: you don’t HAVE to. Fight the compulsion.) I will sometimes ask “by Shakespeare?” just in case the person really wants a book called A Midsummer Dream Night.
So I do not mock the people who ask to see the Guinness World Book of Records. They were obviously brought up on World Book encyclopedias, and I know what they mean. I also get it if they ask for The Guinness Record Book or the Guinness World Record Book. It’s a book I read in my younger, more leisurely days, and I can generally find a copy in the Book Fair array, even if it has changed a lot over the years (as a global phenomenon, it now prefers to be known as Guinness World Records. They could have started with that.)
What happened, see, was essentially that these two hunters walked into a bar in England, and started to argue about whether they had just missed shooting Europe’s fastest game bird, or only the second fastest. After exhausting the resources of a small collection of reference books, one of them decided a book listed basic world records would be a useful thing for settling arguments in bars. Guinness, a natural presence in British pubs, took an interest, and one of the employees happened to know a couple of brothers who remembered everything.
Ross and Norris McWhirter thus put together a book, which was given out in bars in 1954. Its popularity encouraged them, and Guinness, to try selling an edition, which was published as the Guinness Book of Records in 1955. It shot to the top of the bestseller charts in no time at all, and an American edition, the Guinness Book of World Records, was published the following year.
Of course, once a record becomes widely known, people try to break it. The book got bigger and bigger, and of course branched off gradually into television series. The McWhirter brothers continued to provide the brainpower behind the book until 1975, when Ross was assassinated, after which Norris carried it alone. The British and American titles eventually merged as the Guinness Book of World Records, owned and operated by Guinness Superlatives, which eventually changed ITS name to Guinness World Records. This company started to change hands around the turn of the most recent century and, in a fairly logical twist, wound up owned by the company which also owns the license to Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
By this time, Norris McWhirter had retired, and the new owners took the book in a new direction, adding lots of illustrations and cutting back on a lot of the less exciting records. The outfit also put a lot more work into adjudicating attempts to break records, and eventually figured out that there was money to be made in helping people break records. Along the way, certain records were dropped so people wouldn’t try to break them, from number of cocktail olives consumed in twenty minutes (dangerous, especially if the toothpick is not removed) to largest hoard of pennies (taking a lot of money out of circulation can add a bad bounce to your economy.) A video game, naturally, was developed, and though I have not heard anything new about the movie version of the book, I don’t doubt that it’s still lying in wait.
If you want help looking for the book at some future book binge, as long as you mention the words Guinness and records, MOST of our volunteers will know not to send you to the boxes of LPs and 45s. That’s almost as certain as the fact that I could NOT write a column of this nature without mentioning The Divine Sisters of the Yeah-Yeah Secrethood.