Tuesday, December 23, 2008
John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise was hilarious. Yes, I actually found myself laughing out loud and what not; but that was not what was most fascinating a bout the book. Actually, the whole thing was pretty fascinating, even if it was completely made up.
I was turned on to John Hodgman’s work, funny only if you know that JH is the PC guy in the Mac commercials, by my girlfriend. If she is reading this review, you know who you are Sara Hof—aka the girl of my dreams (which is fact)—go ahead and stop reading because your Christmas present from my parents is implicated here so skip ahead to the next paragraph. So anyway, since this is obviously a review of John Hodgman and since he has another book out right now, I am sure anyone can figure out that my parents gift to my one true love in life is JH’s second work, More Information that You Require, and also since my gf is a genious and what not and the only person who reads my blog, it isn’t going to shock you, Sara Hof, when my parents hand over this gift to you whenever we go home to Indianapolis, whenever that may be, so just act surprised I guess.
Anyway, Hodgman’s satirical almanac of absurd historical information and totally made up facts about nearly everything makes for some good reading. In a day and age when we are bombarded with constant information, worthless facts seep in from every aspect of life and these things that we accumulate don’t really offer us anything. They don’t bring us any added skill to the work place and unless you go on Jeopardy! they aren’t going to make you any money. So why read an almanac filled with facts that your not going to be able to use, specifically Hodgman’s? Answering this question proves interesting and in it lies the genius, if you can really call it that, of Hodgman’s work, for in the info that he bestows upon us isn’t accurate at all, in fact, he goes beyond just making it up, he actually works hard at providing but nonsensical, incorrect info. The few things here that do in fact end up being true, i.e. discovery of a real furry lobster, he actually spends some time in asserting that this furry lobster and the one describes (actually a sea otter) “are not the same creature at all.”
What has come to be the most popular part of the book, the chapter “What You Did Not Know about Hoboes,” was actually something I had read in 2005’s edition of America’s Best Non-required Reading, which features David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to my graduating class at my alma mater Kenyon College that has become insanely popular since his self-inflicted death and can be found here. Though this section has brought hoboes into the mainstream, my favorite part of the work has to do with writing successful books. In that section, JH actually gives some pretty solid advice when he writes that one of the essentials one must have as a writer is “the belief that the world cares about what you have to say,” (47) which is a tough thing to have, really, and it is about the only thing that can make anyone really want to write, otherwise, there aren’t really all that many things to really motivate you. I also find his life of a writer to be pretty accurate when he says “Mine is the typical life of the professional writer: one of quiet contemplation and knowledge-gathering and masturbation and the cashing of enormous checks,” (18) except for the part about cashing enormous checks.
One of the interesting and surprising things about Hodgman’s work is that it does force you to learn in this absurd way. Because all of the jokes aren’t clear unless you have some pretty extensive knowledge, you end up looking up a great deal of stuff to fully appreciate his satirical wit. With knowledge, as JH explains, the world is “perhaps less magical, but also less frightening.” “Such is the effect of KNOWLEDGE,” he goes on, “upon the brain—a zinging clarity that does not quickly fade, but will last all the way to dinner, and then by bedtime will turn into awful, crushing dread,” (223) which is truth. So basically, what JH has done is played a sort of joke on us while critiquing our need for hard statistical facts, by embracing that need for constant knowledge though providing knowledge that is false and lacks meaning and in that, guess what, there is meaning.