Like the installments that came before them, newly released editions of "Guinness World Records" and "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" stand squarely in the ancient tradition of strangeness- mongering wonder tales. They're not really about the "how" or the "why"; they're all about the "whoa." While both books provide a veneer of science and objective fact, the details aren't there to teach or contextualize, but to get us to buy the premise: Herein lies secret knowledge detailing the biggest, smallest, oddest and scariest things on Earth.
There's an absurd, egalitarian joy in seeing the jaw-droppingly profound stand cheek-to-jowl with the eye-poppingly stupid. Open "Guinness World Records 2012" (Guinness World Records, $28.95) to page 22, and you'll learn that the farthest object from Earth is a galaxy so old and distant that its light takes 13.2 billion years to reach us. A record like that inspires a real sense of awe. Now go to page 145, and you'll learn that the fastest time to eat two 3-ounce bags of watercress is 49.69 seconds. Makes you think, doesn't it?
Significance aside, the common thread among the Guinness record-holders is that each suggests something about the limits of our existence: the depth of the ocean, the fastest runner, the heaviest potato, most watermelons chopped on a stomach and so forth. The fact is what it is. The onus is on you, dear reader, to determine whether it's amusing, confusing, awe- inspiring or -- as is often the case -- just plain ridiculous.
But come to the book with an open and limber mind, and there's a lot to work on. The discovery of the first arsenic-based life form in Mono Lake, Calif., suggests the arbitrary nature of our definition of life. And the inclusion of "Highest Score on Guitar Hero III (Female)" makes one wonder how minor a record the Guinness people will recognize in order to print a photo of an attractive young woman in a short dress jamming on a fake guitar.
Because it lacks the biggest, fastest, highest-scoring, most-chain-saws-juggled claims of "Guinness," "Ripley's Believe It or Not!: Strikingly True" by Geoff Tibballs (Ripley Publishing, $28.95) is a less provocative book, more like a clip file of News of the Weird stories. There are, however, some fascinating bits and bobs scattered throughout its pages.
For example: A Thai Buddhist monk named Loung Pordaeng died in 1973 while seated in the lotus position and remains in that position to this day as per his dying request, thanks to a seemingly inexplicable process of natural mummification. That this happened despite a hot and humid climate seems to be something of a miracle; that the monk chose to be a posthumously displayed memorial to meditation is a profound statement of faith. Unfortunately, the 100-word blurb that accompanies the photo of the mummy (wearing sunglasses) doesn't afford the authors much room to explain the process of preservation or to consider the spiritual and emotional details of the monk's life. It's more along the lines of, "Wow, this dude, like, meditated and turned into a mummy!"
While the frantic pace and quick-hit style make for good bathroom reading, it would be nice to see a version of "Ripley's" with fewer entries and more space to explore the fantastic subjects. A section on ghosts and ectoplasm, for instance, spends more time indulging readers' romantic longing than debunking supernatural claims. At a time when straight-faced "ghost hunter" shows haunt the TV lineup and American scientific learning is at a nadir, it would be nice for pop culture to step in and educate rather than sensationalize.
OK, not very likely. But it would make a cool "Believe It or Not."