The very last word from Guinness

Book: What better way to track the biggest feats of the last thousand years than this argument-settling collection?

September 27, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

My God, it's here: Guinness World Records 2000. Not just a book. An arbiter. The Last Word. The be-all and end-all. The Alpha and the Omega. No bar or dorm should be without one.

This book doesn't just catch the eye. It blinds the eye. You could bounce sunlight off its high-gloss silver cover. The Day-Glo orange inside is straight from a Peter Max poster. The first photo is of Austin Powers. How deliciously shagadelic!

"That is pure merchandising, to be honest," says Mark C. Young, CEO of Guinness Media Inc., USA and publisher of Guinness World Records 2000. "You have to be as topical as you can with the photographs."

The book is aimed at teen-agers, the shock troops of pop culture. A baby boomer might have trouble with the design, might even have to squint through bifocals. But for someone raised on video games and MTV this book is so of the moment.

To call it an almanac would be too dry. This gaudy, garish grab-bag is more than just facts and figures. It is a compendium of our time. Bury it in a time capsule so people 500 years from now will know what fascinated us in the waning days of the 20th century.

Now, there are shortcomings. This book doesn't name the best actress, the best basketball player or the prettiest woman. Those subjective debates have no end. "Guiness World Records 2000" is made for the quantifiable record.

"I think what makes it unique and its big attraction is people look at it and say, `Maybe I can balance nine golf balls on my chin,' or whatever," says Young, who fields thousands of inquiries from people seeking the Guinness imprimatur.

Guinness World Records 2000 answers questions of distance, speed, the number of people in the world's longest conga line. (Answer: 119,989 people during a festival in Miami.) Nearly 300 pages of the interesting, the mundane and the bizarre are here. Some things make you wonder: How does a person figure that out?

Jim Chichon discovered his talent -- and the word is used in its loosest form -- as a child. His tear ducts work in two directions. This means he can shoot a jet stream of milk from his eyes. Last year on "Guinness World Records: Primetime" he squirted milk 6 feet 7 1/2 inches. A new world record! Pause and consider that feat. It is one of thousands in this collection.

Cindy Jackson, the "human Barbie doll" is here, looking swell after 27 cosmetic surgeries; the smallest surviving twins, 2-feet, 10-inch real estate speculators with a motivational speaking company called "Think Big," are on another page; then there is Cindy Margolis, a one-time "Baywatch" Babe who has pulled a three-peat as the most downloaded woman on the Internet.

Johann Gutenberg could not have imagined this book back in the middle of our now-fading millennium. Record-keeping was centuries away from its Golden Age. That time is now, one could say and, in this case, one will say, the era began in the early 1950s when Sir Hugh Beaver, then managing director of the Guinness brewing company, became involved in disputes about whether the golden plover or the grouse was Europe's fastest game bird.

One thing led to another. Sir Hugh realized a book with the answer could resolve fights in neighborhood pubs, on hunting ranges, the farthest reaches of Britannia and beyond. That was nearly 50 years and 100 million copies ago. Now you can find the book in 77 countries and read it in 38 languages.

It's not really a book to read. You browse these pages, dipping in for a tidbit to enliven a conversation or fill some dead air on the radio. "Say, did you know a guy once ran backward from Los Angeles to New York City? Yep. Took him 107 days."

Of course, a book about the biggest, the longest, the fastest, the tallest, a book groaning under the weight of superlatives, comes with its own sense of the spectacular. According to Guinness, the millennium edition's 2.4 million copies is the largest print order in the world placed at one time for a case-bound book printed in four colors.

A forest died for this book. There's 12,650 miles of paper in these editions. Laid end to end, the books would form a silver path from Philadelphia to Boston. If stacked one on top of the other, they would stand 33 miles high. Enough? How about this: 36.3 tons of plastic were needed to make the shiny silver plate for all those covers.

Now, what drives people to be a part of all this? For some, there is a physical or spiritual barrier to overcome. For others, there is the thrill of the challenge.

"Essentially, if you're going to be the best at anything, even if it is spitting a cricket, you're going to have to work at it," says Young. "We had a champion for that, and I said, `No one is going to want to beat that. They might eat them, but no one is going to beat that."

Sure enough, after a broadcast of the event, a challenger came forward and set a new record by spitting a dead cricket 32 feet 1/2-inch.

"Those are the ones you think, `No, no, we can't be doing that.' But that's the kind of thing we do," says Young.

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