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Original Essays

Books, Most Devoured

by Steven Church
  1. The Guinness Book of Me

    The Guinness Book of Me

    Steven Church
    "Church's sublime, existential meditation on what it means to be strange is required reading for anyone who has ever felt out of place, which is everyone. Alert the Guinness Book people: This may be the most oddly beguiling book every written." Tom Bissell

    "Church examines many powerful memories...that mark him as a rigorously observant and emotionally perceptive writer likely to stay on readers' radar." Publishers Weekly

My favorite comments about a book are the ones where people confess to reading it in a single sitting or in a couple of extended reading-bursts. Some even offer up a time to support their claims. Two hours. Six hours. Two days. Others name places: in the car, on the train, in the rain, at work, in bed after the kids are asleep, with a flashlight. My appreciation for these feats stems partly from their Guinness-like quality and the way people seem to brag. But another part loves the obsessive consumption that underlies these activities. These people are literally devouring books, gobbling them up word by word, page by page in an orgy of reading indulgence. These people have the munchies for words. These are your truly voracious readers. A. J. Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All and renowned extreme reader says in his very own From the Author piece on, "After my reading each day, I'd feel full, like I'd stuffed my head with a Thanksgiving dinner. I wish I could have unbuttoned the pants around my brain and let out my cerebral cortex a bit."

If I've learned anything from my obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records it's that consumption — eating in particular — is a huge part of the freak-culture behind the Guinness Books, as a well as being a big part of the culture of my family. Of course there are your people who enter eating contests, people like Abraham "Bozo" Miller, who according to my 1980 Super-Edition of the Great Book had been undefeated in eating contests since 1931. Bozo apparently consumed up to 25,000 calories per day and, in one case, ate 54 pounds of chicken at a sitting. In these earlier editions of the books, folks like Bozo were called trenchermen — a moniker I think someone should definitely adopt for their punk-rock band. There's also Peter Dowdeswell of England who is pictured in the book wearing a black hat at some sort of sandwich eating contest. His young son is perched on his lap — confirming many of my expectations for father-son relationships around eating. As of 1980 Pete held the record in ten categories: beer, eels, eggs (hard, soft, and raw), pancakes, potatoes, prunes, sandwiches, and shrimp. The book informs you that Pete plans to try for lemons and gherkins soon. His son looks so happy to just be sitting on his dad's lap, watching him cram sandwiches down his gullet.

Guys like Bozo and Pete are fascinating enough, but it's the other people, the really strange ones, that interest me even more — mainly because they haven't really intended to set a record or because their intentions don't seem adequate to justify their actions. Jay Gwaltney, for example, ate an 11 ft. tall birch tree (with a 4.7 in. diameter trunk) in eighty-nine hours to win $10,000 in a radio station contest. But the book doesn't tell you how he ate the tree. They leave this up to your imagination. Think about that. How would you eat a tree? What would it take? Would $10,000 be enough? Would you eat a book?

There's another entry about an "insane woman" named Mrs. H. who holds the World Record for compulsive swallowing. She didn't intend to set a record. Nonetheless they found 2,533 objects in her stomach, including 947 bent pins. Once again, you just have to wonder about motivation; but also the practical details of swallowing 947 bent pins. You realize of course that she'd have to bend each one of those pins herself; and you can't just swallow a handful of pins. It would take some real commitment, some real emptiness and loss deep inside, to think that you could fill yourself up with bent pins.

I always seem to look for the loss, the absence, the gaps in the Guinness stories. I want to understand something about the misfits in these books because I think it will help me understand something about my own feelings of freakishness during my adolescence. I also think — perhaps foolishly — that trying to relate to the Guinness characters will help me understand my relationships with my dad and my little brother — both larger-than-life hero-freak characters. My brother was just eighteen months younger than me and we were never as close as I think we'd hoped. He died before we really had a chance to connect, and I think I've been trying to fill up the holes his loss created ever since. In some strange way, the Guinness Books help me do that. By sort of worrying my way through the lives of these people, by puzzling over the pieces of their strange and beautiful lives, I'm able to fatten up on the stories and fruits of an overactive imagination in a way I haven't been able to do before.

I began devouring books at an early age — gobbling up pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Hardy Boys, Dr. Seuss, C. S. Lewis, and any biography of Abraham Lincoln which featured a detailed account of his assassination — but my favorite biblio comfort food was often the Guinness Book of World Records. I consumed their contents ritualistically, sneaking midnight-snack glances, repeating their words like religious incantations. The Guinness Books gave me passage into other worlds, immense greasy buffets for the imagination, where the strange and sublime, the misfits and freaks were celebrated as heroes. Don't we all feel like freaks when we're going through adolescence? Don't we all need an escape? The real question is why more people aren't as equally obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records, why more boys don't try to understand themselves through the lens of the World's Heaviest Twins, the man with the World's Longest Fingernails, or the kid who pogo-sticked for a record-setting eighteen hours.

Recently, as a way to reconnect with my Guinness roots, my eating compulsions, or maybe just as a misguided publicity stunt, I submitted a Record Attempt Proposal to the Guinness World Records organization. I have officially proposed to eat, from cover-to-cover, the 2005 Anniversary Edition of the Guinness Book of World Records in just seven days. I will shred, blend, cook, and mix the paper into various food dishes, all of which will be documented and compiled into a cookbook-journal. Each meal will be witnessed by no less than two unrelated witnesses and documented with video. I was informed that, without paying for Fast Track response service, it may take four to six weeks to process my proposal. If it is accepted, they will offer suggestions for how to proceed and hopefully succeed. They may, if they deem my feat worthy, choose to "sponsor" the record attempt, which I can only assume would mean a Guinness t-shirt or cap or fanny pack and some kind of signed certificate of authenticity. It's all terribly exciting — at least in the dreamy abstract state in which it all exists right now. Stay tuned to my website and blog to find out what happens in reality. Wish me luck. Post recipes and suggestions you might have for eating large quantities of paper. Eat more books. spacer

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