I’ve realised what the perfect non-fiction book is. You’d think that as someone who writes non-fiction books for a living I’d be excited by this discovery, and would even now be
scribbling feverishly away so as to hit the top of the bestseller lists before anyone else has the same idea. Trouble is, the perfect non-fiction book has already been written. In 1955. And once a
year ever since then, for that matter. And yes, every year it does hit the top of the bestseller lists. It’s the Guinness Book of Records.
When I wrote novels, publishers used to assuage my worries about a lack of reviews by pointing out that it was always harder to get fiction reviewed than non-fiction. Made sense – essentially
the only question worth tackling in a novel review is ‘do I believe in these characters and this plot?’ Not only is that very subjective, it’s also hard to answer without ruining
the book. Non-fiction, on the other hand, lends itself to an interesting review, because non-fiction contains facts. Even if a book’s narrative, prose or basic premise cut little mustard, its
facts will still give you something to write about. This is a truth I appreciate all the more now that I review other people’s books as well as write my own. (Does this make me a poacher
turned gamekeeper, by the way, or a gamekeeper turned poacher?)
In fact you could argue that with many non-fiction books, the narrative and premise and other grown-up clever bits are just vehicles for the facts, in the same way that in a cheap prawn cocktail
the prawns are just a vehicle for the sauce. And that’s why I love the Guinness Book of Records – it’s all sauce, no prawns. It cuts straight to the facts. No fancy intellectual
theorising, just a great long list of the tallest, shortest, largest, smallest, highest, weirdest and generally most amazing things, people and events the world has ever known.
You’ll gather from a sentence like that that the Guinness Book of Records brings out the child in us. And what’s wrong with that? The day we lose our ability to go ‘wow, look at
that!’ in tones of puerile delight, the day we lose our fluency in Six Year Old, is a sad day indeed. The reason the GBR has re-entered my consciousness is that I recently bought a copy of
the original 1955 edition in a charity shop. Within seconds of flicking through its pages I was reminded of the only other edition I’ve ever owned, the 1982 one. Got it as a 1981 Christmas
present. Yes, when you’re ten the very fact that something has next year’s date on it is exciting enough, but that wasn’t why the book gripped me. What was so thrilling – as
it remained thrilling in the charity shop – was the sheer joy the Guinness Book of Records produces. Who can read a sentence starting ‘The largest authenticated hailstones recorded
…’ and not feel an expectant tingle? 17 inches in circumference, apparently, weighing 1.5lbs, Potter, Nebraska on 6th July 1928. This is from the 1955 edition, mind you, so there may
have been developments since then. Mount Everest’s height is given as 29,028 feet, with a note that in 1860 it was ‘computed to be 29,002 feet’. The GBR doesn’t, however,
relate the details of that computation: the surveyor kept getting it to 29,000 feet exactly, and only added the extra two feet because he feared people would think he’d simply guessed.
Then there’s ‘floccipaucinihilipilification’, the longest word in the Oxford English Dictionary, which I definitely remember surviving until the 1982 version. For three decades,
though, I’ve recalled it as meaning ‘an inaccurate guess’; only now as I re-read the definition (‘estimating as worthless’) do I realise it means ‘judging
something to hold no value’. In 1955 the highest individual innings in first-class cricket was 452 not out by Donald Bradman for New South Wales in 1929-30. By 1982 it was 499 by
Pakistan’s Hanif Mohammed. The next sentence got burned into my memory because of its horror, and has remained there ever since: ‘He was run out going for his five hundredth run.’
The agony. Time and again I would open the book at that page and re-read those awful words. Was there a subconscious hope that one day I’d find he had got to 500?
The 1955 copy has the Boy’s Own charm of an era when flashy illustrations, never mind interactive e-Book versions, were way in the future. It has a plain green cover, with occasional black
and white photos (‘see plate 13’). But if anything this makes the excitement all the greater – the facts do their own work. Imagine how a child would have felt reading that the
‘record prison escape was the 179 days’ freedom achieved by Stanley Hilton Thurston who broke out of Lewes Prison, Sussex, with a wooden key in 1939 and was finally recaptured after a
struggle in Oxford Street.’ Or (in the entry for ‘most complex language’) that ‘of the eighty-four meanings of the fourth tone of “i” in Chinese the same sound
includes “dress”, “hiccup” or “licentious”.’ The book is also a barometer of the times: the record for most expensive car goes to the £7041 19s 2d
Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, ‘of which £2071 19s 2d is Purchase Tax.’ That equates to 41 per cent – and we complain now that VAT is 20 per cent.
So be gone with your clever conceits and poncey prose – the ultimate non-fiction book is this, a great long list of facts. And to anyone who denies that a plain and simple fact can carry
emotional weight, I say Robert Pershing Wadlow. He was (and remains) the tallest human ever. No need to look up the details – as well as reading about him in the 1982 edition, I remember Roy
Castle doing a song about him on the TV spin-off show ‘Record Breakers’. Wadlow reached 8 feet 11.1 inches. He died at the age of 22. Think what those 22 years must have been