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October 24, 2008

Hodgman’s book gives more information than you desire

Everyone can use a taste of complete world knowledge—especially if it includes the inside scoop on Teddy Roosevelt’s tragic lion-mauling-related death, Napoleon’s capture of moon men and the Kraft Indians of Peru, known for their individually wrapped cheese slices.

Such wonders can be yours, courtesy of John Hodgman, better known as the straight-laced PC in Apple commercials and as the “Resident Expert” on The Daily Show. He is the gatekeeper to his own land of the absurd in More Information Than You Require, a sequel of sorts to 2006’s Areas Of My Expertise.

More Information, which like Expertise is a dry-witted spoof of the almanac genre, is less a sequel than a direct continuation of its predecessor. Once again, you’ll find most of the introduction in teensy print, crawling across the dust jacket and creeping along the flaps. Once again, you’ll find every fourth word or so in caps, as if it were a Victorian-era advertisement for facial creams. (“It INVIGORATES the system with its ASPIRATING ACTION.”) Once more, you’ll find a list of 700 names for a dirty creature from the underbelly of society; here mole men have replaced the now-passé hobos. The parallels are so extensive that even the page numbers begin from where Expertise left off.

At least Hogdman mans up to the fact that his book is derivative in the opening pages. In Expertise, which was written before Hodgman’s mildly successful career took off, he included a list of movies he had a cameo in, all unsurprisingly fake. But when he got a bit part in this past summer’s Baby Mama, his own life began to outpace his ability to make jokes.

Hodgman’s solution was to create an entirely new alternate universe, one where nine presidents of the United States have hooks, where Williams Jennings Bryan killed a monkey every night before he went to bed, and where Emo Philips is a proprietor of fanciful zeppelins. As Hodgman puts it, “Reality, while generally probable, is not always interesting.” So he performs a public service by “rescuing us from grim relentless plausibility.”

And regale us with the implausible he certainly does. In More Information, you’ll find folk remedies for a freely bleeding flesh wound (“Drink a cup of rosewater tea slowly. Relax. Seek no further treatment.”), the real name for the genre exemplified by The Stepford Wives (“roboticspouseroman”), and the title of Hodgman’s next book (Hodgmanillo, The Forgotten Younger Child: A Life in the Shadows).

Hodgman’s collection of essays and surreal experiments in historiography are endearing—when someone loves the original Battlestar Galactica as much as he does, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in his excitement. His nerdy enthusiasm finds a perfect venue in what is essentially a joke book for the well informed.

That’s not to say that More Information’s execution is without fault. At first, it’s as advertised; Hodgman’s introduction is everything you could hope for in an introduction to the second of a three volume series of fake reference material. But by the second chapter, on presidential elections, the simultaneously ludicrous and authoritative tone becomes awfully similar to America: The Book, another spoof of fuddy-duddy library books. After all, how many tales of political figures retiring to a slime-filled sensory deprivation tank can one genre sustain?

Hodgman eventually hits his stride when he delves into material not already covered in high school civics. Mixed in with a healthy dose of 1980s pop culture references—Master Control Program, anyone?—he tackles homebrew fortune telling and other superstitions, solicits queries for an advice column, and puts in enough PC references to appease the most die-hard of computer commercial fans.

But that familiar taste doesn’t go down easy. The problem may be that More Information isn’t meant to be read in a single sitting; I suspect that it would have been a lot funnier if I’d taken more than a few hours to attain such total knowledge.

After all, repeated absurdity becomes desensitizing, and even mundane. Midway through, I was desperately flipping through the pages, skipping past dolphin sanctuaries, traumatic, homosexual silent-comedy date rape, and feature film versions of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., hoping the next chapter would be preposterous enough to live up to its hyperbolic hype. More Information is the kind of book that should be perused from time to time, as filler between problem sets, or on weekend afternoons. There just may be too much of a good thing here.