It seems like Guinness World Records is everywhere, and always has been. The fact is, the book is seven years younger than I am, which attests to two facts: I am older than I like to think, and the book achieved its iconic place among citizens of the world quickly. In record-breaking time, perhaps.
Although the feats listed in the book seem stranger than fiction, they are vetted for truthfulness. "The rules surrounding each record attempt, no matter how odd it appears, are lengthy and detailed and mostly standardized," Larry Olmsted says after years of research for his book about the Guinness Book. "The thing that surprises record laymen the most is the fastidious red tape involved in the process."
As a boy in New York City public schools, Olmsted found the Guinness Book of World Records (as it was formerly titled) fascinating. Since its initial publication in 1955, the book, revised regularly, has sold more than 100-million copies in at least 37 languages. A freelance writing assignment to set a record himself only fueled Olmsted's curiosity; in 2003 he set out to examine the history of the book, the fascination surrounding it and the people who risk life and limb to get into its pages.
Olmsted was astonished to discover that Guinness is the bestselling copyrighted book of all time, that it started as a fluke, and that the first edition was published in London by the Guinness Brewery of Dublin as a promotional tool.
He opens the book with his quest for entry into Guinness as a marathon poker player. After 70 hours without sleep, with eight hours remaining to set the record, he was experiencing hallucinations of the mirage-in-the desert variety. What drove him to that point, he wonders, what record madness compelled him to risk his health?
Olmsted did set a new poker-playing record (surpassed this year), but at that point he was not considering research for an entire book about Guinness. An assignment for Golf magazine required Olmsted to determine whether he could play his way into Guinness alongside Tiger Woods. Olmsted realized that getting into Guinness has a glorifying effect on its recordholders. It offers otherwise unknown people like himself the opportunity to achieve a glimmer of so-called greatness, joining the ranks of elite athletes, scientists, world leaders, explorers and adventurers.
To Olmsted, Ashrita Furman exemplifies the adage "Truth is stranger than fiction." Many of Furman's feats — including 177 Guinness records and counting (from longest distance somersaulting to fastest garlic eating) — are astonishing. He has structured his entire life around breaking and setting Guinness records, and this enthusiasm has taken him to all corners of the globe.
Determining a "favorite" record is difficult, according to Olmsted: Mind-boggling accomplishments leap off nearly every page, like the heaviest weight pulled (a Volkswagen car) with the eyelids. After becoming accustomed to the shocking, titillating aspects, he focused on records that are simply interesting because they are creative, funny or audacious. It was so hard to choose that he includes an appendix of favorites.
Steve Weinberg's newest book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."