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A smarty-pants compendium

The Areas of My Expertise John Hodgman Dutton: 228 pp., $22

November 06, 2005|Erik Himmelsbach | Erik Himmelsbach is a writer and television producer. He is currently working on a book about the history of Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM and the alternative-culture revolution.

IMAGINE the world before the Industrial Revolution. No Pilates, no Internet porn, no BlackBerries. Not even the cotton gin. (That didn't come until 1794.) Not much to do, right? Especially if you've already read your Bible and the type's so faded it's a bit hard on the eyes.

If you're living in the British-ruled American Colonies in the mid-18th century, the answer is simple: You hang up your tricorn hat, light a candle and cozy up to Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanack." Published annually from 1733 to 1758 (with Franklin using the nom de plume Richard Saunders), this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink compendium of information was one of the bestsellers of its day.

In the colonial era, almanacs were fortunetellers, search engines, cable news networks and Bibles all rolled into one neatly bound pamphlet. Standard information included meteorological forecasts, recipes, tide tables and astronomical predictions; the whole mix served as both entertainment and survival guide. Franklin's editions were notable for his trademark aphorisms -- he was the Jack Handey of his time. His pearls of wisdom included: "Nothing but Money is Sweeter than Honey" and "Cheese and salty meat should be sparingly eat." Overweight and suffering from chronic gout, Franklin knew of what he spoke.

Yet if, for centuries, people have sworn by almanacs, they, like Ouija boards, are probably less sage than snake oil. That's the idea behind "The Areas of My Expertise," a book of absurd tall tales, tables and charts spun from the warped brain of John Hodgman. The author's intention is to play off the peculiar and arcane tradition of almanacs, while taking advantage of the form's satiric possibilities. Unfortunately, his work ends up telling us more about his own musty, upper-crusty obsessiveness than about the minutiae of almanacs themselves.

"The Areas of My Expertise" is Hodgman's first book, but he's been a fixture on the Manhattan literary scene for a decade, first as an agent and later as a writer, mostly for the New York Times Magazine and Men's Journal, but also for the independent journal McSweeney's.

Here, he touches on an impressively eclectic array of topics -- everything from predicting weather with a pig spleen to a complete history of bad haircuts -- each in detail, and each, of course, totally bogus. His methodology consists of "crystal gazing, tea-leaf reading, sheepdog consultation and guessing," which is just a fancy way of saying he's made everything up. It's also a ticklish jab at real almanacs, where both breadth and authority have long been ridiculous conceits.

Hodgman's conceit is equally grand; he casts a conceptual net as broad and disconnected as that of the material he's spoofing. It's easy to appreciate his scope and ambition, to smile at the off-kilter bits, which include entries on how to win a fight and the complete history of lobsters. (In the 1940s, the author notes, tongue firmly in cheek, the crustacean's claw deformities were determined by Kabbalists to be in the shape of Hebrew letters -- "a message from the unclean to the chosen.")

Hodgman also imagines an alternative history of Depression-era hobos so finely detailed that it actually comes off as feasible. In this rendering, the 1930s are a golden age where the fictional Hobo Joe Junkpan briefly serves as secretary of the Treasury during the Hoover administration, while President Roosevelt later quells a national uprising with a hobo eradication plan. The section is capped by a mind-boggling list of 700 hobo names, famous tramp-esque figures (Nick Nolte, Dora the Explorer) sharing space with "Tommy Lice-Comb" and "Cheesequake O'Lennox." It's by far the author's strongest moment, as he runs wild and turns the story into a miniature epic.

More often, though, reading "The Areas of My Expertise" is like watching a highly praised art film you're supposed to like but instead find impenetrable. Hodgman's cleverness often turns snarky, with an erudite tone that seems intended to make us feel inadequate. Why didn't I "get" the Secrets of Yale University? Shouldn't I be laughing? Am I not smart enough to grasp the brilliance of Hodgman's rich imagination? Is it just me?

I don't think so. In the book's foreword, the former agent boy wonder makes his bed as he agonizes over his leap to publishing's dark side. "As it is our common destiny to become that which we most loathe," Hodgman laments, "so I have become the most wretched and predictable thing, a PROFESSIONAL WRITER." Cue the violins.

It's too bad, because "The Areas of My Expertise" has its moments, and Hodgman certainly understands the simple absurdity inherent in a book of random facts. We learn how to predict the future by writing down things like our favorite color or appetizer or the street on which we grew up; how to tell time without a watch; as well as a list of jokes that have never made anyone laugh (and still don't).

Yet ultimately, Hodgman fails because he comes off as a smarty-pants, and even in the best of times, know-it-alls only make the rest of us uncomfortable. Ben Franklin probably said it best: "There are no fools so troublesome as those that have wit." *

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