Who doesn't love a wacky test of resilience or ability, especially if said challenge involves a pogo stick and a steep mountain? Apparently, few people are averse to the draw of attempting, or at least appreciating, the effort that goes into setting a world record. This is one of the reasons why the Guinness Book of World Records (now known as Guinness World Records) has stood the test of time. In the Part-Time Genius episode "Why Are We Obsessed With World Records?" podcast hosts Will Pearson and Mangesh (Mango) Hattikudur explore the nuances of what has helped Guinness World Records remain so magnetic after all these years.
Guinness Records continues to draw around 50,000 record applications every year but only a few thousand are accepted annually, say the hosts. And the printed version is the most commonly stolen book from public libraries, just ahead of the Bible.
The original volume was created for a reason that any overly competitive person can appreciate – to settle a fight. "You know, before people had cell phones or access to the Internet, you might be in a café and get into a silly debate over something ridiculous," Will says. Back in the 1950s, there weren't a lot of ways to settle these pub arguments over who was the tallest man or which sports team was the winningest. "Sometimes a drunken argument, no matter how trivial the topic, can lead to a brawl and that's what the Guinness Book was for. It was actually a peacemaking device to be stocked in bars and settle bickering," he adds.
The origins of the book started with Sir Hugh Beaver, a managing director at the Guinness brewery. He was attending a shooting party in the countryside of England, and got into argument with friends about which was the fastest game bird in England, and they couldn't find a definitive answer in any book. Beaver hit upon the idea of a book that could settle these kinds of disputes, full of facts and superlatives. He hired twin brothers and journalists Norris and Ross McWhirter to write it. The first edition was given away to pubs, but after that it stormed the bestseller charts, where it has remained ever since.
The hosts note that the book and website don't have just nutty facts — there's also a lot of history and science included. You can find out what's the longest natural arch in the world as well as what's the record for number of apples held in a mouth and cut by a chain saw in a minute. (Answer: eight!)
And why do people try to break these records? It's not just for publicity or attention. "Academic papers have been written about how records are a leveler in places where the odds are stacked against you," says Will.