What do German supermodel Nadja Auerman's legs have in common with the Tunisian fat-tailed scorpion, Charles de Gaulle, Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, and a pair of suicidal Taiwanese newlyweds named Huang Pin-jen and Chang Shu-mei? And what possible connection links the bombing of Hiroshima with The Notorious B.I.G. and an obese Norwegian cat named Kato?

Coming up with an answer would be easier, of course, if you already knew that Nadja Auerman's 45-inch-long legs are the longest supermodel limbs in existence; that Charles de Gaulle, among his other achievements, survived more assassination plots (a grand total of 31) than any other modern head of state; and that the Tunisian fat-tailed scorpion is its species' most venomous representative. To readers of the 1999 Guinness Book of Records, who have all this information at their fingertips, the common ground between a volcano, a gangsta-rap artist, a fat cat and the site of a nuclear attack is obvious: They're all record holders in their respective fields, and each has earned mention in the one cultural encyclopedia dedicated to a world of extremes.

More so than any other publication, The Guinness Book of Records comes close to doing justice to the surreality of the 20th century. Where else can you find headings like “Most People Killed by a Bomb” (Hiroshima) or “Most Informants Reporting to an Intelligence Service” (260,000 former East Germans) in a single volume that also includes references to the world's “Most Expensive Theme Park Development” (Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida), “Poorest Countries” (Rwanda and Mozambique) and “Biggest Cyberstar” (Tomb Raider's Lara Croft)? Breathlessly racing from one ultimate achievement to the next, the Book mimics (with a perfect pitch no mere novel could hope to match) this century's feverish and serpentine logic, its uneasy marriage of banality and horror, nightmare and luxury. The Book is also a kind of bible: a definitive text dedicated to our quasi-religious obsession with records and numbers, especially the number one.

The Bible, with an estimated 3.88 billion copies sold between 1815 and 1998, remains the all-time best-selling book, but the Book is a record breaker in its own right: Having sold over 81 million copies since it was first published in 1955, it is the world's best-selling copyrighted work, with editions in 37 foreign languages. Its appeal, on the surface at least, is fairly straightforward: In an era of media hoaxes and spin doctors, the Book chronicles nothing but extraordinary feats and guarantees their record-breaking status with its stamp of approval. It is a library of human endeavor that cuts straight to the chase on every page. And unlike the Bible, which admittedly chronicles some pretty exceptional feats in its own right, the Book comes out in a snazzy new edition each year (the 1999 model boasts a holographic cover), because records are continually being surpassed. No sooner has someone somersaulted backward for 31 miles than a rival does it for 32 miles, and embellishes his feat with an engagingly tragic aura by breaking his neck in the process.

As a trove of the marvelous, The Guinness Book used to seem like a cleaned-up, postwar version of the “dime museums” that livened up the 19th century, serving as a kind of cultural halfway house between freak shows and an earlier tradition of “cabinets of curiosity.” But the Book has changed with the times: While it still includes classic entries like “Most Breasts,” “Longest-Living Two-Headed Person” and “Hairiest Woman,” far more records are listed in media-related categories. Besides “Fame,” “Music & Fashion” and a section devoted to Hollywood, the 1999 edition includes a “Hi-Tech” category that covers everything from computer games to special effects and the Internet (where Pamela Anderson, whose name is linked to 1,542,282 sites, makes an appearance as “Most Mentioned Woman”). Elsewhere, headings such as “Advertising,” “Shopping” and “Brand Names” underscore the Book's current emphasis on the freak show of consumer life.

Meanwhile, what many fans regard as the heart of the publication — the listings devoted to individuals performing outrageous and absurd acts — has been sadly reduced. And these characters who pull 300-ton trains with their teeth, who sprint on their hands, spit vast distances, toss eggs the length of a football field or bury themselves underground for half a year, deserve the utmost respect: Not only are they talented and driven athletes, but they have chosen to compete in unconventional areas where the rewards — apart from the limited celebrity gained from an appearance in the Book — are not always obvious.

Or perhaps it's not a matter of choice; perhaps you are simply born with a peculiar talent — say, for eating quickly, like Reg Morris, who owns speed records for ingesting kippers, sausage meats and frankfurters — that has no other application, no existing Olympic event in which it could be exercised. But you nevertheless possess an overwhelming desire to be the best, the ferocious drive and will required of all great athletes — and it's just your luck that your particular Olympic-caliber skill is rapid consumption of tubular beef products.

It's this mix of dead-serious competition and carnival-like absurdity that lends the Guinness achievers a strange and piquant character. In a Gap universe, they defiantly proclaim not only their uniqueness, but their superiority — even if it is of a kind few would envy. There are other compelling motives, however, besides the wish to distinguish oneself from the herd; when it comes to feats of endurance, the pursuits of the Guinness elite often call to mind works by 1970s performance artists such as Chris Burden (who once spent a weekend in a tiny school locker), as well as certain yogic traditions in India, where the Book is reputed to be enormously popular. Current records held by Indians include the longest time spent balancing on one foot (71 hours, 40 minutes), the longest period without moving (18 hours, 5 minutes) and the longest crawl (a 15-month journey on all fours covering 870 miles). In an Indonesian village, meanwhile, a man climbed up a palm tree in 1970 and has yet to come down.

Acts such as these require not only stamina, but concentration, and perhaps even a type of selfless devotion, a surrendering of the will to the task at hand. Similar acts have been performed for centuries by fakirs and sadhus-in-training as part of a religious ego-stripping practice. Are the Guinness achievers likewise driven by transcendental aspirations? In any event, there is something undeniably sublime about performances such as the 29-hour kiss (standing, without breaks of any kind) enacted by Mark and Roberta Griswold over the course of two days last March — a momentary gesture uncannily stretched out as if it were being replayed in super-slow motion, yet all in “real time,” as they used to say in the art world.

The most compelling entries of all, though, belong to people who end up in the Book by accident. The suicidal Taiwanese newlyweds, who appear under the heading “Least Successful Suicide Pact,” were so distraught when their parents refused to sanction their 1993 marriage that they attempted to kill themselves four separate times. After driving their car off a cliff, leaping from the top of a 12-story building and unsuccessfully hanging themselves, they finally stopped trying when their parents agreed to reconsider their positions.

Then there's the almost mystical case of Roy Sullivan, a former park ranger from Virginia. In 1942, he was struck by lightning and lost a big toenail; in 1969, he was struck again and lost his eyebrows. Targeted by lightning bolts five more times over the following eight years, he survived each assault, suffering burns on his legs, chest and stomach, as well as a headful of singed hair. Providence had seemingly marked him out for heavenly target practice and found him indestructible. Then, in 1983, the man who owns the Guinness record for having survived the most lightning strikes took his own life, reportedly after suffering a lover's broken heart.

With entries such as these, the Guinness Book is more than a depository of records; it is also a document of fate's extraordinary twists, a chronicle of existential ironies that leave you wondering if there is not some preordained role we're meant to play in life, some hidden record we are meant to own. In a sense, we are all in the process of writing the rules for a new category of achievement, trying to break records that are yet to be acknowledged — perhaps not even by our conscious selves. And how satisfying it will be if it turns out in the end that our secret record-breaking endeavors are given space in a grand and crazy tome like this. That wish silently hums through the pages of The Guinness Book of Records, making it an ecstatic text, a sermon on the delivery of impossible hopes.

Edited by MARK YOUNG
Guinness Records
336 pages
$25 hardcover

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