Back when we were kids, the most popular book to check out from the library wasn’t The Giver or Hatchet or even Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. And that’s because useless trivia beats teen angst every day of the week. From the man with the longest fingernails to the human being who held his breath the longest, since 1955, every crazy fact under-the-sun has been tabulated in one place: The Guinness World Records. But this enduring and ever-changing book became a kid’s classic because once upon a time, one old guy wanted to settle a bet about birds.
Sometime in the early 1950s, a man named Sir Hugh Beaver argued with his friends about what the fastest game bird in Europe really was. At the time, Beaver was in charge of the Guinness Brewery (yep, the same one that makes beer) and was hanging out with his buddies at a shooting party. (A shooting party is what it sounds like: English dudes engaged in some Downton Abbey hunting action.) The trouble was, Beaver and his cronies couldn’t find a reference book to settle the debate. And so, Beaver set out to correct that problem: FOREVER. Well, actually, he didn’t personally make the record book happen; instead, his fact-checking twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter were brought on to tackle the project upon the recommendation of one of Beaver’s employees at Guinness, a guy named Christopher Chataway. So, the creation of the Guinness Book of World Records stems from a rich guy being pissed about not being able to look up a bird fact, and then one of his employees at the brewery hiring some really efficient fact checkers to write a book of lists. It’s kind of impossible to imagine this happening today.
Now in its 63rd year, The Guinness Book of World Records has been published consistently every year, even though it has changed publishers numerous times. The format and the subjects covered have changed over time, too. While the mid-20th-century entries tended to focus on records connected to nature (i.e. those damn bird facts), gradually, the publication moved toward tabulating achievements of people. For example, according to the 2012 Guinness World Records, the most batons ever juggled at one time happened in 1999 when Francoise Rochias tossed seven of them at the same time in Japan. (Seems low, right? You’d think Siegfried and Roy have juggled more batons than that, but nope!)
Though the sizes and formats of the Guinness World Record books have changed over the years, in the 21st Century, it definitely shifted towards a large, hardcover tome filled with photographs. And that’s because a format like that is way more appealing to kids, who, already loved the books anyway. The 2019 edition of the book has categories ranging from stuff kids didn’t know they wanted to know (the largest Yo-Yo is 11-feet-wide) to stuff no one wants to know (some guy named Franz Huber swallowed 28 swords at the same time.)
The current edition of the book also has tons of records that will be compelling to kids, including categories about video games, crazy huge toys, and Star Wars. But, children won’t love the book because of specific facts they want to look up. Instead, the sheer brilliance of The Guinness World Records is probably something Sir Hugh Beaver could have never foreseen. Children don’t read this book because they want to look up a certain fact. Like adults, they have the internet for that. Instead, this book provides the most pleasurable reading experience of all: discovering outrageous facts you didn’t even know anyone else was wondering about.
No other book — including the greatest works of fiction — can fire the imagination like a collection of stupendously curated facts. And the reason children continue to love the Guinness World Records books, and will in the future, is that kids, unlike some jaded adults, are still very curious people. And if you need proof kids love the Guinness World Records books just ask your local librarian. When I went to check out the 2019 version of the book from my local library, I was worried I’d be depriving some kid of the joy if pouring over its contents.
“Don’t worry,” the librarian told me. “We have a lot of copies. It might be our most popular book.”
November 8, 2018, is Guinness World Records Day. On that day, the organization will release a ton of new world records on their website, effectively previewing the contents of the new book for next year.