The greatest thrill in human history was that of a nine-year-old with a paperback copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. Forgive the superlative, but for those of us fortunate to be fourth-graders in the Golden Age of Guinness it was the -est of times: The world's smallest woman, the world's longest fingernails, the world's fattest twins—all were there, in black-and-white photographs, in that annual compendium worn thin by our trembling fingertips.
The twins, of course, were Billy Leon and Benny Loyd McCrary, professional wrestlers memorably pictured in cowboy hats, on motorcycles, riding away from the camera. (The 723-pound Benny was the skinny one, 743-pound Billy the husky one.) The world's tallest man, Robert Pershing Wadlow, was an 8'11" pituitary giant, who died at age 22 of an infected foot boil, a problem when your feet are size 37-AA. (Although Wadlow was buried in a coffin encased in concrete to foil grave-robbing anatomists, a California museum claims to have his skeleton.) And who could forget Robert Earl Hughes? Certainly not his tailor, for the 1,067-pound Breman, Ind., native (and world's heaviest man) always wore bib overalls in Guinness and was buried—as every new edition felt compelled to report—in a modified piano case.
Benny Loyd McCrary, Robert Pershing Wadlow, Robert Earl Hughes—the physical oddities in Guinness were always afforded the same first, middle, last name treatment bestowed upon serial killers and assassins. It may be a measure of our enlightenment as a species that hardly anybody uses Shaquille O'Neal's middle name, Rashaun. Shaq, as the 2002 edition of Guinness notes, would be dwarfed by the tallest basketball player on record, 8'�" Suleiman' Ali Nashnush, center on the 1962 Libyan national team. Nashnush is believed to have died in the late 1970s. If he is now riding out eternity, Wadlow-style, in a spot-welded sarcophagus, the good people of Guinness do not say.
The Guinness book was started by the Irish brewery in 1955 as a way to settle bets in British pubs. Although the stout maker sold its publishing division last summer, the Guinness book remains, having morphed from a thick, airport-thriller-sized paperback in its mid-'70s heyday into its current edition, the 48th, which is as big as your high school yearbook—and every bit as weirdo-filled.
Gone are the famous photographs of Wadlow and the Indian man, Shridhar Chillal, who still hasn't cut his fingernails since 1952. In their place are some diverting new heroes. Did you know that the most concrete blocks ever smashed in a "groin break" is two, which were stacked on a man's groin and then destroyed with a sledgehammer three years ago in Los Angeles. It seems only fair that the record is held not by the man who brandished the sledgehammer but by the man who brandished the groin—Cliff Flenoy, who appears, disappointingly, to be bereft of a middle name.
The new Guinness informs us that Michael Wilson of the Harlem Globetrotters dunked last year on a 12-foot hoop. (Why haven't we seen that footage played, ad nauseam, among the waterskiing squirrels at the end of our local newscasts?) The fastest round of golf by an individual—with the ball coming to rest before each stroke—remains the 27 minutes and nine seconds required by James Carvill at the 6,154-yard Warrenpoint Golf Course in County Down, Ireland. What did he shoot? Did he stop, at points along the way, for a hot dog and a beer and a leisurely leak in the woods? Guinness is silent on such questions, maintaining its mysterious allure by showing us only so much leg.
That's not entirely true, either. The book shows us pretty much all 49�" of Sam Stacey's legs—she's English, a 17-year-old Steffi Graf look-alike with the world's longest gams. We are clued into all manner of stadium superstars: a group of Brits who formed a three-mile-long Wave; an American woman who nasally inflated a bubblegum bubble to a diameter of 11 inches; and a truly unsung hero, Daniel Lambert of Sweden, who opened 50 crown-cap beer bottles with his teeth in a single glorious minute last March.
True, we are inexplicably deprived pictorial evidence of Kalyan Ramji Sain's 11-foot-long mustache, but we get, in exchange, Pierre (Mr. Gumby) Beauchemin, the world's most elastic man, who enjoys stretching his neck skin over his mouth to create a human turtleneck. Guinness may have consigned the McCrary twins et al., to the piano-case-coffin of history. That's O.K. Time moves on. The book's still got legs.