SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
July 30, 1979
In the "Guinness Book of World Records," a wondrous compilation of facts and feats, you'll find the fattest cat and wettest violinist
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July 30, 1979

There's Music In The Where?

In the "Guinness Book of World Records," a wondrous compilation of facts and feats, you'll find the fattest cat and wettest violinist

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Guinnessport flourishes because the book contains such a wealth of categories for would-be record breakers to choose from, including many that rely less on talent than on brass and tenacity. Among these are underwater violin playing, keeping a pipe lit and the sort of marathon engaged in by Arron Marshall, a fisherman in Waikiki, Western Australia, who in 1977 stood under a shower in a shopping mall for 224 hours. Marshall's feet ballooned and his body became as wrinkled as a prune, but he said, "I'll be yahooing around the countryside when I see my name in the record book." That noise from Down Under is the sound of Marshall yahooing; his marathon shower is duly recorded in the latest edition.

The U.S. is a hotbed of Guinnessport. There appears to be no shortage in this country of people like 17-year-old Lang Martin of Charlotte, N.C., who made it his mission to crack the pages of Guinness by balancing six golf balls vertically. Closing windows to avoid drafts and working late at night so that his family wouldn't disturb him, Martin tried for weeks to stack the balls, only to see them tumble time and again. Those were frustrating moments, but Martin says, "I was wanting to get into that book real bad." He persevered and developed just the right touch. Finally, with neighbors assembled as witnesses and camera poised to record the event, he succeeded. Martin's world record for golf-ball balancing can be found in the current edition, between the records for gold panning and catching a thrown grape in the mouth.

It is somewhat surprising to realize that the practice of compiling world records started only in this century. The phenomenon began when people in sport, hitherto concerned mainly with winning or losing, got the idea of comparing performances. At first, records were merely a way of finding one's statistical bearings, but they soon became ends in themselves as fans, athletes and sportswriters got caught up in the giddy allure of somebody "going for the record."

An epidemic of world recorditis has been raging for some time now. When Ireland's Ron Delany was the best indoor miler in the world in the late 1950s, he was booed by American fans for merely running to win rather than smashing records, as the crowds demanded. The same thing now routinely happens in the record-happy sport of swimming, whose fanciers yawn through races that, however close and exciting they may be, fail to produce new marks. Not long ago two great industrial nations were locked in momentous debate over how Sadaharu Oh's career home-run record stacked up against Hank Aaron's. In a deep-think book, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports, Amherst Professor Allen Guttmann terms this absorption with records one of the distinctive characteristics of contemporary sport.

Roughly one-fourth of the Guinness book is devoted to sports, and its sports editor, Stan Greenberg, receives billing on the cover second only to Norris McWhirter. But this isn't just another sports-record book. For one thing, it includes such obscure pastimes as sand yachting, parasailing and pigeon racing, and its sections on major sports contain records not readily available elsewhere. Did you know that a New Zealander named Paul Wilson has run 100 yards backwards in a world-record 13.3 seconds? Or that the world's lightest jockey was a 40-pound wisp named Kitchener, who rode in the 19th century? You can look it up in Guinness.

But the Guinness book also goes beyond sport to view practically everything as potentially fair game for records. Thus it contains sections on business, science, structures, the natural world—12 headings in all. As seen by Guinness, waterfalls don't just gurgle and splash; they compete. The winner is Venezuela's Salto Angel, which drops a "world record" 3,212 feet. Similarly, butterflies are locked in existential competition with a particular great monarch that has been clocked at a "world record" 17 mph. And a schoolgirl justifiably proud of herself for having finally stopped biting her nails nevertheless has a way to go before overtaking Shridhar Chillal of Poona, India, whose fingernails have grown to a "world record" length—nearly two feet in the case of one nail. To the editors of Guinness, the universe is a vast stadium caught up in the transcendent business of record breaking.

The idea behind all this is that world records can be as useful for finding one's bearings in life generally as they are in sport. Contrary to popular impression, however, the book stops somewhat short of anything goes. By definition, Guinness world records deal with the unprecedented and excessive, with the result that the book has the inevitable flavor of a circus sideshow; there are obligatory entries on Siamese twins and unfortunates born with 14 fingers. But the editors rule out gratuitous gore, sexual feats (a section on "swinging" deals, innocently enough, with playground swings) and stunts deemed unseemly, including that old undergraduate favorite, goldfish swallowing. Excluded, too, are collections of aluminum foil and pennies and certain dangerous activities such as that other old favorite of undergraduates, Volkswagen packing. There is also a taboo against ridiculous variations. As Greenberg says, "We'll get a letter saying, 'I did so many push-ups with my girl friend on my back.' If we put that in, somebody else will say, 'I did it with a horse on my back.' They're always coming up with variations, and you have to draw the line." McWhirter says, "One has to continually preserve the purity of records. To qualify, something has to be universally competitive, peculiar or unique."

Because records by their very nature are measurable and verifiable, the Guinness book scrupulously leaves to that other cut-and-paste compilation of superlatives. The Book of Lists, such subjective matters as the 10 greatest cartoon characters of all time. In its section on feminine beauty, Guinness says somewhat wistfully, "It has been suggested that, if the face of Helen of Troy (c. 1200 B.C.) was capable of launching 1,000 ships, then a unit of beauty sufficient to launch one ship should be called a millihelen." Millihelens not yet having been adopted by either the British government or the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, Guinness goes little further than to note that Miss World of 1954 measured a "Junoesque" 40-26-38, making her apparently the most full-bodied of all Miss World titlists.

For all of his insistence on maintaining standards and objectivity, McWhirter enjoys wide latitude in determining what goes into Guinness. Over the years, he has come to recognize records for Frisbee and Monopoly, having decided that they have become universal. Resourcefulness is evident in McWhirter's creation of a category for the largest entity bearing a person's name. Bolivia and the Americas were dwarfed, he found, by a super-cluster of galaxies named after University of California astronomer George O. Abell. "Abell's 7" now holds the world record as most "eponymous."

The book reflects McWhirter's whims on almost every page. While ruling out collections of pennies, he can't resist mentioning the world's largest ball of string. His book cautions that trying to break records for eating gargantuan quantities of food is "extremely inadvisable," but then lists records for the consumption of no fewer than 33 foodstuffs, among them eels, baked beans, pickled onions and prunes. It also relates that a Frenchman known as Mangetout holds the world record for eating a bicycle, which he did, tires and all, in 15 days. It calls that feat "the ultimate in stupidity," a superlative that, while neither measurable nor verifiable, is perhaps pardonable.

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