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The 1979 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records credits one Michael John Poultney with having memorized the value of the mathematical symbol π to 5,050 places. That, however, is scarcely any more impressive than the mnemonic achievement of Norris McWhirter, the amiable Briton who edits the Guinness book itself. McWhirter has committed most of his book's 15,000 entries to memory, a feat he explains by saying, "It's the same as a boy memorizing information about baseball. It's a matter of being interested."
McWhirter puts his grasp of world records to admirable use. A slight, graying man of 53 with an ofttimes chirpy manner, he speaks fluent worldrecordese, enriching even the most casual conversation with nuggets drawn from his book. Bring up the subject of inflation and McWhirter will cite the $5,544,000 paid for a Velázquez at an art auction in London as illustrative of a "distrust of hard currency." Let the conversation turn to the communications revolution and he will note that, owing to a decline in its use, the record for receiving Morse code—75.2 words per minute—has remained unbroken since Ted McElroy set it in 1939. If you're talking about fanaticism, McWhirter will likely mention Saint Simeon the Younger, a sixth-century Syrian monk who perched on a stone pillar for 45 years—which, incidentally, may be the record for the oldest world record.
To have one McWhirter chattering away in worldrecordese is strange enough. It was odder still when two of them were doing so, the other being Norris' identical twin brother, Ross. The McWhirters were interchangeable, Oxford-educated sportswriters who had been hired in 1954 by the huge Anglo-Irish brewery, Arthur Guinness, Son & Co., Ltd., to compile a record book, and they built it into an international bestseller. They made promotional appearances clad in the kilts of their Scottish forebears, mischievously leaving it to interviewers to try to figure out which of the pale, jug-eared brothers was Ross and which was Norris. But the McWhirters also had a sober side. They became involved in conservative political causes, an interest that had a tragic culmination when Irish Republican Army terrorists shot Ross to death on his front doorstep nearly four years ago.
Ross' death was a crushing blow to Norris. Nevertheless, the surviving brother has continued to put out the record book, turning what had been a lighthearted duet into a determined solo. The Guinness brewery still owns the book, publishing it through a subsidiary, Guinness Superlatives, Ltd., which occupies the top floor of a three-story, redbrick building in Enfield, a northern suburb of London. Double-decker buses rumble along Enfield's busy streets and mums push prams on the sidewalks, and the gold-carpeted offices of Guinness Superlatives pulse with purpose, too. At work there, McWhirter is obviously intent on keeping his brother's violent death from casting a shadow over the record-book operation.
"After Ross died, I had to decide whether to chuck it or soldier on," Norris says, discussing the matter in resolutely practical terms. "In soldiering on, the appalling thing is that there's so much that Ross used to do that I now must handle alone." As though to underscore his loss, there is still a mailbox bearing Ross McWhirter's name at the entrance to the office.
It will surprise some people to learn that the McWhirters' record book has its sober side, too. Or, at least, its less wacky side. Although best known for oddball records, the book is by no means confined to them—hence the entry on art auction prices as well as others on the densest metals and the worst road accident. Behind this expansive approach is Norris McWhirter's heartfelt conviction that the contemplation of world records—or superlatives, as he also calls them—can be both entertaining and educational, a pleasurable way of expanding one's intellectual horizons.
"People are fascinated with extremes," McWhirter says. "They like to know what the steel brackets are around a given subject. It may be significant that the average snake is, let's say, 4½ feet long, but it's somehow more interesting that the longest one is a python measuring 32 feet and the shortest is just a few inches—a worm, really. People crave delineation and points of reference. It's a matter of orientation, but it's also part of the natural competitiveness that most of us have."
The wide appeal McWhirter attributes to records would seem to be borne out by two entries that the Guinness book contains about itself. Readers are told that the volume in their hands is: 1) the fastest-selling title ever, having achieved worldwide sales of 34 million since 1955; and 2) the most-stolen book in British public libraries. These superlatives aside, the book is in its 25th edition in Great Britain (where it is known simply as the Guinness Book of Records) and has been translated into 21 languages, including Czech, Serbo-Croatian and Finnish, with new translations being prepared in Turkish and Arabic. The biggest market, though, is the U.S., where the paperback (Bantam, $2.50) is a popular stocking stuffer at Christmastime and a favorite on campuses, and the hard-cover version (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., $8.95) is more or less accepted as a standard reference work. Of the 4½ million copies of the 1978 edition sold worldwide, nearly three million were acquired by Americans.
The U.S. also has been the focus of a Star Wars-style marketing blitz, featuring Guinness-licensed notebooks, puzzles, jump ropes, calendars, Dixie Cups and dozens of other products. Most of these items, including Kellogg's Raisin Bran boxes and Hallmark cards, have samples of Guinness world records inscribed on them. On top of that, world-record feats have been depicted in a Guinness-theme show at Radio City Music Hall, a TV program starring David Frost and in a cartoon strip that appears in some 100 newspapers. There is a Guinness museum in the Empire State Building, as well as in such tourist centers as Niagara Falls, Ontario; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Nothing, however, points up the book's success more dramatically than the zeal with which people try to get their names into its pages—and, of course, onto those cereal boxes and greeting cards. Fraternity boys, failed athletes, assorted crazies and maybe even some normal folk eagerly participate in what might be called Guinnessport, whose main purpose is to "get into Guinness." Some people play Guinnessport individually, but others stage mass assaults on the book in so-called Oddball Olympics that have been held in such diverse locales as London, Los Angeles, San Antonio and New South Wales, Australia.