THAT IS ALL, John Hodgman's Final Book of Complete World Knowledge

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez.

John Hodgman's third and final book of complete world knowledge, That is All, hits bookstore shelves today, 11/1/11. I hope you'll buy a copy, because you'll need it when Ragnarok occurs.

Oh, You Haven't Heard of Ragnarok?

That is All is predicated on the premise (ahem, CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE) that, starting quite soon, we will enter a pre-apocalyptic period leading up to the end of the world, or to be more specific, Hodgman's "COMING TOTAL ULTRACOLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION AND END OF HUMAN HISTORY," but which may conveniently be referred to using the Norse term Ragnarok. You may think this is a joke, but it is deadly serious -- this really is the end, because indeed, Hodgman has finally decided to write about topics including WINE and SPORTS, which were dismissed in his previous volumes. The end is nigh, and it has a bouquet with hints of fruit, albuterol, and jokes. Here's a sample from early in the book (page 642) that precedes a section entitled HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN WINE IN A TOILET, EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT IN PRISON:

Were You Aware of It? "Legalize It"

Though people have been making their own wine at home and in prison for millennia, the practice was outlawed in the United States as part of PROHIBITION--that brief, unfortunate period in American history when Steve Buscemi was a powerful sex symbol.

In 1978, however, Jimmy Carter knew the country needed to get drunk and so signed HR 1337 ("House Resolution LEET") legalizing the making of wine for personal use, as well as beer, hard cider, and HOME FOUR LOKO.

But many are not aware that Carter additionally passed HR U83R 1337, legalizing the home manufacture of RAW MILK CHEESES, CUBAN CIGARS, ABSINTHE, FUGU PUFFER FISH, MARIJUANA CIGARETTES, PEYOTE PATCHES, and PRUNO aka "PRISON TOILET WINE."

The result was an INTENSE MELLOWING of the U.S. population, with most football teams being replaced by wine bars,255 increased funding of pottery classes and pan flute in schools, and a wide swath of New Mexico being transformed into a NATIONAL CONVERSATION PIT. This in turn led to a counterintuitive economic boom, especially once the famous inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil invented the HEMP ENGINE, making American-grown marijuana the most important energy source on the planet.

WERE YOU NOT AWARE OF THIS? I AM NOT SURPRISED, FOR IN 1980 RONALD REAGAN SEIZED CONTROL OF THE TIME-STREAM AND CORRECTED IT SUCH THAT NONE OF THIS EVER HAPPENED.

However, while it remains illegal in this time sphere to make Pruno, that does not mean it is NOT INCREDIBLY EASY.

255. Baseball remained, but under the regime of new commissioner Dock Ellis, it was largely played by freelance magazine writers.

From this brief snippet, you get a taste of what there is for you in That is All, which is basically tons of jokes, some of which are already somewhat dated (by 2015, how many people will know what Four Loko was?) and many of which will lead to some heavy Googling (for example, to learn more about George Plimpton or leetspeak or The Singularity). The writing is refreshingly bite-sized, such that you can literally open the book to any page, read something, have a chuckle, and move on. Also, like the previous volume, each page includes a page-a-day calendar at the top -- except this one predicts the future, through the end of the world (it's called TODAY IN RAGNAROK). You have roughly a year left; you might as well enjoy it, one page at a time.

Here are two samples of the page-a-day calendar, from very early in the book:

December 26, 2011

Penguin Audio releases the Book of Revelation as narrated by Nick Nolte. It becomes an enormous bestseller.

December 27, 2011

Nick Nolte appears on The View to promote the Book of Revelation. When Joy Behar asks him what he thinks of all the 2012 end-time theories, Nick Nolte pulls back his beard and reveals his writhing second beard of feathered snakes. "These weren't here last year," he says. "What does THAT tell you?"

On Writing as Someone Other Than Yourself, But Using Your Own Name

Over the course of his three books of complete world knowledge, we've seen Hodgman develop an eponymous character, a faux-Hodgman who is the narrator of these books. In the first book of fake trivia (I'm sorry, "complete world knowledge"), The Areas of My Expertise, Hodgman refers to himself as a "former professional literary agent" (which is true) and the joke is that he's writing from a position of virtually no authority, but in an authoritative voice. (My apologies for explaining the joke, but sometimes you have to be explicit about these things.) You have to remember that at the time, Hodgman was a reasonably successful freelance writer (he wrote the "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent" column for McSweeney's), host of the Little Gray Book lectures, and contributor to This American Life...but he wasn't exactly famous. So his position-of-no-real-authority character no longer made sense when it was time to write his second book, More Information Than You Require -- by that time, Hodgman was an "author and famous minor television personality" who was moderately well-known for his acting work in the "I'm a Mac" ads (he played the PC), as "Resident Expert" on The Daily Show, and lots of other gigs (including roles in Baby Momma, Flight of the Conchords, and most recently Bored to Death), and his first book had become a bestseller, largely due to a major sales boost after his killer first appearance on The Daily Show. So in the second book, Hodgman wrote from the perspective of a writer and actor whose fame was moderate, fleeting, possibly obtained by accident, but nevertheless had afforded him some form of status. In this final book of world knowledge, That is All, Hodgman enters his third act as "the deranged millionaire," a character who has experienced sincere wealth and status (the guy even met the president), but is now considering the possible end of it all -- the end of his status, the end of his acting career, the end of his relevance, and indeed THE END OF THE WORLD.

To make things even more complicated, Hodgman has actually been performing (with They Might Be Giants) as "The Deranged Millionaire" since 2005, long before he actually became either a millionaire or deranged.

As a "surprisingly successful freelance writer," I can personally identify with only the first persona Hodgman evokes, as I routinely have the opportunity (even here, now, in these words that I am currently writing) to reach an audience of "a lot of people" and feel that I must demonstrate some kind of expert status in my field. Like Hodgman, I fully expect to parlay this into some kind of mad bestselling romp ending in Ragnarok. Just you wait.

On Books of Lists

Hodgman's trilogy of complete world knowledge owes a lot to The Book of Lists (as Hodgman has discussed in interviews). As part of my job here at mental_floss, I routinely write lists, and indeed we're coming out with our own book of lists quite soon now. Hodgman has spent so much time perfecting the art of list-writing that I have to hand it to him -- this is top-notch listology. An example (from page 808):

CONDITIONS FOR THE RETURN OF THE ANCIENT AND UNSPEAKABLE ONES

• Jormungandr, the World Serpent, rises from the deep.

• Death of the Norse god Balder.

• The ravenous moveable forest awakens and feasts on blood.

• Nick Nolte reads the Book of Revelations.

• The Ten-Day Night falls.

• The lost Gumstone is found.

• Temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Humidity of about 60 percent.

• Winds out of the south, southeast.

This list is followed by a list of 700 "Ancient and Unlistable Ones." Yes, seven hundred. Due to clever layout, this only takes 20 pages and contains something like a thousand jokes (each name is itself a joke and there are countless meta-jokes inserted into the list by virtue of putting the joke-names in order).

Complete World Knowledge is Not Available in Ebook Format

The formatting of Hodgman's three books, with their tables, charts, images, and page-a-day calendar, makes them nearly impossible to translate into ebook format. Hodgman's website says: "An ELECTRONIC edition is something we are working on. As soon as we know how to make a PAGE-A-DAY CALENDAR on a PAGELESS DEVICE, we will get back to you." None of Hodgman's books are currently available as ebooks, which I actually find kind of satisfying. It's nice to know that these books are written to be books: physical, designed objects with a structure to them that means something (part of that structure being that you can flip easily to a random page -- something that's not super easy on most e-readers). Those of us who relish our print books and rage against the dying of the paper book format may take some satisfaction in knowing that these books currently cannot be digital. Perhaps someday someone will make an ebook of complete world knowledge -- but not now.

Interestingly, in his first book of complete world knowledge (way back in the stone ages of 2005), Hodgman suggested that the book itself contained a camera that would watch you as you read the book. This is now technically feasible on, for example, an iPad: it has a camera facing the reader. Oh boy. Good thing they're still working out the kinks on that ebook business.

The Audiobooks of Complete World Knowledge

The glory of the audiobooks of Hodgman's work is nearly impossible to describe. Frankly, the audiobooks of The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require are actually more fun than the physical books. They're packed with music, guest stars, and weirdly entertaining ways of cramming the books' unusual elements into audio form (this generally involves converting charts into conversations, reading tables using a mixture of female and male narration, along with a bell's chime to indicate the end of a row). Because Hodgman is such an excellent reader and performer, he makes the audiobooks so indelible that it becomes impossible to read the print books without hearing his narration. There is not yet an audiobook for That is All, but you can get the first two books on CD (or via Audible, or iTunes, or whatever) and enjoy a heck of a romp: The Areas of My Expertise (Amazon/CD) and More Information Than You Require (Amazon/CD). These are my favorite audiobooks ever, and that's saying something -- they're even better than the Jim Dale narration of Harry Potter. Yes, they're THAT GOOD.

Hodgman's website notes: "An AUDIOBOOK edition will be recorded SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE, but not before January of 2012."

Where to See & Buy Hodgman

He's on book tour, many dates featuring guest stars. If you can get to one with David Rees, he'll professionally sharpen a pencil for you! (Sorry, I had to get that in there. I blurbed the man's book, how else am I supposed to buzz-market my favorite pencil-sharpener?) You may also devote yourself to Hodgman's Tumblr, Twitter, or his excellent podcast. To buy his latest book, try Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Powell's (also available signed!), or your local book retailer.

You may also enjoy this book trailer:

The End

It's fitting that That is All ends with a quote by Carl Sagan. Although the book is primarily jokes, there is a quality to Hodgman's writing that seems truly grateful for the opportunity to write a trilogy of complete world knowledge and become a deranged millionaire, famous minor television personality, and even former professional literary agent. In the greater scheme of things, Hodgman is aware that everything is fleeting -- youth, and fame, and success in writing books of fake trivia -- and thus, at its core, this is a book about the end of everything. With jokes. That is all.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to write this review. I do have a proprietary interest in surviving Ragnarok, though, so I felt it prudent to review early galleys with great attention.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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