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John Hodgman: The Areas Of My Expertise

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The Areas Of My Expertise touts itself as "an almanac of complete world knowledge," such as: nine presidents who had hooks for hands; short words to use on submarines to preserve oxygen; a history of the lobster in the U.S.; and, naturally, a comprehensive analysis of hobo culture (including 700 hobo names). All of it is fiction, and author John Hodgman writes with an expert's detachment and an arid wit, which means his book may sail over some readers' heads.

Inspired by Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and similar works, Hodgman acknowledges early in Expertise that almanacs aren't the most lucrative books: "The most marketable kind of book to write was one in which vampires fight serial killers. But the best kind of book to write was one in which the vampires fight large weather systems and perfect storms." Almanacs are reference tools, not linear stories, so Hodgman pieces together Expertise's disparate subject matter with only a smattering of cohesion. Although he separates the book into nine sections (roughly: the past, present, future, hoboes, and an analysis of "our 51 United States"), the components of each section often have nothing in common. For example, in the "Further Information You Can Use Today" section, Hodgman follows "Some American Telephone Numbers Beginning With '666'" with "All Kinds Of Squirrels." He breaks the book up with numerous tables, photos, drawings, and boxes (including the recurring "Were You Aware Of It?" and miscellanea like "Fast Facts About Philadelphia"—"The word 'Philadelphia,' from the Greek, literally means 'Pennsylvania.'").


With few exceptions, Hodgman keeps the pace brisk, and that suits his bizarre style. The book suffers when he lets the pace drag, as in the long, odd story about "Ar," the secret 51st U.S. state. The piece is so strange and convoluted—Ar floats in the sky above North America and has giant thunderbirds who kidnap people—that it becomes laborious after a couple of pages. But Hodgman hits more than he misses, and Expertise is frequently hilarious (like the attack ad he wrote against a subletter) and bold (New York's nickname: "The Affiliated Businesses Of 9/11-Related Tourism State"). It's an ambitious, surprisingly complex debut, though its success could paint Hodgman into a corner for future work.