Thursday, February 15, 2007

Man vs. Cyborg

I stumbled across The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman by accident. I read a blurb on about a free audiobook download by an author that was "most awesome." If there's one thing I like more than awesome, it's free, so I headed over to iTunes to download the tracks.

Expertise is, for lack of better words, a fake almanac. Essentially, it's a list of tables and paragraphs that explain everything in the author's knowledgebase, most of which is fallacious and most of which is pretty darn funny. The standouts in the long tome (which I haven't seen in hard copy, but runs almost seven hours in audio format) are the sections on hobos (oh, is this ever great!) and the profiles of our fifty-one United States (did somebody say Thunderbirds?).

The book is probably best known for its list of seven hundred hobo names. The monikers (such as #274, Tom False-Lips Real-Teeth, or #71, Canadian-Football Pete) inspired a barrage of classy artwork from Internet cartoonists at e-Hobo, and rightfully so. They're pretty hilarious.

However, that list illustrates the essential problem with the audio recording. It seems that it would be exceedingly difficult to present a book of lists and tables in vocal form, as it's such a visual medium. There are moments in which Hodgman succeeds--such as in the list of state facts--but most of it falls flat. The aforementioned hobo list, for instance, is fifty minutes long, underscored by one very long rendition of "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Chances are that you'll find yourself zoning out until you stumble across a gem like "Redball Charlie Dickens" or "Scurvied Leo Falsebreath."

Hodgman's performance of his book leaves something to be desired. He had the right idea--something like this needs to be read deadpan, or else it would suffer from some sort of "LOOK AT HOW WACKY THIS IS!" syndrome. However, Hodgman is deader than deadpan, turning even his sharpest writing into something potentially boring. He is accompanied by a friend who serves as sounding board, guitarist, and sometime punching bag. The banter between the two is friendly and underused, falling mostly within the States section of the book.

I think the actual paper copy of this book would be an excellent buy. If nothing else, it would join the fabled tomes of great bathroom reading (accompanied by such books as Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller): easy to pick up, flip to a random page, and read something interesting and perhaps funny for five minutes. I wouldn't recommend the audiobook, in spite of its freeness, because you'll find yourself wading through hours of material for just a few laughs.

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