Comic John Hodgman Shares 'More Information'

John Hodgman

hide captionJohn Hodgman's More Information Than You Require is the second installment in his planned trilogy of fake trivia.

Jan Cobb

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

If you're reading this, you're probably a Daily Show fan. Or a This American Life fan. Which means you're probably familiar with John Hodgman.

The Daily Show's bespectacled "fake expert," Hodgman also plays a personal computer in a national ad campaign and contributes segments to This American Life about such topics as whether flight or invisibility would be a more awesome superpower.

Hodgman's new book, More Information Than You Require, is a compilation of humorous fake trivia, and it's a continuation of his last book, the best-selling The Areas of My Expertise. And it begins on Page 237 –- exactly where The Areas of My Expertise left off.

Hodgman is a former literary agent who grew up in Brookline, Mass., and attended the same public high school as Conan O'Brien. (O'Brien, who is a few years older, went to Harvard for college; Hodgman is a Yale man.) A few weeks ago, Hodgman advised the titular host of The Rachel Maddow Show that fake expertise begins with searching your brain for half-truths and received wisdom.

"You ask yourself, 'What is it I think I know?' and you say it with a straight face," he said. "And if you can't think of what to say, there's always the Internet."

This reading of More Information Than You Require took place in October 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'More Information Than You Require'

'More Information Than You Require'

Good Evening.

I trust we need no introduction, you and I.

If you are familiar with my previous book of Complete World Knowledge, and if you also have successfully completed my popular seminar in "Expert Memory Training", then you likely recall this simple fact:

My name is John Hodgman.

But I do not wish to be presumptuous. Perhaps you do not know who I am. Perhaps you were dealt some terrible blow to the head and are now suffering amnesia, and so do not recall my previous bestselling work, The Areas Of My Expertise.

If that is the case, allow me to explain. My name is John Hodgman; you live on the planet earth; and everything is going to be fine.

Why? Because the item you are holding in your hand is called a "BOOK." Specifically, it is called More Information Than You Require, and, like its predecessor, it contains within it all sorts of useful information on ridding your house of annoying pests, hints for winning at the gambling table, famous animal acts, useful recipes, the mole-men and their hideous steeds, the US Presidents and their hideous steeds, everything that happened before today, and SUNDRY MORE FACTS OF SCIENTIFIC, SOCIAL, AND HISTORICAL MERIT, ALL OF WHICH ARE MADE UP BY ME.

(For, also like its predecessor, this book is unique in the desk reference game insofar as the amazing true facts within it are almost entirely false. The precise reason for this is well established in my earlier writings. Suffice to paraphrase the great detective and repeat that REALITY, while generally PROBABLE, is not always INTERESTING.)

In short, here is a volume which contains all that you wish to know—truly MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU REQUIRE—as you seek to recover from your amnesia, learn the secret of your forgotten identity, and find out how you got that terrible scar.

Good luck, my amnesiac friend.

But now, I wish to return my attention to those readers who have not lost their memories and who are scarred only on the inside. That is to say: those who have read The Areas Of My Expertise.

First of all, let me say that I am glad we got rid of the amnesiacs. What a tiresome bunch of whiners.

Now I expect you are wondering...

"If your last book contained COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE" why, then, the need for this second volume?

Don't ask me how I know you are wondering this. I JUST KNOW.

But though I appreciate your skepticism, if you just read on, I think you will see that the need is pressing, not just for ONE further volume, but indeed FOR TWO.

But I get ahead of myself.

As you may know, since our most recent communication, several THINGS HAVE OCCURRED.

1. Like all humans, I have aged, and grown wiser and more mature. I have, if you can believe it, learned more than I knew before. ESPECIALLY ABOUT THE OKAPI.

2. Perhaps more notably, I have added to my list of bona fides and duties the title of "FAMOUS MINOR TELEVISION PERSONALITY."

3. Largely because of the responsibilities associated with this new title (being photographed wearing tuxedoes, riding in jets with heiresses; meeting Emo Philips IN PERSON; etc.), I accidentally forgot to write the book I promised you on the subject of my daughter, whom, for reasons of privacy, I refer to solely as HODGMINA.

4. Indeed, while I find all references to my personal life loathsome (except for the part above about meeting Emo Philips, which you can appreciate is a fabulous fantasy come true), you might have nonetheless heard that there is an addition to my family. He is a human male who is roughly 3 years of age, based on a standard counting of his bodily growth rings. For easy reference I shall refer to him solely as HODGMANILLO. While he is as yet too young to handle a pen or plume, I hope that, in the future, he will take after his father and become a PROFESSIONAL WRITER and, ideally, write that book about HODGMINA I promised. My hope is that he will get started as soon as this Christmas, when we send him to boarding school, where he should not have any distractions.

5. And yet, in the midst of all of this dizzying and bizarre good fortune, I began to feel an extraordinary measure of melancholy.

6. Also, as has been reported: one of my cats died, probably due to neglect by Jonathan Coulton, who cannot prove otherwise.

But let us leave that matter for the moment and turn back to the subject of melancholy.

As a former professional literary agent, I had often observed the sadness that sometimes grips an author after he has published his first book. Writing a book is a long, intimate affair. Many feel that seeing their first book published is like giving birth to a child.

Or, more accurately, it is like giving birth to a child and then sending that child to be raised in a chain bookstore, far away. Maybe even in Michigan. And there, that child would have to fend for himself, feeding at night on stale muffins from the coffee bar, and hiding by day in the humor section, secure in the knowledge that he will never, ever be found there. NOT IN ONE MILLION YEARS.

For many authors, this is depressing to consider.

BUT NOT ME. Once my book was done, I felt TERRIFIC.

I felt a profound sense of wholeness and relief. I had caught within the pages of a single book COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE... a book which now has traveled the world and been welcomed in every home. It has become, I venture to say: THE ABSOLUTE STANDARD IN ALMANACS OF ASSORTED FAKE FACTS in the United States, and I was proud of that, and ready to direct my attention to my compelling new hobby: ASTONISHING WEALTH.

Yes, it is true: when last we spoke, I was but a poor, loathsome writer who, like many, was forced to live off credit cards and the pity lunches of his editors and agents and to rent his own pants.

But now, between my work for television, my lucrative publishing advances, and my side businesses in RING TONES and DECORATIVE PLATES, I now am in a position to buy BEAUTIFUL NEW PANTS every day, often made of whalebone and silver. And quickly—so quickly—this fabulous lifestyle became as normal to me as breathing underwater.

Yes. My life was perfectly and fully satisfied. I had a happy family, at least one cat that Jonathan Coulton had not yet killed. Not to mention a beautiful new, 900 ft speed zeppelin that I had bought from Emo Philips.

And so for a time I floated with great speed, high above the earth, and rarely did I look down to see you, dear reader. And when I did, you looked so small. You looked like ants to me, with your strangely segmented bodies and horrid mandibles. I would see you and think, why don't those little people get their mandibles removed? Surely there is surgery for that sort of thing by now.

But then I would turn back to the skies, and forget about you once more.

My speed zeppelin, as you probably know by now, was named "Hubris."

Why Emo Philips chose that name is still a mystery to me. But it was apt, my friends. It was apt.

FOR IT WAS NOT LONG BEFORE MY BALLOON WAS LITERALLY POPPED AND I WAS LITERALLY BROUGHT BACK DOWN TO EARTH.

It began when I was asked to appear in a MAJOR MOTION PICTURE. Specifically, I appeared in the comedy Baby Mama as the "Tweedy Former Professional Literary Agent Turned Fertility Specialist": a small but pivotal role in which I hilariously explain to Tina Fey that she is barren and can never bear children. Now this is a classic routine from old Vaudeville, but I like to think I brought my own unique take to it (a double spit take, followed by wheezing laughter). Even so, it's hardly worth mentioning, except for this:

You may recall from my previous book a list of movies in which I had made cameo appearances, including The Muppet Movie, Just Cause, and Mimic. But of course, I had never appeared in any of those movies. It was all lies. But now here I was, sitting in front of the lights and the cameras (I guess Tina Fey was there as well, but who can really know for sure, with all the special effects they use these days?), making an ACTUAL CAMEO APPEARANCE in an ACTUAL FILM.

And that is when the melancholy set in. The Areas Of My Expertise was founded on a simple maxim: TRUTH MAY BE STRANGER THAN FICTION, but never as strange as lies. But now truth seemed to be catching up. Now that my own reality was outpacing ability to make jokes, what would be left for me to do? A low, existential dread infected me in that moment. And it took some time for me to shake it. Indeed, all the way until the end of the scene. Then I am glad to say that, after a long martini bath and money-counting session, I had forgotten all about it.

But then I had another startling revelation—one that could not be so easily washed off with vermouth.

As you may recall, my previous book conveyed a certain amount of information on the history and habits of the wandering men of the 30s known as HOBOES.

This sparked a measure of HOBO-MANIA among a certain segment of the reading population. I was grateful to receive factual information you had uncovered about HOBOES, and especially news of HOBO-THEMED PRODUCTS AND SERVICES that hoped to seduce customers with the timeless, romantic allure of being a drunk, penniless vagrant during the Great Depression.

Examples included:

"HOBO" BRAND HOBO SOUP

THE HOBO DELI OF KINGSTON, NY

HOBO HALLOWEEN COSTUMES FOR CHILDREN

And CLIPS OF THE CANADIAN CHILDREN'S PROGRAM "THE LITTLEST HOBO"

(Which, it turns out, is not about a miniature, doll-sized hobo at all, but instead follows the adventures of a unemployed dog who hops trains, eats garbage, and drinks wood alcohol until it dies).

But the fun stopped when news came to me via the internet regarding an actual product: DICK VAN PATTEN'S "HOBO CHILI" FOR DOGS:

At first blush, it all seemed perfectly innocent: a hobo themed dog food created and sold by the actor DICK VAN PATTEN (though he was now going by the sobriquet "CHEF WOOFGANG").

But upon further investigation, I learned that CHEF WOOFGANG was not only making hobo chili for dogs. He was also offering THREE OTHER ETHNIC-THEMED dog foods, including "IRISH STEW" for dogs and "CHINESE TAKE-OUT" for dogs, each featuring an illustration of Dick Van Patten in ETHNICALLY APPROPRIATE COSTUME, accompanied by an ETHNICALLY APPROPRIATE DOG.

Now, normally I would cheer such a sublimely unlikely product. Except for the fact that it is FACT. Absolutely none of this was made up. And since you and I are friends I trust you can appreciate how, for someone in my line of work, the HIDEOUS VERACITY AND NON-JOKENESS of this product would be distressing, to say the least.

You might even say that Dick Van Patten was literally stealing food from the mouths of my children AND FEEDING IT TO ETHNIC DOGS.

THAT, my non-amnesiac friends, CANNOT STAND.

And so I realized the time had come to bring "Hubris" to ground and restock the pond of fact with fiction, as it were, with More Information Than You Require.

You will see from the page numbering that this book is not a sequel, but a direct continuation of the work that was begun in my last volume. And, further, I announce here that this work will not be complete until the third and final volume emerges, sometime IN THE FUTURE.

For if I have ever had a mission in this endeavor (beyond INCREASING MY ALREADY ENORMOUS WEALTH) it would be that the lies collected here remind us of the actual balm of the uncanny: the odd coincidences, curious synchronicities, strange truths, and stranger dog foods that make wretched reality FEEL like fiction, and rescue our lives from grim, relentless plausibility.

But as I learned that day with Tina Fey, if the uncanny is to become commonplace, LITERALLY UNCANNED, and served up daily as just so much more Hobo Chili for Dogs, then we might cease to notice it altogether. And that is why I return to you now. That is why I must work triply hard to re-strange the world with lies, lest we neglect to savor, as I nearly did, every beautiful, Van Patteny bite.

And when this project is finished, and all three volumes stand together as one great massive book of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, finally complete, then it will be very handy indeed. You could use it to press down pates, or keep children from blowing away, just to name two examples.

And then, and only then, will I write:

THAT IS ALL.

Excerpted from More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2008.

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