John Hodgman is the king of complicated nonsense. He established himself as such in 2005 with the release of his first book, called The Areas of My Expertise for short [*see complete title, as copied from the original hardcover dust jacket, below]. The book seemed aimed at an impossibly small demographic. Who would be the audience for a faux almanac written in the voice of a snobby academic boasting complete knowledge of everything?
The concept has proven remarkable durable. Hodgman’s deadpan delivery and bold lies made him a regular on The Daily Show, and the final volume of the trilogy, That is All, is now in paperback, along with the Complete World Knowledge boxed set that also includes book two, More Information Than You Require. Hodgman continued the pagination from volume to volume, which totals 1,051 pages of mostly made up history, science and ephemera.
That’s enough to try the patience of most any comedy fan. But Hodgman is smart enough to have created a format that works on different levels. Shorter essays are punctuated with graphs and tables, and in the last two volumes, a running Page-a-Day-type factoid on every page. There are charts and info boxes and bite-sized bits that can be digested with a glance. The joke is on the surface—not much heavy lifting required for a list of hobo names or a “Were You Aware of It” box on the influence of crabs on musical theatre. Each book is a nesting doll of odd, untrue facts.
The most impressive aspect of this series is the world-building. By the time Hodgman gets to That Is All, he has created a completely annotated universe with its own rules, characters and history. It’s as rich as any science fiction novel. He established that submariners hate zeppeliners in Expertise, which comes back to play in the running history of the end of the world in That Is All, in a scene during the Super Bowl where New York Jets center Nick Mangold has brought steampunk into the NFL and tried to broker peace between Frank Deford’s NPRmy and LARPers. Why? Because “Winter is coming,” a reference to George R. R. Martin’s popular Game of Thrones series. For good measure, Martin is in the stands. The end of the world story could be its own stand-alone book.
Hodgman is literary and clever. He can offer a pitch-perfect parody of author Cormac McCarthy’s writing style, complete with lack of quotation marks. He’s willing to work for a pun (see the footnote on page 443 in More Information for his bit on a book called Yo, Poe, about how Sylvester Stallone loves Edgar Allen Poe). It’s an ornate, all-encompassing satire of a society on information overload, but not particularly charged politically. Hodgman has said That Is All will be the final book in this format (he offers tips on how to join him as a deranged millionaire). After creating something so specific to his own persona, it begs the question, what’s next for Hodgman as a writer?
*An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled With Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order By Me, John Hodgman, A Professional Writer, In The Areas Of My Expertise, Which Include: Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink & Cheese (A Kind of Food), Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopia, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects and Featuring the Best of “Were You Aware Of It?” John Hodgman’s Long-Running Newspaper Novelty Column of Strange Facts and Oddities of the Bizarre