The Men Behind the Guinness Book

(* Best Feature Ever Written)

*Cleverest Grandfather

Norris and Ross McWhirter acknowledge no limits to their distrust. In 22 years compiling 13 editions of the Guinness Book of World Records--which they insist is "not like Ripley's Believe it or Not"--they have learned that no unauthenticated claim can be accepted, that "the strictures which apply to giants apply equally to dwarfs, except that exaggeration gives way to understatement." The strictures even apply to the McWhirter family. It is not that Ross McWhirter disbelieves his grandfather. He simply wants to state the fact correctly.

"He said he used calculus without ever having learned about it," the filial, but still skeptical, grandson explains carefully. (Norris is engaged in finishing all his own roast beef and a fraction of his identical twin's sentences.) "It is a difficult thing to check, isn't it? But he was a clever man--an astronomy buff, used to have the whole family up to look at the planets." Ross goes on to the next subject. When unquestionable authority is lacking, even compilers of record books make do with circumstantial evidence.

And yet...it leaves them feeling unsatisfied. Norris looks up from his roast beef: he, too, admits to no exaggerated enthusiasm for his clever grandfather's astronomic prowess. As Ross recalls the happy evenings spent in collective star-gazing. Norris nods his head.

"It's a wonder any of us survived," he murmurs thoughtfully.

*Least Explicated

The McWhirter brothers were in Boston last week, visiting the Boston Public Library, being driven around in an enormous Cadillac and taping radio and television interviews in part of Bantam Books' unremitting effort to sell the 12 million copies in the new American edition's first printing. Now available in 15 languages, it is the largest, longest, best-selling, best-known, most comprehensive general-interest record book in the world. Ross attributes the dearth of imitations to potential competitors' lack of initiative. "Doing this book was hard work, and most publishers are lazy," he explains.

All in one stupendous volume! THE GIANT 1975 EDITION! of the Guinness Book lists the highest price ever paid for a stuffed bird, the worst known case of compulsive swallowing ("The patient, who complained only of swollen ankles, was found to have 258 items in his stomach, including...3 pairs of tweezers, 4 nail clippers, 39 nail files, 3 metal chains and 88 assorted coins"), and a footnote that announces, without elaboration, that during 1974 George H. (Babe) Ruth's career record of 714 home runs was surpassed by Hank Aaron.

Like many great works of literature, the Guinness Book raises as many questions as it answers. Why did that compulsive swallower own 39 nail files? Did he have 39 nails? Or did it have anything to do with the 55 1/2-inch total length of the nails on the left hand of Murari Mohan Aditya of Calcutta, India, who "has given each nail a separate name"? Here is a problem that must be left to future researchers--for the Union Catalogue in Widener lists no critical essays on or editions of the Guinness Book. In addition to its other records it is the world's least explicated volume of its kind.

*Fantastic Marvels of Nature

The McWhirters seem unperturbed by this problem. They seen unimpressed when Bantam Books hypesters announce that the latest edition's "fantastic marvels of nature and extravagant wonders from the bizarre world of Man" are MORE AMAZING THAN EVER! Actually the book is at least seven months out of date--not only is Aaron relegated to a footnote, but Mario Andretti is still credited with the highest average speed lap on a closed circuit track, even though A.J. Foyt broke his record at Talladega, Ala., last August. But anyway, the McWhirters themselves--they are Oxford men, after all--are more restrained. In their more modest opinion, the annually revised Guinness Book maintains a fairly constant level of amazement. "We worked out the categories for the first edition." Ross says proudly, "and we haven't had to change them since. It was all there right from the beginning--a mixture of the serious and the zany."

"Of course, we sometimes move things into different categories" Norris admits. The table of "Worst Accidents and Disasters in the World," he says--the disasters, selected because each represents the largest number of recorded fatalities from a specific cause, range from the Black Death of 1347-51 to the man-eating tigress shot in India's Champawat district in 1907 to the conventional and atomic bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945--might arguably be placed elsewhere than in the section on "HUMAN ACHIEVEMENTS."

*Best Informed

Though their star-gazing grandfather lived in Scotland, the McWhirters were born in London in 1925, the children of a newspaper editor who Ross says subscribed to "hundreds of newspapers and magazines." The senior McWhirter may have been the most compulsive swallowers of information of his time--though Ross says he simply needed to "know the opposition"--but it is to such humble eccentricities that the authors of the Guinness Book of World Records trace its origin. From an early age the growing twins clipped useless information from the papers. "We kept lists of the largest buildings, that sort of thing." Ross says.

It was an obsession the brothers never lost: at the slightest provocation, they are still ready to supply facts that might have come from these early lists. "Stonehenge is like the Alamo--it is not very impressive," one McWhirter may remark in passing. It is all but certain to begin a colloquy in which the brothers correct and interrupt each other, finish one another's sentences, and leap from one millennium to the next--all of it calmly, perfectly reasonably, in clipped accents, as though nothing else could possibly be expected. "Not very impressive? Well, how could it be? Built 1900 years before Christ, after all?

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