The Wisdom of Fathers

(Ewing Galloway/classicstock/alamy)
Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Sunday, October 28, 2007

FATHER KNOWS LESS Or "Can I Cook My Sister?" One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions

By Wendell Jamieson | Putnam. 258 pp. $24.95


By John Lloyd and John Mitchinson | Harmony. 266 pp. $19.95

I've always suspected that, for many men, the secret thrill of parenthood is hero worship. Up to the age of 12, many kids treat their fathers the way fathers wish their wives would -- as kings of the family castle. In my experience, this is manifested along two equally wonderful tracks. One is the hugs and squeals that greet the father's entrance into his domain. My wife does this, too. Well, once. If memory serves, it was June 1988. I think there was a tax refund involved.

The other track involves questions. You know: Daddy, where does earwax come from? Daddy, why does Rover smell his . . . well, you get the picture. Questions allow fathers to bask in the role of Oracle and Fount of All Knowledge. This is heady stuff. Most fathers know the easy answers and bluff their way through the tough ones. The other day, my 11-year-old, deeply engaged in his first Shakespeare, hit me with "Dad, what does forsooth mean?" I said, "Yo." He smiled, kissed me on the cheek and said, "Thanks, Dad." King, baby! King!

But there is a certain breed of intellectual father who wants to answer these questions with, you know, actual true facts. For him, two new books have arrived: Father Knows Less, by Wendell Jamieson, and The Book of General Ignorance, by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. Both books offer answers to scads of tough questions. The book to buy is Jamieson's. You think your family throne is wobbly? Read this. You'll extend your reign by years.

Jamieson, an editor at the New York Times, pads Father with all manner of stories about his family's life in Brooklyn. While nice enough, this is standard Bob Greene/Bill Geist material. What makes the book worth reading is the questions Jamieson researches to sate his son Dean's curiosity. He makes it a family project. He and Dean actually track down experts to get the facts. For instance, in an attempt to confirm that chewing gum really does take seven years to pass from one's body, they interview the head scientist at Wrigley. It turns out that while there's not much data on the topic, the man from Wrigley is pretty sure we're talking days here, not years.

Why does your skin wrinkle in the water? The Jamiesons go to the magician David Blaine, who once submerged himself for 177 hours, presumably making him the world's expert on shrinkage. Blaine, whom I had dismissed as a bit of a blowhard, crafts a wonderful and surprisingly focused explanation.

While father and son wander wide in their search for knowledge, the best entries in the book relate to bodily pains and functions. My kids are sadly past the earwax stage, but I'm gonna find someone to ask me about it anyway because I can really nail that mother now. Oh, and the post-Popsicle brain freeze? That's here. How many hairs on a human head? That's here, too. The answer, it turns out, is about 100,000.

Of course, forget the kids, these are just the things I wanted to know. There are lots of questions here my two boys never asked. Are rainbows hot or cold? Why does the chef wear a big white hat? Why is it red for stop and green for go? Oh, and my favorite: Why are the roads in car commercials always wet? Jamieson finds an expert for every one. Daddy, what's a record? The Jamiesons ask Dick Clark. Priceless.

The same, alas, cannot be said for The Book of General Ignorance. I suspect the problem with this book is that the authors are British. They provide answers to dozens of questions, a few of which, like the one about missionaries in cannibal pots, are interesting enough. But too many of their answers are only technically correct. For example: What's the world's tallest mountain? Their answer: Hawaii's Mauna Kea, which is actually taller than Mount Everest if you measure from the sea floor. All right, technically, they're correct. But it's a smart aleck's answer. Trust me on this. If your child tries Mauna Kea at school, he's gonna get beat up.

When did World War II end? According to Lloyd and Mitchinson, 1990. Apparently someone forgot to sign something. Anyway, these are the kind of cutesy answers that will leave your children bloodied and scarred for life. The entire book, in fact, left me worried about the British educational system. Are there people over there who really want to know what was odd about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Or what dolphins drink? Or what German uniforms were made of in World War I? Or, here's a good one, how many penises a European earwig really has? I mean, who even knows what an earwig is? These aren't questions anyone would actually ask. These are factoids the authors have found and formed into questions. General Ignorance is at best a bathroom book. I'm sure your British guests will stay in there chuckling for hours.

Oh, just in case you were wondering, the earwig thing? The answer is two. They keep a spare because the first one tends to break.

Who knew? *

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair.

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