You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do.
You’ve seen him in those "I’m a Mac..." commercials as the PC. You’ve seen him as the Resident Expert and the Deranged Millionaire (or Billionaire) on The Daily Show with John Stewart. You’ve heard him doing pieces on This American Life. He’s appeared on TV in Parks and Rec and Community and ever-so-briefly on Battlestar Galactica. You know him.
But you don’t. Not really.
For much of his entertainment career, John Hodgman has been playing characters. Over the course of the past decade or so he has written three books which purport to comprise the sum of all (fake) world knowledge. They are:
These books are delightful pieces, functionally presenting as almanacs with extensive bits of information that are entirely fabricated (though sometimes one wonders - perhaps the city of Chicago is, in fact, mythical). These aren’t just lists of made-up facts, though there is some of that, to be sure; in many cases, the concepts are woven into tiny short stories that can take on a life of their own, and presented convincingly enough that you may find yourself questioning what you think you know.
Because the theme is similar across the three - fake trivia and all - one might be forgiven for assuming that the second and third books are sequels, and more of the same. One might be forgiven, because one would be wrong - the books lay out more as a trilogy, reflecting a progression in the type of information, and in the character Hodgman plays as he writes it. It is not a spoiler (as it is on the covers of the books) to note In the first he comes to you as "a professional writer", and then as a "famous minor television personality" (the second book coming, as it did, after gaining the role as The PC). By the third book he has evolved (devolved?) into a deranged millionaire, the book coming just ahead of the Mayan predicted end of the world.
Ultimately, it’s a good bet that, if you enjoy Monty Python, you will enjoy these books (and perhaps not coincidentally, Hodgman interviewed John Cleese not too long ago).
They are made all the more enjoyable if one listens to them as Audiobooks, as this adds multiple guest appearances, including Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick), Paul Rudd, Sarah Vowell, Rickey Gervais, Brooke Shields, and others, (including Dick Cavett).
And now that I’ve provided you with this background, I have to let you know that this information isn’t a good preparation for his latest work:
With Vacationland, Hodgman sets aside the fake trivia and gets real. Literally.
Vacationland is a series of essays that centers around his experiences while away with his family in rural western Massachusetts and in Maine. This is too simple an explanation, of course, because on that journey he also delves into the struggles of raising children, of finding one’s way in life, and of losing a parent, among other things.
To be clear, Vacationland, like his previous work, is funny - Hodgman has a way of finding little bits of pleasure and joy in even the most mundane of topics. For example, on growing facial hair:
And I grew my second mustache for the same reason all your weird dads grew theirs: it is an evolutionary signal that says "I’m all done." A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, "No thank you. I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world, so I no longer deserve physical affection."
It is funny, but it is also wry, very candid, self-deprecating, and emotional. Like his previous works, Vacationland made me laugh, but unlike those, it also made me think and, at one particular point, literally made me cry. I can not recommend it highly enough.
This is work that is similar in vein to essayists like Tom Bodett and David Sedaris; and like David Sedaris, again made better still if you listen to the audiobook, which is read by John Hodgman himself. If you have friends who like to read (or listen) to authors like Bodett and Sedaris, this book would make an excellent gift for the holidays, or for whenever. And when they say "John Hodgman?" You can say:
"You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do..."