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A fan of arcane reference books — and a PC

Besides being a television personality, John Hodgman is the author of two bestsellers. Besides being a television personality, John Hodgman is the author of two bestsellers. (Elizabeth Connor)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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John Hodgman grew up in Brookline. Today, he says, he is “an expert, a scholar, a former cheesemonger, an adventurer, a mercenary, and a minor television personality.” The author of two bestsellers of largely false facts, most recently “More Information Than You Require,” he appears frequently on “The Daily Show” and “This American Life.” And he’s the PC in the Mac/PC ads.

Who are your favorite literary humorists? My biggest superhero of writing is Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine fabulist. He’s an amazingly perceptive writer, but also willing to make a joke. One of my favorites of his stories is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’’ which is about a guy who intends to write “Don Quixote’’ again, but not by copying it. From within his own experience as a 20th-century French person, he’s going to originate a word-for-word duplicate. And then the whole thing masquerades as a literary essay.

There’s a tradition in American fiction that is deadly serious and earnest — like the Steinbeckian social novel. But Borges is obsessed with North American popular culture: detective novels, movies, Westerns. He really de-snobbified things in my reading.

What other genres do you appreciate? A lot of my time is spent reading antique or out-of-print books of reference. One big influence on my books was “The Book of Lists,’’ a huge bestseller in the ’70s. It came from a long tradition of popular encyclopedia and almanacs. My friend David Rees gave me a book called “World of Wisdom,” published in 1887. It was this little book of information on diseases of the horse, how to address different letters, how long it takes to digest various foods — completely random knowledge. It had the motto, “Look within, you will find it,” which I found both weirdly spiritual and absurd, given that it purported to contain, as they say, complete world knowledge, but was maybe 180 pages long.

Maybe in 1887 you could still fit complete world knowledge into 180 pages.

I don’t know. But there was a long tradition of books of folk wisdom and history. Almanacs, which started as guides to the phases of the moon and the tides and other things interesting to farmers or werewolves, eventually started to include information about whether there might be life on the moon or what snakes think about all day.

I just found a new old book I’m very excited about, “Conklin’s Vest-Pocket Argument Settler.” It’s designed to fit in a vest pocket and to settle arguments, as if people are arguing a lot about how long it takes to digest a rutabaga. “Well, sir, I’ll tell you right now. Here: It takes 35 minutes!”

To quote your first book, do you believe that electronic publishing is “purely for suckers”?

I was always a proponent of electronic books. Not for all books — I love the art of the book. But there’s no reason to have a commercial thriller about vampires and werewolves and serial killers — mental note! — in clothbound hardcover. It’s an enormous waste of resources. Meanwhile, the Internet is the best place to find crazy old books. It’s a treasure trove of weirdness.

The most important book on the Internet is, essentially, the Internet. Tim Berners-Lee, who conceived of the World Wide Web, called his prototype Web browser Enquire, after a classic British compendium of complete world knowledge, “Enquire Within Upon Everything.” It’s largely household hints: how to get out stains, or polish oyster spoons.

What he helped to invent based upon this necessarily incomplete book of world knowledge has become, indeed, a book of complete world knowledge — I mean to say, the Internet. Enquire within upon everything.

AMANDA KATZ

Got suggestions for future Bibliophiles? Find us on Facebook, follow us at GlobeBiblio on Twitter, or email amanda@amandalkatz.com.