Harcourt, 2006, 278 pages, US$14.00 tpb, ISBN 0-15-603083-7
My idealistic streak would dearly love to see a world where truth and accurate information would triumph over lies and nonsense. Alas, the human brain isn’t wired this way, and the mass of disinformation that clogs the Internet is just a reflexion of how, as a species, we’re just not very good at this whole idea of an “objective reality”
Billed as “A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S.”, Alex Boese’s Hippo Eats Dwarf is most fascinating as a punchy compendium detailing some of the ways humans lie to each other. It’s profoundly depressing even when it’s hilarious, and it’s an eye-opener even for those who think they’ve seen everything, on or off the Internet.
The central conceit of the book is to teach readers how to distinguish between hoaxes and reality. (The title refers to a widely-known urban legend in which a set of circumstances lead a hippo to swallow a dwarf. It usually involves a circus cannon.) So each chapter of the book is peppered with “Reality Rules” (eg: “Reality Rule 11.1: There’s nothing real about reality TV”) that are meant to guide readers but actually introduce the next set of anecdotes, incidents, hoaxes and outright falsehoods (mixed with the infrequent truth) that Boese brings together in one handy hyperactive package.
Generously illustrated and printed in bi-chromic black-and-green, Hippo Eats Dwarf is as entertaining as it’s useful. The structure of the book unpacks itself in bite-sized segments peppered with short definitions, “Case Files” sidebars, question-and-answer “Reality Checks” and sub-categories, along with pictures and illustrations. One can argue about its bilious shades of green, but the design of the book is up to its content in terms of making it as reader-friendly as possible. It’s great bathroom reading, something that the book itself explicitly encourages: “Should you find yourself reluctant to put down this book despite a burning need to go to the bathroom, there is a perfect solution. Read the book on the toilet. You have my permission.” [P.175]
Such an unpretentious tone works well given the subject, especially when readers are tempted to ask who Boese thinks he is to slice between truth and fiction. As it happens, Boese is a former science history student whose abandoned doctoral dissertation led to a rather interesting career as a self-taught “hoaxpert” whose web site remains a reference point for anti-hoaxers. Hippo Eats Dwarf is the second of his three books so far, but Boese’s slightly-sarcastic tone occupies an interesting mid-point between credibility and sympathy: he may snark, but the acid never overwhelms the wonderful aspect of the things he brings to our attention. The entire thing is remarkably funny.
Even for those who think they’ve reasonably well-informed about the quasi-infinite weirdness of modern human society, Hippo Eats Dwarf has a number of new stories to tell. Some of them are amazing; others are just depressing as we wonder how, exactly, do people fall for this kind of obviously silly stuff. Despite Boese’s protestations late in his introduction (“the question of why our world has become so hippo-eats-dwarf is an interesting one, but that’s another topic I don’t address at length.” [P.3-4]), this book is a lengthy collection of the variety of reasons why people will prefer to invent, and believe, outright falsehoods. Best of all, it demonstrates such things by an encyclopedic enumeration of practical cases rather than dry academic discussion.
Contrarily to other books that look good upon browsing and end up flat on close reading, Hippo Eats Dwarf is a solid and content-filled book that delivers upon even its own outrageous back-cover promises. It looks good and leaves an even better impression. It won’t do much to fight against the human propensity to believe nonsense, but it may set a few things straight in your mind. Can you afford to let this book slip by?