BUGGING OUT: Brookline’s John Hodgman expounding on one of his many areas of expertise.
John Hodgman is a very intelligent man.
He is also a very strange man. His book, The Areas of My Expertise (which has just been released in paperback by Riverhead), is an omnibus compendium of probable falsehoods. According to the dust jacket, the arenas of his know-how are centered primarily on “matters historical; matters literary; matters cryptozoological; hobo matters; food, drink, and cheese (a kind of food); squirrels and lobsters and eels; haircuts; utopia; what will happen in the future; and most other subjects.” Tom Perotta gets it just about right when he calls Hodgman “witty, urbane, and completely out to lunch.”
In addition to being the author of this mock almanack, chock-a-block with “strange facts and odd-ities of the bizarre,” and curator of his own semi-regular academic sermons, the Little Gray Book Lectures, Hodgman is also a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, This American Life, Paris Review, and The Daily Show. He is also a “former professional literary agent.” And, of course, he is a PC. (Not really, but he plays one on TV, opposite a Mac.) In advance of his reading at Brookline Booksmith on September 27, we managed to wangle 20 minutes of his time to talk about hoboes, mole men, eels, chupacabras, his hometown of Brookline, and his sudden widespread fame.
You are a very intelligent man.
That’s kind of you to say. I have no way of judging.
So how did you get so damn smart?
Hard work and clean living. And a serum injected into my spinal fluid. By scientists. Only have it done by scientists. Seriously. Don’t try it yourself, it’s just bad news.
It isn't a testament to the rigors of the Brookline Public Schools?
Oh, well, they played their part. It was their science department that injected the intelligence serum. They don’t do it anymore. It was part of the scoliosis screening when I was growing up in Brookline. Now it’s not done anymore.
In one of your Little Gray Book Lectures, you refer to Brookline as "the town that has everything, yet at the same time has nothing.” Explain what that means.
Well, to some degree I was speaking of all home towns. In that, to the person who comes from a particular place — let us call it “Town X” — it is the most unique and interesting and important place in the world. It’s where you first experience most of the common stories that we all experience in life. So it has something of a mythic, novelistic quality to it. But then as you get older, you realize that you share experiences with a lot of older people. You also appreciate that every town is not only the most interesting place on earth, but also the most banal place on earth. Because everyone, more or less, has shared experiences that they go through that make a town seem important. Home towns are like opinions: everyone has one. And I guess in that sense, they’re also like assholes.
So what is your opinion of your hometown?
Oh, I’m awfully fond of it . . . Brookline really is the most interesting place on earth. A lot of history flows out of Brookline. While it was not his birthplace, it was the adopted home of Frederick Law Olmstead, who sought to destroy all cities and remake America as a very beautifully landscaped wilderness. I think it has the world’s highest concentration of paperback copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, thanks to the School Within a School program at Brookline High School. There’s a lot that’s very unique and special about it.
It contains multitudes.
Oh, indeed. It is the Macondo of Eastern Massachusetts.
You are an expert in “matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological, hobo matters . . . ”
You don’t have to go through it all.
Yes, well, you know what you're an expert in.
Which of these areas of inquiry are your favorites, and have you thought about branching out?
Well, one of the first ideas that made sense for the book was famous monsters and their hunters, which describes the somewhat complex relationship with various, as-yet-to-be-scientifically verified creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, etcetera, with some of the men, typically, who have been obsessed with finding them. The cryptozoological part, I still like it quite a bit. I’m working on a new book, More Information Than You Require, and I find myself coming back and finding that I did not do enough on cryptozoology. So I’ve been pondering a lot the Wikipedia, which is my favorite source on the Internet for dubious scholarship, particularly its list of cryptids.
Y’know, I was just reading that yesterday!
Were you really? That’s a strange coincidence. Did you check out the Mongolian Blood Worm?
I did not. I was actually reading about the Chupacabra-type beast that they found up in Maine, where I'm from.
Oh yeah, I heard about that. Yes, it’s very unusual, isn’t it?