John Hodgman and His Expertise

Picture author John Hodgman beginning his day just before noon.

“I haven’t even showered,” he says over the telephone. “I’m not fit to be seen in public.” On this detail, you must take him at his word. He could be rumpled and stinky or he could be freshly scrubbed and spritzed with a light, yet masculine cologne. You’ll never know for sure.

Because no matter how deeply you sniff the telephone receiver, it still smells like plastic.

For argument’s sake, he probably smells just fine.

Tomorrow night, Hodgman appears at Chop Suey Books with cartoonist David Rees (“Get Your War On”) and musician Jonathan Coulton. At some point in the evening, the topic of his latest book is sure to come up. Lately, it almost always does.

“The Areas of My Expertise” is a hardcover compendium of complete falsehoods. Kids on the street call it “fake trivia,” but the author himself described it as “playful, jokey and accidentally profound parables.”

A glance at the Table of Contents is enough to entice the curious and ward off the squeamish: Jokes That Have Never Produced Laughter, page 56; Basics of Snow and Ice Warfare, page 59; History’s Worst Men’s Haircuts, page 71; Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands, page 200.

In a former life, Hodgman was a New York literary agent with an expense account. He represented, among others, Bruce Campbell (star of the “Evil Dead” films and author of “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor”) and Darin Straus (“Chang and Eng”).

“It was a very rewarding and not wholly despicable profession,” he said. “I got to eat lunch for free. And not just lunch, but also alcohol.”

Back then, Hodgman was up early and groomed for a mass audience.

But he longed for a life of creativity. He craved solitude, desperation and struggle. He wanted to write.

So in 2000, he relinquished his life as an agent to become a full-time writer. Hodgman contributed regularly to The New York Times Magazine. His work, and voice, was featured in several segments of “This American Life,” broadcast on National Public Radio.

In late 2003, he sold the idea for “The Areas of My Expertise.” As a consequence, he was contractually obligated to spend 2004 writing short bits about hoboes, squirrels, lobsters and cyborgs. His book contains several charts, a few old photographs and almost nothing about sports.

“I’m very interested and able to absorb esoterica and ephemera,” said Hodgman. “I enjoy reading things that were not necessarily published to be remembered.”

As a teenager, Hodgman was heavily influenced by encyclopedias, almanacs and the “Book of Lists.” He also cited the influence of a book called “Big Secrets,” which exposed the truth about Masonic rituals, the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the location of the secret door in Disneyland that led to a private cocktail lounge.

Hodgman’s “Expertise” is an acquired taste, deadpan absurdity dealt with a straight face.

In person, with his camelhair coat, fat-knotted tie and black-framed glasses, the author is more economics professor than literate subversive.

While any reader with a nickel’s worth of sense can figure out that President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t really invent polio as a “Final Solution” for eradicating hoboes, Hodgman said that hidden within the 240 pages are some kernels of truth.

“The lies are big, the truths are small,” said Hodgman. “Just like life.”

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 2, 2005
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