Friday, March 30, 2018

"It's All Relative" by A.J. Jacobs

If you've read this blog for a while, you'll know that one of my great interests is genealogy -- researching my family history.

(Yes, I realize it's more than little ironic that my own branch of the family tree will end with me -- but as I have said before, here and elsewhere, I like to think that I'm still contributing to the family tree in my own way. I may not be growing the tree into the future, but I'm still adding to it by documenting and expanding our knowledge of past generations. :)  )

Which is why I found myself drawn to picking up "It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree" by A.J. Jacobs at the bookstore last year.

Jacobs is known for pursuing subjects obsessively and then writing about them in books such as "Drop Dead Healthy" (a year-long quest to radically improve his health, from head to toe), "The Know-it-All" (reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z) and "The Year of Living Biblically"(living strictly and literally according to Biblical principles for a full year).  (I had heard of, but not yet read any of his previous books.)

Jacobs's interest in genealogy is piqued when he receives an email out of the blue from a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel: “You don’t know me, but I’m your eighth cousin. And we have over 80,000 relatives of yours in our database.” Jacobs is intrigued by the idea that, if you research far back enough, we are all cousins, and everyone is related in some way to everyone else on this planet.

Then, in a Skype call, he learns his newfound distant Israeli cousin had attended a family reunion attended by 3,000 (!) people. That's the nudge he needs to start planning a family reunion of his own -- not just any reunion, mind you, but the Global Family Reunion on June 6, 2015 -- the world's largest (if everyone is related, everyone is invited!), featuring a keynote address by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sister Sledge singing (what else?) "We Are Family." Besides trying to break a world record, Jacobs is motivated by the idea that, if we realize we're all connected, maybe we'll start treating each other a little more nicely. (If only, right?)

Organizing the reunion is the thread that runs through the book (with updates at the end of most chapters), while Jacobs researches his own family tree and investigates a broad gamut of genealogy-related subjects -- including (but not limited to) online family trees and research sites, DNA testing, genealogy conferences, family reunions, family feuds (the Hatfields & the McCoys), cousin marriage, blended/non-traditional/non-biological families, Ellis Island, Daughters of the American Revolution and other lineage societies, privacy, twins (and the annual Twins Days festival in Twinsburg, Ohio), black sheep, genealogy and the Mormon church, and the predominance of men vs women in world/family history.

I enjoyed this book -- but, I'll admit, not quite as much as I wanted to, or hoped to. I started reading it over my Christmas vacation, set it aside for something more compelling, and only recently picked it up again, determined to finish what I had started. (Unless I really, really find a book tedious or hard to get through, I do like to try to finish, eventually.)  Perhaps it was the episodic structure, or the superficial (albeit entertaining) coverage of the subject matter (one Goodreads reviewer called it "Genealogy Lite").  It was amusing and interesting, and I suppose that, for the uninitiated, it's a good introduction to a very broad and very complex subject.  I gave it three stars on Goodreads.

This was book #5 that I've read so far in 2018, bringing me to 21% of my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am -- so far! ;)  -- on track to meet my goal.  :) 

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