Guinness World Records turns 60: The publication remains a bestseller by celebrating the weird and the wacky

Gillian Orr finds out why we still care about the longest burp
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There was a time when it recorded the finest in human achievement and only the most fascinating of statistics: the fastest man; the tallest woman; the highest waterfall.

Today, Guinness World Records seems more preoccupied with celebrities and increasingly bizarre stunts that are only ever attempted to secure a place in its hallowed pages in the first place; why else would anyone start eating jelly with chopsticks or stockpiling rubber ducks?

The 2015 edition is published today (its 60th anniversary issue) and among other new and pointless inclusions are the world's largest usable golf club (14 feet five inches; Karsten Maas), the largest collection of James Bond memorabilia (12,463 items; Nick Bennett), and the biggest gob (3.4 inches; JJ Bittner). Eminem has been added for having the greatest number of words contained in a hit single ("Rap God" contains 1,560– mainly explicit – words during its six minutes and four seconds), and Jennifer Lawrence is the highest-grossing action heroine.

But there is a reason behind the almanac's makeover from fusty reference book into wacky read: the internet. How else were they to compete with the web and its endless corridors dedicated to the freakish and the odd?

Tom Tivnan, of The Bookseller, believes that the publishers have shown remarkable insight in making over their brand.

"Around the time that Schott's Miscellany came out in 2002 there was a little wobble," says Tivnan. "It was then that Guinness World Records had a rethink about where it was going and who it was aimed at. It started bringing out these jazzier editions, with more colour, that were more obviously aimed at children."

It also changed the way in which record attempts were accepted. Rather than researching facts and curiosities in an office, the process was updated so that anyone could send in a suggested entry.

"It started to really reach out to people and invited them to attempt their own records," adds Tivnan. "I think it recognised that the internet was taking over. If you wanted to know who the hairiest man in the world was, you would just Google it. So it had to become more fun. It is event publishing. It's the Guinness World Records of the Facebook generation."

Despite many accusations of dumbing down its content and using PR stunts to peddle its books, Guinness World Records remains a phenomenal success. At a time when publishing is floundering, and it is ever more difficult to compete with online, the annual sold 458,000 copies in the UK last year and was the fifth biggest-selling title overall here last year. It remains the best-selling copyrighted book of all time.

Guinness World Records (known until 2000 as The Guinness Book of Records) began after Sir Hugh Beaver, then managing director of Guinness breweries, became involved in an argument about the fastest game bird in Europe during a shooting party in 1951. Realising that there wasn't a book in which such a fact could be confirmed (it's still contentious, with both the red grouse and the golden plover in the running), he hired Norris and Ross McWhirter, who had a fact-finding agency in London, to compile the first edition in August 1954. It immediately became a bestseller and went on to inspire Record Breakers, the television show on the BBC that ran from 1972 to 2001.

The office still receives around 1,000 claims a week. So why does it remain such a hit?

"We're always evolving and reflecting what people are actually doing," says Craig Glenday, editor-in-chief of Guinness World Records. "This year contains records for selfies, onesies and twerking, things that you wouldn't expect and that you certainly wouldn't find in an encyclopaedia. As long as it's fun and interesting and people are doing it then why not document it? I think of it as a snapshot of the bigger picture." The biggest picture in the world, perhaps?

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