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Thursday, December 14, 2017

"It's All Relative" (A.J. Jacobs)

TITLE: It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree
AUTHOR: A. J. Jacobs
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017, (352 pages).

Why can't we all get along better? In a world where everyone constantly clamour for peace, people seem to be growing further apart. Calling the divisions as "primitive tribalism," author and humorist A.J. Jacobs's new foray is in the form of the history of human relationships. Spurred by an email to him from an "eighth cousin" from nowhere, he learned of someone having a database of 80000 relatives of his. Coupled with his recent thinking about family and the possibility of many long-lost relatives, he beings his search for his family identity that probes several angles. He researches genealogy, DNA evidence, online databases such as ancestry.com, an annual genealogy convention, and also some interesting connections with Barack Obama! Jacobs connects all sorts of things. He talks about newspaper articles that often triggers off a flood of ideas, such as the NYT's report about a besieged Connecticut family of an "unorthodox group-home" being chased out of their home. He probes the meaning of family. He wonders how related he is to ex-Presidents like George HW Bush, even managing to eat lunch together with the famous president's home in Kennebunkport, Maine, posing a picture with the former First Couple with a sign that reads: "I am a Cousin." He reflects upon sex, pondering about how many times our ancestors had their passionate embraces.  Other ventures include historical links during the American Revolution; celebrity cousins; name research; Mormons and Donny Osmond; and even an encounter with Harry Potter actor, Daniel Radcliffe. One must be amazed to see how persuasive the author must have been to connect with strangers and distant 'cousins' in such a way. All in all, there is a sense that we all come from two ├╝ber-grandparents in Adam and Eve. For all the wit and humor in the book, there is a sense of the author making some real journeys. I sense three journeys.

First, it is a personal journey that started with curiosity. If you have read his earlier book about living as biblically as possible, you would understand the half-curiosity and half-ridicule kind of a tongue in cheek. While readers may laugh at how incredible it all may seem, there is a certain sense of biblical truth coming true, that we are all related in some way. This curiosity about the most distant relationships drives the author to comb the many possible connections. At the same time, he makes his own life interesting by actually touching base with the rich, the famous, and the powerful. Since the creation of Adam and Eve, we have all been asking Cain's question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Here lies his personal struggles of personal narcissism vs needful humility; desired exclusivity vs hopeful inclusivity; and real science vs possible eugenics. Each chapter is a day closer to the final great family reunion. It also reveals how open people are with regard to ancestry and possible historical links.

Second, it is a genealogical journey through history. We are more related than we thought. With the increasing use of technology and connections through social media, many people have been able to reconnect with old family and friends. Long-lost relatives are being discovered daily. For the author, it came via an email from an eighth cousin named Jules Feldman. Yet, it was Feldman himself who was skeptical about Jacobs's grand plan to re-unite his whole family, aka the world. With loose tracing and diligent probing, with lots of give-and-take, we will all be related in one way or another. I think about the possibility of being related to everybody in my city or country. Is it really possible? Biblically, if we begin with Adam and Eve, of course there is no doubt that we are related. History is the proof of that relationship. Ancestry sites like Archives.com; FamilySearch.org; Findmypast.com; and ancestry.com are all dependent upon documented evidence. The details of many more millions of people are undocumented. Just because we cannot find historical evidence does not mean that there is no relationship at all. Jacobs's idea may sound a little far-fetched, but if we consider it carefully, there is a lot of truth to our connections.

Finally, it is a journey in search of relationships that may have slipped our radar. Sometimes, we tend to miss out critical information mainly because of our skepticism or bias. As the rate of inter-marriages and family links increase, all it takes is a stranger marrying a relative and we are immediately more directly connected as family. There is a saying: Leave no stones unturned. The fact is, we all are guilty of leaving some stones unturned based on our personal preferences or various circumstances. Even the selection of where to start have a million arbitrary first steps. Perhaps, I am still waiting for a call from the author himself that maybe, I am also a cousin!

Read this book not only to be humoured but also to be intrigued about family possibilities. After all, as the book title suggests, it's all relative.

Alan J Jacobs is a journalist, author, and editor at large with Esquire magazine. He has written four books.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Simon & Schuster and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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