In ‘It’s All Relative,’ A.J. Jacobs Shakes the Family Tree

In ‘It’s All Relative,’ A.J. Jacobs Shakes the Family Tree


Item: Henry Louis Gates Jr. says of his grandfather: “He was so white we called him Casper behind his back.”

Item: In 1923, a magazine called The American Hebrew ran a piece about a man whose last name was Kabotchnik. He changed it to Cabot. The magazine deplored losing “Kabotchnik,” with “its rich, sneezing tonal effects.”

Item: The Rutgers anthropologist Robin Fox estimates that 80 percent of all marriages in human history were “between first and second cousins.”

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Item: Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “When I talk with a genealogist, I seem to sit up with a corpse.”

But the bulk of “It’s All Relative” is colored by Jacobs’s offhand-sounding efforts to amuse and entertain the reader. From time to time they work.

We’re seeing more and more gay and trans parents. Open adoption. Surrogate moms. Group homes with multiple parents. Sperm donors. There’s new vocabulary: “diblings” have a single sperm donor father but different mothers.

And in a chapter about twins and their annual celebration, Twins Day (in Twinsburg, Ohio), Jacobs describes the theme of the Twins Parade he attends — the 1960s — in which the participating monozygotics are required to dress in identical ’60s-style costumes: “The parade is a stream of double flower girls, double Barbies, and double Jimi Hendrices.”

“Hendrices”! How excellent is that! And it’s left alone, uncommented-on, and all the better for it. But unfortunately, for some readers, a lot of Jacobs’s attempts at amusing commentary and bumptious riffs will fall recumbent or all the way to flat. “In the Bible, it’s even commanded that a widow marry her late husband’s brother (not that I approve of mandatory weddings).” And “My parents had to have sex — something I’ve known from the age of 8 but have tried to keep buried in the Siberia of my subconscious.”

This kind of snappy writing has worked well for Jacobs in the past, to the tune of many, many thousands of fans, and “It’s All Relative” will probably enjoy similar success. Senses of humor vary so widely that it’s hard to pass any kind of objective judgment on them. But “It’s All Relative” works best, this subjectivist thinks, when the author’s voice butts out, and the research oddities and genealogical wonderments speak for themselves. Paradoxically, too much funny self-effacement can come off as self-centeredness.

Jacobs’s wife, Julie, makes cameo-like appearances throughout the book, contributing forbearing, sometimes antidotal remarks about the project and the reunion. “That’s just weird,” she says when Jacobs tells her that the two of them are distant cousins. (We all are, by the way, which is in a way what this book is about.) And after he tells their kids about a disturbing part of the medical examination of immigrants at Ellis Island, Julie says, “You’re coming on a little strong.”

The Global Family Reunion — which was held at the New York Hall of Science (site of the 1964 World’s Fair) — took place in June of 2015. Jacobs’s account of the high and low points of the event, at the end of “It’s All Relative,” is modest and honest. Bad weather. Grounds too big, making turnout seem small. (Sort of like the 2017 inauguration.) Author’s own speech anxiety, resulting in muffed consonants. Guinness hopes dashed. Sister Sledge, meant to sing “We Are Family,” litigiously missing one sister.

On the other hand: Simultaneous global reunions around the … globe — Mauritius, New Zealand, Mexico. Money raised for Alzheimer’s research. Random, congenial meet-ups, like Samantha Power and Morgan Spurlock.

Over all it sounds as if the reunion may have suffered a little from the same improvisational amorphousness with which your 81st cousin who-knows-how-many-times removed, A.J. Jacobs, has written this book.

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