At first glance, you might mistake Guinness World Records 2009 for a book-sized can of some energy drink. Its metal foil cover shimmers with such pulsating greenish-gold intensity it could give a disco ball a headache. Inside, its pages are jam-packed with factoids and photographs, including life-sized 3-D portraits of the world’s tiniest man and the world’s largest tarantula. Such touches are gimmicky but necessary: While the phrase “world record” once conveyed a sense of accomplishment so palpable no 3-D glasses were required to see it, those days are long gone.

The first edition of Guinness, then called The Guinness Book of Records, was published in England in 1954. As journalist Larry Olmsted recounts in Getting Into Guinness, his new history of the book that has sold more copies worldwide than any other title in history save the Bible and the Koran, it was the brainchild of Sir Hugh Beaver,… More…