Review: Our Dumb World

Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth
by The Onion
Little, Brown, 2007. Hardcover, 245 pp. ISBN-13 978-0-316-08142-5

Book cover: Our Dumb World As I mentioned before, Our Dumb World is The Onion’s take on the sort of atlas exemplified by the old National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our World, a book I grew up on and that did a lot to shape my perception of the world. Our Dumb World takes the same format: each country gets a map, a flag, an introduction and a list of geographical factoids.

This is an Onion book, so the similarities end there. In a nutshell, Our Dumb World takes the piss out of the planet, simultaneously riffing on the foibles of the nations of the world and on our stereotyped, blinkered perceptions of them. It relies to a certain extent on our perceptions of other countries: there are lots of jokes to be had at Brazil’s expense, so its entry is richer, longer and funnier than, say, Belgium’s, which is a one-note chocolate joke. (Incidentally, this means that Our Dumb World won’t translate well: Belgians are the butt of French jokes the way that Newfoundlanders are the butt of Canadian jokes — or, well, see Poland. Humour is local.) It also means that many countries get short shrift (such as most of Africa), and, at least in San Marino’s case, the writers seem to have given up altogether. (A few island nations are missing, but to be fair, how many jokes can be made about Nauru or Kiribati? Not that they’ll be around much longer anyway …)

Our Dumb World: Afghanistan That it’s an Onion book also means that each square inch of each page has value. If you’ve read their faux 20th-century retrospective, Our Dumb Century, even the bus-plunge two-liners had comedic value. So it is here, with each point on the map, each thumbnail photo and each entry on the history timeline played for keeps, if not always successfully for laughs. And that it’s an Onion book means that the sense of humour can at times draw blood — see, for example, Thailand’s entry. This is humour that makes you flinch. Now, I adore bad taste, but it’s worth mentioning that this book isn’t for everyone — especially not for children.

Don’t look for cartographic accuracy in this book — I shouldn’t need to mention that. We’re doing well when a country’s capital is placed within a thousand miles of its location. But cartophiles will enjoy at least one good laugh in Greenland’s entry: “As anyone who has seen a world map in the last 50 years knows, Greenland is larger than Africa and South America combined.” Somewhere in the underworld, the shade of Arno Peters just giggled.

There’s an audio version available; I don’t know how that works.

Previously: Our Dumb World: The Onion’s Atlas.