Skip to main content

It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree


It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree

If you’re reading this review, greetings, cuz! Because, according to A.J. Jacobs’ latest offering, IT'S ALL RELATIVE: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree, there’s a good chance you and I are related.

That doesn’t mean we have to be close, so don’t worry about it if you don’t know who I am. There are expectations about exactly what family means, and they don’t always meet traditional “norms.” Divorce and interracial/interreligious/same-sex marriages have blurred the lines of what many folks grew up believing (so much for “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show” and all those other popular nuclear TV families where everyone gets along, despite the occasional goofy misunderstandings).

"Jacobs is a master of immersion journalism.... [O]nce he takes on a project, he goes all in."

Jacobs is a master of immersion journalism. His previous books --- which include THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible; THE KNOW-IT-ALL: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World; and DROP DEAD HEALTHY: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection --- are all evidence of the lengths he'll take to make his case. Perhaps he’s lost some of that humility along the way. The point is, once he takes on a project, he goes all in. That’s why he spent so much time researching his own tree not just in the usual fashion, but going much deeper, seeking out the help of experts (including the Mormon church) as he attempted to host the world’s largest reunion.

So my cousin, A.J., started with his immediate family, finding fascinating stories of love and loss, pride and joy, success and failure (not to mention a black sheep or two). He traveled across the country to meet with experts in the field, getting bits of advice --- sometimes contradictory --- about what even constitutes a clan. The tree began sprouting branches like crazy, and plans were made to gather at the Hall of Science in Queens, New York, for the big event. The organization of such an undertaking is mind-numbing --- food, music, activities, speakers, etc. Jacobs tried to wrangle everything with the help of his wife, Juie Schoenberg, who arranges scavenger hunts for a living, and a small group of dedicated volunteers. Could they break the world’s record? That was the hope and plan, if you start getting a bit liberal with who you invite. Jacobs’ concerns and fears are almost palpable, as is Julie's calming advice for him not to drive himself too crazy over the affair.

But as Robert Burns once wrote, “the best laid schemes…” and all that. Despite trying to plan for every contingency, you can’t count on the weather, which may well have contributed to a disappointing turnout. Regardless of any record, Jacobs passed along valuable lessons to his three sons, two of whom are twins (there’s a great chapter about the Jacobs’ visit to the Twins Day Festival in --- where else? --- Twinsburg, Ohio).

Full disclosure: I’ve known A.J. Jacobs for a number of years and was invited to attend the reunion. Circumstances prevented me from doing so, but I don’t think it would have made a difference in achieving the record.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on November 21, 2017

It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree
by A.J. Jacobs

  • Publication Date: October 2, 2018
  • Genres: Humor, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 147673450X
  • ISBN-13: 9781476734507