A.J. Jacobs has received some strange emails over the years, but this note was perhaps the strangest: “You don’t know me, but I’m your eighth cousin. And we have over 80,000 relatives of yours in our database.”
That’s enough family members to fill Madison Square Garden four times over. Who are these people, A.J. wondered, and how do I find them? So began Jacobs’s three-year adventure to help build the biggest family tree in history. In It’s All Relative, he “muses on the nature of family and the interconnectedness of humanity in this entertaining introduction to the world of genealogy” (Publishers Weekly).
Jacobs’s journey would take him to all seven continents. He drank beer with a US president, sung with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and unearthed genetic links to Hollywood actresses and real-life scoundrels. After all, we can choose our friends, but not our family.
“Whether he’s posing as a celebrity, outsourcing his chores, or adhering strictly to the Bible, we love reading about the wacky lifestyle experiments of author A.J. Jacobs” (Entertainment Weekly). Now Jacobs upends, in ways both meaningful and hilarious, our understanding of genetics and genealogy, tradition and tribalism, identity and connection. “Whimsical but also full of solid journalism and eye-opening revelations about the history of humanity, It’s All Relative is a real treat” (Booklist, starred review).
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, NY
Date of Birth:March 20, 1968
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Read an Excerpt
It’s All Relative
My story begins three years ago with one of the strangest emails I’ve ever received.
“You don’t know me,” it says, “but you are an eighth cousin of my wife, who, in my opinion, is a fine lady.”
Naturally I figure the next line will involve instructions on how to wire ten thousand dollars to a bank account in Togo, or inform me of the miraculous potency benefits of goji berries.
But instead, the emailer says his name is Jules Feldman. He explains that he’s a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel and has read some articles I’ve written. He wants to tell me about his life’s project. For the previous fifteen years, Jules has devoted his time to building a family tree. A really big tree. More of a forest.
“We have in our database about eighty thousand relatives of yours,” he says.
Eighty thousand. I try to wrap my head around that number. If he’s right, my relatives could fill four Madison Square Gardens.
The email gives me profoundly mixed feelings.
On the one hand, as my wife, Julie, points out, I often feel like I have too many relatives already. I’d be happy to trim a few branches. I’m thinking of my cousin David, who, for his wedding, hired a little person dressed as a leprechaun to pop out from under his bride’s dress and twerk with the guests. And then there’s my brilliant but smug brother-in-law Eric, whose favorite phrase is the infuriating “I think what you’re trying to say is . . .”
The point is, do I really want to be part of this mega-tree? Plus, the email has some creepy NSA-like privacy-invasion vibes. How did this dairy farmer know all this about me? And why should I trust him?
On the other hand, the less cynical hand, I’m oddly moved. Here I am, sitting in my home office in New York City, subjected to endless Internet headlines about our world’s seeming descent into disaster—wars, racism—and up pops this startling news about how I’m connected to thousands of other humans across the globe. These newfound cousins would likely come in all shapes, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds: tall cousins and short cousins, white cousins and black cousins, carnivorous cousins and vegan cousins, gay cousins and straight cousins, cilantro-loving cousins and cousins who believe cilantro tastes like Satan’s unwashed tube socks.
All of us different, all of us linked.
What I’m trying to say (as my brother-in-law explained to me later) is that I experienced a profound sense of belonging. I felt a part of something larger than myself. I glimpsed the Ultimate Social Network.
The timing of the email couldn’t have been better. During the last several years, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with family, which might be an inherited trait. When I was a kid, my dad spent years building a family tree. Not quite eighty thousand, but it reached back multiple generations. He’d show me the names of my Polish and Ukrainian great-grandparents. He’d tell me about their lives. How they were farmers and general store owners; one even found a niche selling peacocks to nobles. How some fled the Russian pogroms by hiding in a haystack on the back of a cart. How my great-grandfather was supposed to pick up his wife and kids at Ellis Island but missed their arrival because he was eating a second bowl of soup. How the wife and kids had to stay overnight in the detention facility, confused, ignorant, and anxious they’d be sent back to Poland.
As a young man, I scoffed at these tales. I was an obnoxious little rebel who rejected all institutions, including family. I preferred to spend zero time thinking about my ancestors. Why should I care about these people, just because we happen to share some DNA by accident of birth? It’s not rational. It’s arbitrary. It’s a relic of the past.
But as so often happens to people, I got older, I had kids, and I magically turned into my dad. Now I spend most of my time thinking about family: How can I give my three young sons a sense of belonging? What kind of wisdom and ethics from my ancestors can I pass along to my kids?
And then comes Jules Feldman’s email. It stays in my mind the next day. And the next. And the week that followed.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Eighth Cousin 1
Chapter 2 The World Family Tree 5
Chapter 3 DNA Sharing Is Caring 11
Chapter 4 A Great (or Possibly Terrible) Idea 15
Chapter 5 A Pandemonium of Genealogists 21
Chapter 6 Historical Voyeurism 27
Chapter 7 Genetic Jambalaya 35
Chapter 8 Groundhog Sam and My 2, 585 Southern Cousins 41
Chapter 9 Embracing Failure 49
Chapter 10 Should Family Be Abolished? 55
Chapter 11 The Good Cousin 61
Chapter 12 Adam and Eve 67
Chapter 13 Kissing Cousins 75
Chapter 14 The Greatest Generation (and the Upside of Cigarettes) 81
Chapter 15 Thank You for Having Sex 87
Chapter 16 Biological and Logical Families 93
Chapter 17 Ellis Island 97
Chapter 18 Our Neanderthal Cousins 103
Chapter 19 Family Feuds 109
Chapter 20 Who's Your Father? 117
Chapter 21 Son-in-Law of the American Revolution 125
Chapter 22 The Mega-Tree Revolution 131
Chapter 23 Our Animal Cousins 137
Chapter 24 Big Love 143
Chapter 25 The Other Side of the Dash 149
Chapter 26 Privacy 155
Chapter 27 The Genius of Isaac Newton 163
Chapter 28 Fathers and Sons 167
Chapter 29 Twins and Twins. Also More Twins 171
Chapter 30 Five Mothers 177
Chapter 31 Black Sheep 181
Chapter 32 My Presidential Cousin 187
Chapter 33 Tradition! 193
Chapter 34 The Kevin Bacon Delusion 197
Chapter 35 The Pilgrimage 201
Chapter 36 An Ocean of Cousins 209
Chapter 37 Cheers to the Dead 215
Chapter 38 My Celebrity Cousins 221
Chapter 39 51 Percent of the Family Tree 231
Chapter 40 The Melting Pot 239
Chapter 41 The FBI and My Grandpa 245
Chapter 42 The Great Surname Challenge 249
Chapter 43 Awkward Family Photos 255
Chapter 44 Brother Versus Brother 261
Chapter 45 The Global Family Reunion 265
Chapter 46 We Are, Without a Doubt, Irrefutably, Family 267
A Note from the Author 280
A Brief and Subjective Guide to Getting Started on Your Family Tree 287
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I flew through this fast-paced read in a weekend, enjoying every step of AJ’s quest to break the world record for the biggest family reunion. I lost count how many times I laughed out loud, and the celebrity cousin mentions and photos made it so much fun to think about how many famous I might be related to (with directions at the end on how to find out!). But most of all, I loved how this book reminded me that we, as human beings, are all connected - literally cousins - and I wish everyone would read it so we could all just get along! Funny and heartfelt - I’m gifting this to everyone on my list.
Entertaining and informative.
This book is a somewhat lighthearted look at the ways that humans are connected, both through DNA and connections of our own making. The author's sense of humor made for some laugh-out-loud moments, and I appreciated humorous and candid way that he revealed interesting stories from his own family. I wish that there had been more of a wrap-up at the end, after the World Family Reunion was held. I felt like the book ended somewhat abruptly, although to be honest, I'm not sure what else there was to say after he summarized the event upon which this whole book was focused. Usually in books like this, the story concludes with what the author learned from all of his experiences, but those observations were sprinkled throughout each chapter. I can understand how hard it would be to come up with a grand, poignant way to end the story. Still, this is a great read for people like me who love genealogy and enjoy learning about others' life stories.