For everyone who thinks Columbia is for cocaine, Belgium is for chocolate, Norway is for Vikings and has never even heard of Kyrgyzstan (let alone can pronounce it), there is finally a book that gloriously reaffirms all your favorite global stereotypes and misconceptions. “Our Dumb World” ($27.99) is a fictional atlas about real countries. Equal parts hilarious and thought provoking, the book makes a serious case to dethrone Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America: And So Can You” as the funniest book of the year.
This fake atlas was put together by the writers of The Onion, the fake newspaper that humbly calls itself “America’s finest news source.” Just as The Onion brilliantly parodies journalism-lite publications such as “USA Today,” “Our Dumb World” is a dead-on satire of the big, glossy, slightly antiquated coffee table–size atlases of yore. While the information contained in those atlases might be a bit more accurate, good luck finding a “Bono-Awareness Rating” for every nation in the 2008 Rand McNally.
Before even trying to summarize all of the book’s amazing uses, one needs to comprehend what a staggering achievement the mere completion of the book represents. “Our Dumb World” is maddeningly detailed, featuring full-color laid out entries for literally every nation on the face of the Earth. Like one of those big fat “Friars Club” anthologies, the book is made up of thousands of jokes, covering everywhere from Luxembourg to Swaziland to “Three Countries You Thought Were In Africa.”
Each country gets at least a half-page. Tiny island nations and principalities generally get the short shrift, while larger and more historically rich countries get the big time space. Cape Verde and Sao Tome-Principe have to share a page, while China and Russia get four pages each. The United States gets the most, with 14 pages of coverage. And the editors were even kind enough to divide it up between the North, the South, the West and the “bullsh*t states.”
In standard atlas format, entries include a history section, fun facts, a country photo and a map, usually dotted with absurd fictional points of interest — like a random dot in Tibet which reads “Monks who have accidentally been worshipping a photo of Jenna Elfman for six years.” The tiny jokes written on the maps are just one of many ways “Our Dumb World” rewards readers who actually take the time to read this mammoth work all the way through. Most people don’t sit down and read an atlas cover to cover, which is why the book works equally well if skimmed: There is guaranteed ingenious hilarity to be found when flipping to any random page.
One of the best features for the skimmers is the book’s handy country titles, “Everything you’ve ever needed to know about a country distilled into seven simple words.” These boldface captions, prominently displayed at the top of each entry, provide the book’s biggest laughs, deftly summing up a country’s entire history in a manner that is often brutally honest and a little depressing. For example, Germany’s title reads “Genocide-Free Since April 11, 1946”, and Sierra Leone’s is “A Blood Diamond is Forever.” Of course, sometimes the headlines are purely silly, like Peru’s “Always With the Goddamn Pan Flutes.”
Aside from all the funny jabs at various countries, some more deserving than others, the main thing “Our Dumb World” should be praised for is its commitment to what it is satirizing. This is The Onion’s first original book since “Our Dumb Century,” a faux-anthology of Onion headlines from turn-of-the-century to present day. The Onion writers are just incredibly skilled at tackling subject matter so enormous, like the 20th century or planet Earth, that even Ken Burns would be intimidated. With this track record, a parody of the complete Encyclopedia Britannica can’t be far behind.