Few things in life yield such a bountiful harvest of joy and heartache as family. Family is fraught and has been ever since the first cave dwellers bickered over who got the “good rock” next to the fire. Over the years, many authors have weighed in on the mixed bag that is family, but few have done so with the keen eye, sharp tongue and big heart of A.J. Jacobs.
His timing is good. Thanks to advances in DNA testing, we're living in a golden age of genealogy. That is, he acknowledges, a bit like saying that “we're in the sexiest era of professional bowling.” In Jacobs' hands, though, this potentially parched subject comes alive. He makes terms like “mitochondrial DNA” not only comprehensible but fun.
Jacobs concedes from the outset that he has an agenda: world peace. The way to accomplish this, he believes, is through a kind of genetic sleight of hand. Studies find that we treat people better if we know they're family, so why not hijack this tendency to favor kin over strangers by tricking our brains into believing that everyone is kin?
Only it's not a trick. As Jacobs demonstrates convincingly, we are all family. (“Whether we like it or not,” quips Henry Louis Gates in a cameo.) Go back far enough, and we all share a common ancestry.
Jacobs' ancestral journey begins the way all great genetic spelunking begins these days: by spitting into a tube. His DNA results are, at first blush, remarkably boring. Jacobs is a plain-vanilla Ashkenazi Jew, with a smattering of “other.” Thankfully, he isn't deterred. He digs and digs. He tracks down relatives, distant and really distant. He scours old newspaper clippings. He mines a massive database of tombstones called Find a Grave. (“Genealogists love a good graveyard.”) Soon, he unearths a family history “drenched with booze” and replete with tales of courage and cowardice, virtue and pettiness. Love, too.
At the same time, he explores the nooks and crannies of “the geeky world of family history.” He attends a twins convention; tracks down a real McCoy, of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud; and discovers that he, like nearly all of us, is part Neanderthal. He makes predictable but rewarding pilgrimages to Ellis Island and Salt Lake City, home of the Mormons, those “genealogy rock stars,” who believe that families are reunited in the afterlife – so studying ancestry is important for strengthening relationships both now and for eternity. Jacobs also considers the controversial question of close-cousin marriage (conclusion: “love trumps ickiness”).
Along the way, he manages to prove Tolstoy wrong. All happy families are not alike. They come in more flavors than ever. Today, we don't so much inherit family as create it. “You no longer need to share chromosomes to call yourself kin,” concludes Jacobs. (As an adoptive father myself, I consider this a full-on blessing.)
Nestled within “It's All Relative” is a project, and an ambitious one at that. Jacobs wants to hold the world's largest family reunion. The Global Family Reunion, he calls it. The plan is to gather a few thousand of his relatives and celebrate not only their kinship but the very notion of kinship. Is it a gimmick? Sure. But it's a good gimmick, a noble one, and that makes all the difference.
Jacobs is the Zelig of genealogy. There he is doing the warm-up act for Donny Osmond. Now he's hanging with his very famous, very distant cousins, from Daniel Radcliffe to George H.W. Bush to Ricky Gervais. Jacobs defends this sort of celebrity genealogy – epitomized by such TV shows as “Who Do You Think You Are?” – on the grounds that “they inspire people to trace their own pasts.” Perhaps. Or maybe it's just a sophisticated way of justifying voyeurism.
Jacobs, thankfully, tempers his kumbaya tendencies with some hard-nosed questions. Does knowing your ancestry expand your circle of compassion or shrink it? The jury is out. An anti-Semite discovers he is part Jewish and reforms his ways. White supremacists hold online contests to see who has the highest percentage of European descendants. Genealogy, too, is fraught.
Jacobs doesn't shy away from this fact, exploring the dark side of genealogy: not only relatives with checkered pasts (one of his in-laws served time in Sing Sing prison for murder) but privacy concerns and the very real danger that all of this DNA testing may render us more tribal, not less.
“It's All Relative” is a whirlwind of a book, as Jacobs zip-lines from one branch of the global family tree to another. At times, it feels like a blur of great-great-grandfathers and seventh cousins once removed. So determined is Jacobs to leave no branch unexamined that he sometimes loses sight of the forest. I would have liked less time on the twigs and deeper dives into the roots.
Jacobs treats the reader like family. He shares a lot and without asking permission. In particular, he shares his every neurotic twitch surrounding the Global Family Reunion, from the catering requirements (potato salad for 3,000) to the sponsors (fickle) to the deliciously ironic dispute among Sister Sledge (slated to perform their ode to kinship, “We Are Family”). Despite his ineptness, or perhaps because of it, I found myself rooting for him and his quixotic project. Did I believe that Jacobs' gathering of a few thousand cousins on a soggy Queens field would change the world? Not for a second, but it was fun and uplifting to watch him try.
Perhaps the only thing more fraught than family is humor. Jacobs, courageously, attempts to combine the two. He pulls it off, mostly. I laughed when he described ancestry sites as “Facebook for dead people” or his father, a legal scholar, as “the Wayne Gretzky of footnotes.” I grimaced when he gratuitously deployed the term “cousin humper.”
Besides, Jacobs is at his most endearing when he drops the comedy armor and gets real. With the Global Family Reunion approaching rapidly, he writes: “I've never been in charge of a cause that people actually believe in. It's terrifying. About half the time I feel like a fraud.”
By the end of “It's All Relative,” Jacobs feels like, well, family. Mostly endearing, occasionally annoying but always well-intentioned and, in the final analysis, indispensable. Now if only he'd call more often.
Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of “The Geography of Genius: Lessons From the World's Most Creative Places.” He reviewed this for Washington Post Book World.