Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vanitas

A few weeks ago, a relative who shall remain nameless stumbled across a gimmick manufactured by Ancestry.com, which claims to be "the world's largest resource for family history documents and family trees." The gimmick is a book. The title of the book is The [insert your name here] Name in History. You can buy this book -- yes, a book about your name, about you, in History -- on Amazon (among other places). If your name is Caravaggio, for example, and you search Amazon's book catalog, you'll find it at #52 (or thereabouts), nestled among books having to do with the eponymous painter, and a few novels (none of them by Michael Ondaatje).

Worse, a different relative, also unidentified for the protection of her/his own cred, having been alerted to the existence of this gimmick, took the bait. The purchase came to $29.99, which made it Eligible for Free Super Saver Shipping.

Super.

Worst, when the silly thing arrived, I got tasked with examining it and explaining to those of my blood kin who'd been tricked into giving this matter a passing thought just what it is. Presumably so they won't buy one for themselves.

So. What is it?

The product description on Amazon:
"This book is part of the Our Name in History series, a collection of fascinating facts and statistics, alongside short historical commentary, created to tell the story of previous generations who have shared this name. The information in this book is a compendium of research and data pulled from census records, military records, ships' logs, immigrant and port records, as well as other reputable sources."

If your name is Caravaggio, I suppose there might be a rich vein of census records, military records, ships' logs, immigrant and port records, and other sources -- reputable and not. If your name is Masover this is not the case. What my family gets out of this ... product ... are pages like the Historical Timeline that runs from 1840 to Today, with 9 detail boxes describing what Masovers were up to during this period. Where there are no census records, military records, ships' logs, etc. related to Masovers, generic factoids gleaned from the Historical Record are printed: 1840 - 2.6 million households with most living in New York. Fascinating. The Masovers scored 4 factoids out of nine on the timeline that aren't generic. Those factoids tell how many Masovers were registered for the U.S. draft during World War One (7); how many Masover households there were in 1920 (3); how many Masover soldiers served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War Two (2); and where most Masover households live today (California and Illinois).

The rest of the book is similarly constructed. Boilerplate generalities with mostly-uninteresting particulars inserted using the print-on-demand equivalent of your favorite word processor's merge function.

Kinda thin.

In fact, the whole book is kinda thin, 71 pages unless you count the back matter, titled "Discover Your Family," and consisting of some framing context, some worksheets, a glossary, and a set of "selected sources." As suggested by the factoids cited above, the in History part of the title is a little disingenuous. These are 'Merican records that are mined, so really we're talking The [insert your name here] Name in the U.S. Bureaucratic Record.

I can't wait to give it back to the unnamed relative who forked over money for this thing.

1 comment:

  1. I would have purchased such a book if my family name is Hapsburg or Medici. Sigh.

    Matthew Felix Sun

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