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

c.2017, Simon & Schuster
$27.00 / $36.00 Canada
338 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

The woman in the cubicle next to yours is a real piece of work.

No tidbit is too small for gossiping. Unsolicited advice is her expertise, and she seems to think complaints are in her job description. Ugh, she’s so hard to work with but be aware. As you’ll see in the new book “It’s All Relative” by A.J. Jacobs, she’s probably related to you.

And so is everyone else, says Jacobs, if you go back far enough. Somewhere several thousand years ago, a man and a woman who probably didn’t even known one another happened both to have DNA with exceptional staying power. Their genes have been passed down to every single person since then. Even you.

That’s, of course, a simple explanation to a complex thing but it got Jacobs thinking. In his own family tree, he says, “I’d be happy to trim a few branches,” but the idea of having several million cousins was an intriguing one. He decided to throw a party for his new family. Everyone was invited. Even you.

These days, genealogy is big-business: over the course of a year, “Americans spend a mind-boggling $3 billion…” and untold hours building their family trees, learning their DNAs, and locating official government records, photos, and documents. You can go online and easily see who you’re related to, even distantly, but the shocker is that “we are a startlingly close-knit species” – so close, in fact, that you could be “at most seventieth cousins with all other humans.” Genetically, we’re awfully close to some animals, too: forebears, as it turns out, might be exactly right.

But you can’t think about who you’re related to without peeking backward. In his zeal for connection-collection, Jacobs amassed family stories and FBI dossiers, contacted celebrities (new cousins!), and found “black sheep” and changing names. He looked at our caveman lineage (yes, even you) and he discovered that, evolutionarily speaking, learning our connections “nudges us to treat strangers with more kindness.”

Soon, you’ll be sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal. The whole family’s invited, and in “It’s All Relative,” you’ll see that you’re gonna need more chairs.

In his mega-reunion planning, author A.J. Jacobs learned that early, but that’s only half the fun of this dual look at genealogy. The main part – the appeal of the whole book – is that Jacobs is a truly funny writer, putting himself squarely in the middle of his story, holding up his own family as examples, and using himself as foil to his plans and discoveries.

That, however, is no indication of a lack of seriousness to this book.

Jacobs educates as he entertains, and readers will learn about basic genetics, genealogy, and searching for ancestors far and not-so-far. Indeed, reading this book may spur you to see who you’re related to. (Hint: everybody).

So be nice to that cousin in the next cube. Be sure to tell everyone that you’re actually related to a famous author named Jacobs. And read “It’s All Relative.” You’ll love it because you’re kin.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin