The Smartest Man In The World podcast is ebullient, high-octane fun. Greg Proops’ machine-gun banter is a perfect delivery system for his verbose and literary takes on a panoply of subjects. During any given installment, he might be holding court on impressionist art before veering into poetry, sports, and anything else that tickles his fancy. Even the presence of what he refers to as the “boring preachy part” of every episode—i.e., his delectable rants on contemporary politics—rarely depresses the spirit of the proceedings, even as it injects some gravitas. He’s an old-school polymath, refashioned as a turn-of-the-century bon vivant and raconteur, and his voice is unique in the world of popular culture, let alone podcasting.
The Smartest Book In The World should be credited with attempting to do the impossible, which is convert his irrepressible voice into the written word without losing anything in translation. The book is a wide-ranging exploration, touching on every subject of which Proops feels the reader might benefit from his idiosyncratic assessment. Wondering which silent films Greg Proops believes you must see? He’s got a list here for you. New to the world of poetry? He takes the reader on a whirlwind introduction of a half-dozen or so of his favorites. It’s all here, in his inimitable voice.
And that’s a problem, because Proops’ distinctive patter feels much more scattershot when confined within the pages of a book. This is essentially a reference book, with chapter after chapter of one-minute introductions to a variety of films, baseball figures, historical icons, and more. But where a normal guide might have some structure or sense of logical continuity, the book flits from topic to topic with no discernable road map, save these are things the author can write knowledgeably and entertainingly about. It’s a winning formula for a podcast, but feels undercooked as a recipe for a successful book, especially one as idiosyncratic as this.
Those unfamiliar with the sound of Proops’ voice may be puzzled by the inclusion of some of his more popular live tricks, such as assembling baseball teams out of everyone from philosophers to Roman rulers. (In case you’re wondering, Proops has some good reasons as to why Caligula should hold down the position assigned him.) Other sections are only of value to those new to the topic, such as his recommendations for punk and reggae albums, of which there are exactly three. Occasionally his introductions are so brief as to offer almost no added value to the subject: several of the poems he includes barely have the equivalent of a “hey, check this groovy poet out” before launching into a verse he considers worthy of inclusion.
Perhaps most disappointing—or most a testament to his force of personality—Proops’ highly singular linguistic system suffers when not filtered through his vocal cords. Although he includes a glossary of some of the terms he employs in ways quite infelicitous to the dictionary definition, it doesn’t always make for smooth reading, and may irritate those who would rather not read that a particular item of interest is, for example, “the goodest.” His inventive verbiage and pretzel-twisty semantics simply don’t read as successfully as they sound. Perhaps, like Socrates, Proops is at his best when expounding in person on his pet subjects, illuminating and delighting through extemporaneity; the streamlined nature of a book doesn’t suit him. It succeeds best when he goes deep, such as his sharp and clever exposition on baseball players in the Negro Leagues.
This is not to say the book isn’t fun; it’s practically custom-designed for a coffee table, or to keep next to the toilet, as it benefits from being opened to essentially any page and soaking in his rapid-fire bursts of creative language and cultural screeds in small doses. The book is a grab-bag of topics and themes, haphazard at best, so it may behoove the reader to treat it as such, an entertaining but light source of amusement and trivia. Greg Proops’ podcast is perfectly suited to his style and sensibility, but his book’s rewards are more sporadic.