Recently two brothers named Chaplin created the smallest book in the world. Their tiny tome, Teeny Ted from Turnip Town, is etched on a microchip narrower than the width of a human hair. Malcolm Douglas Chaplin did the writing, Robert Chaplin did the etching, and the good people at Guinness confirmed them as world record holders.
I am about to violate my professional ethics by reviewing this book without having read it in its entirety. That’s because I could not physically have done so. The Chaplins are selling copies of the original microchip at $10,000 a pop; even if I could afford the asking price (or obtain galley copies, which appear to be scarce), the engraved words would be indecipherable under a standard microscope.
Thanks to The Huffington Post, though, excerpts are available. Here’s the text of one page:
From Turnip Town
Was Standing in the Street
Singing his Favorite
Turnip Tune And
Tapping With His Feet.
My response can be summed up in the world’s smallest review:
Allow me to expand a little, however. When I worked in book publishing as an editor, I was often tasked with sifting through the slush pile. This backlog of unsolicited manuscripts (a literal pile) was dominated by would-be children’s books—some composed via typewriter, some illustrated by the author’s grandchild or pet, a few lettered by hand in the dense, ingrown penmanship of the deranged. The rhymes (they all rhymed) were shaky. The plots were nonexistent. The postage on the envelopes dated from the Reagan era, but the senders had flouted the Postal Service no less cheerfully than they’d ignored our press’s ban on unsolicited submissions.
In other words, these manuscripts were essentially Teeny Ted. The difference between their authors and the brothers Chaplin is that the brothers Chaplin inscribed their opus, not on a sheaf of scrap paper, but on a microchip.
In so doing, they balanced it squarely on the hair-thin line between madness and genius.
The sheer teeniness of Teeny Ted’s world raises giant-sized questions. Why does the world’s smallest book focus so obsessively on turnips? At that infinitesimal scale, what possible significance could turnips hold? “Turnips All Around,” Ted informs us. “Turnips Are the Way of Life Here in Turnip Town.” His explanation explains nothing. Is Turnip Town a children’s-book dystopia like those in The Giver and The Hunger Games? Do the proles farm turnips, eat only turnips, worship turnips? Is Ted’s “Favorite / Turnip Tune” the compulsory morning anthem? Does our hero long to escape? Is the microchip engraving his ingenious cry for help? What impact can his words hope to make—what impact can our own make, being just as teeny in the eyes of the indifferent universe?
In its way, Teeny Ted is as private and eccentric a statement as Cheval’s Palais idéal or that novel with no letter “e.” The question What does it mean? takes a backseat to the question: Why does it exist at all? This literary oddity, this marvel of engineering—its poetry cut in interlocking block letters like so many angels dancing on the head of a pin—is guaranteed to astonish, unsettle, provoke. That is, until someone surpasses its Guinness record, at which point it will become a kids’ book about turnips.
[Image detail of Teeny Ted courtesy Huffington Post.]