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Book review: Are you my cousin? ‘It’s All Relative' charts one man’s quest to show we’re all related

POSTED: November 8, 2017 1:01 a.m.
Elizabeth Reid/

Writer A.J. Jacobs will read from and sign copies of his new book "It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree" at The King's English on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

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"IT'S ALL RELATIVE: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree," by A.J. Jacobs, Simon & Schuster, 352 pages (nf) (ages 16 and up)

It all started when New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs received an email from a man who claimed to be his eighth cousin through marriage. As the two corresponded, Jacobs wondered more about his ancestors, which led him to delve deeply into his personal genealogy in “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.”

Jacobs jumped head-first into his family tree and quickly became immersed in his own past. He did genealogical research, hired professionals, completed several DNA tests and even visited a family history library. He also read various genealogy books and watched shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are.” Basically, Jacobs didn’t leave any genealogical stone unturned and his passion for learning about his family roots deepened the more he dug in.

As Jacobs spent time researching his famous, and mostly not-so-famous, progenitors, he became struck that everyone who has ever lived, and is currently living, is related. The more Jacobs studied, the more he became convinced that if people viewed each other as cousins, no matter how far removed that cousinship was, the world would be a happier, more peaceful place. But, he realized, the key would be to have all of these relatives meet — and how better to do so than with a family reunion for the world?

The book follows Jacob’s attempt and adventures of trying to put together what he titled the Global Family Reunion, which was held June 3 in Queens, New York, earlier this year. Although he fell significantly short in having all inhabitants of the world gather to meet, the gathering did raise $67,000 for Alzheimer’s research.

Jacobs’ book has short chapters that are fun and easy to read. It’s just as amusing to learn about his Jewish ancestors as it is to read of him retelling his wife’s one-liners. Full of self-deprecating anecdotes, readers will find plenty to laugh at in "It's All Relative."

But there are also serious beliefs presented in the book. While the idea of all the inhabitants of the earth being related is one that very few would dispute, Jacobs has liberal ideas that may not sit well with some readers. A disbeliever of creationism, he goes beyond the idea of Adam and Eve and views the ultimate ancestor as bacteria. Also, although he understands the power of traditional families, his liberal viewpoint of open love, including polymorphous families — where consenting adults share sexual partners and co-parent each other’s children — is also one that could be offensive to some.

Content advisory: “It’s All Relative” has no violence and a handful of profanities. Sex is talked about in several places, including the use of some crudities.
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