The Final Four of Everything

by Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir, Simon & Schuster.

Who is the more notorious financial villain, Charles Ponzi or Bernard Madoff? Who died the most untimely death, Lou Gehrig or Otis Redding? And which college nickname is more absurd, the Banana Slugs or the Nads? “The Final Four of Everything” provides answers to these questions—and many more.

In a nutshell, “The Final Four of Everything” expands the concept of bracketology—“a knockout tournament format made famous by the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament”—and applies it to anything and everything. The authors present 150 different brackets (grouped by subject), each bracket pairing contestants in a succession of elimination rounds—winnowing the contenders down to a Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four before ultimately declaring a “winner.”

For what it’s worth, many of the brackets are concocted by “experts and celebrated authorities” (such as political commentator Mary Matalin, movie critic A.O. Scott, writer Stefan Fatsis, historian David Oshinsky and television personality Bill Geist), some of whom admittedly determine competitors and winners by whim alone. For example, in “American Guns,” writer Stephen Hunter proclaims, “Guns made famous by movies are favored over guns useful to history, probably because I prefer movies to history.”

The contests range from the obvious (“Supreme Court Decisions,” “Baseball Moments” and “Gangster Films”) to the imaginative (“Worst Movies by Great Directors” and “Ringless Athletes”) to the hilarious (“Celebrity Mugshots” and “Sexually Inadequate Nicknames”). Some brackets can best be described as “odd,” as in “It’s Better with Bacon” (by “one of the world’s leading hamthropologists”), and “Nothing but the Tooth” (in which a dentist crowns the most functional and aesthetically pleasing tooth).

Meanwhile, a handful of the brackets seem barely credible. “Memorable Speech Lines,” for instance, mixes the fictional and the historical, including quotes from Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington alongside FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and MLK’s “I have a dream.” And more than a few readers may be taken aback by the inclusion of President Obama’s inaugural address in the Right-Wing regional of “Presidential Speeches.” Never mind the mere existence of “Ridiculous Celebrity Auctions,” in which William Shatner’s kidney stone ($25,000) goes hard-against Suri Cruise’s bronzed “first poop” ($10,000).

Such is the arbitrary and serendipitous nature of “Final Four.” In fact, the authors encourage the reader to embrace its inherent randomness. “Stop reading this introduction and start flipping through the pages. Pause at the first page that catches your eye,” they implore in the introduction. As Reiter explains, “A bracket is a … dynamic way of understanding personal preferences.” In other words, the book does not claim to be grounded in fact or the “final” word on anything, just an opinionated tome meant to provoke responses.

So while one might expect detailed explanations for why a contender bested its opponent, the lack of clarity works in the book’s favor by encouraging discussion and argument. So when your party drags and you run out of things to say (or drink), break out “Final Four” and watch the sparks fly. Not sure where to start? Try “Dubious Sports Achievements,” which has “Anything to do with NASCAR” losing to “Anything to do with rodeo” in the first round. That’ll get some impassioned reactions.