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He attempts to convene the biggest family reunion in world history. He contemplates black sheep and bad apples. He unearths his own genealogical connections to Hollywood actresses, Civil War soldiers, and real-life scoundrels.

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He drinks beer with a U. He investigates new types of families, from sperm donor siblings to group marriages.

He examines the legitimacy of those DNA tests that purport to reveal your ancestry. He learns about his Neanderthal great great, great, etc. He meets thousands of cousins. In this era of tribalism and us-versus-them thinking, this extraordinary book is a profound exploration of what binds us all.

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And we have over 80, relatives of yours in our database. It was at once alarming did he really want more relatives?


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But instead, the emailer says his name is Jules Feldman. For the previous fifteen years, Jules has devoted his time to building a family tree.

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A really big tree. More of a forest. Eighty thousand. I try to wrap my head around that number. The email gives me profoundly mixed feelings. On the one hand, as my wife, Julie, points out, I often feel like I have too many relatives already.

Plus, the email has some creepy NSA-like privacy-invasion vibes. How did this dairy farmer know all this about me? And why should I trust him? All of us different, all of us linked. I felt a part of something larger than myself.


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I glimpsed the Ultimate Social Network. When I was a kid, my dad spent years building a family tree. Not quite eighty thousand, but it reached back multiple generations. How they were farmers and general store owners; one even found a niche selling peacocks to nobles.


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How some fled the Russian pogroms by hiding in a haystack on the back of a cart. How my great-grandfather was supposed to pick up his wife and kids at Ellis Island but missed their arrival because he was eating a second bowl of soup. As a young man, I scoffed at these tales. I was an obnoxious little rebel who rejected all institutions, including family.

I preferred to spend zero time thinking about my ancestors.

It's All Relative

Why should I care about these people, just because we happen to share some DNA by accident of birth? But as so often happens to people, I got older, I had kids, and I magically turned into my dad. Now I spend most of my time thinking about family: How can I give my three young sons a sense of belonging? What kind of wisdom and ethics from my ancestors can I pass along to my kids? It stays in my mind the next day.

And the next. And the week that followed.