Wednesday, January 18, 2006

2. The Know-It-All

by A.J. Jacobs

I don’t know if this actually happened or not, but I seem to remember a man visiting our house when I was fairly young and, from that visit, we gained our full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I always thought it was weird to remember a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, but according to A.J. Jacobs, the Britannica was sold in this manner until the early 90’s, so my memory is most likely real. And it’s too weird for me to have made up anyway, so, by that virtue alone, I’m guessing this salesman actually existed.

You’d think reading the entire Britannica would be the most boring, ridiculous time waster a person could concoct, and you’d wonder why you’d ever want to read about a person taking on this task, but in The Know-It-All, Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs does exactly that and his memoir-like ruminations on his project are far from dull. His thoughts are at times funny and at times profound. He can be arrogant in one moment and then be completely humbled the next. His thoughts vary widely, arranged only by their alphabetical significance, but in the end we get a nice little picture of this chunk of his life during which the Britannica reigned supreme.

Here are some things we would never know without the Britannica:

Isaac Asimov wrote five hundred books. Five Hundred! I knew the man was prolific, but five hundred?

Ecstasy was patented as an appetite suppressant by Merck in the 20’s.

The Gettysburg Address was not the main event of the evening, but a two-minute speech following Edward Everett’s two-hour oration. Yet another case against over-achievement.

There is an actual chunk of metal that weighs exactly one kilogram. The metric system is based on concrete objects that you can see.

In the 18th century, people used vinaigrette as perfume. I guess if everyone smells like salad, you don’t notice it too much.

But far from containing a simple collection of random facts, Jacobs using this experience to ruminate on some pretty interesting things. Hovering over all of this is the question of whether reading the Britannica will make Jacobs smarter. Will ingesting great amounts of information make one more intelligent? And what does it mean when you’ve read all this stuff, but you can’t remember any of it? “I’m not so deluded that I think I’ll gain one IQ point for every thousand pages,” Jacobs ruminates early on. “But…I believe that there is some link between knowledge and intelligence. Maybe knowledge is the fuel and intelligence is the car? Maybe facts are the flying buttresses and intelligence is the cathedral? I don’t know the exact relation. But I’m sure the Britannica, somewhere in those 44 million words, will help me figure it out.”

Throughout, Jacobs tries his best to stump his brother-in-law Eric who prides himself as the family’s fountain of knowledge. Even though Eric always has a leg up on Jacobs, his knowledge fails him as he costs Jacobs’ thousands of dollars on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Jacobs gains entrance to Mensa on the strength of his high SAT scores, only to fail the entrance test he unnecessarily takes to find out just how smart he is. And he never gets the opportunity to try out his Britannica wits on Jeopardy due to a past interview with Alex Trebek. So, notwithstanding his constant efforts to interject bits of trivia into everyday conversation, has reading the Britannica made Jacobs any smarter?

That’s not something that’s answered here, but there are some things we learn. We learn that through this task, Jacobs has completed his father’s own failed attempt to read the entire Britannica. We learn that thorough knowledge of past European monarchies cannot prepare a person for the frustration of infertility. And we learn that no amount of information, no matter how organized or complete, can make up for family and fun and love and all those other intangible things. Which isn’t to say that knowledge and intelligence isn’t important, but as the Britannica’s condensed version of Ecclesiastes says, “In the face of such uncertainty, the author’s counsel is to enjoy the good things that God provides while one has them to enjoy.” That’s what Jacobs takes away from his task, and since most of us aren’t going to sit down to read an encyclopedia cover to cover, we’re lucky enough to be able to gain this from Jacobs’ book.


Anonymous Heliologue said...

I read this one last year after my brother recommended it to me. Quite a pleasant surprise, as I hadn't expected it to be nearly as funny or interesting as it turned out to be.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

I read it because of its ties to Esquire, but I agree with you in that it was much more satisfying than I had expected. It's nice to get those kind of surprises.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Desideratum said...

I read this book a few weeks ago, and really enjoyed it. Light, but still interesting and (in some ways) enlightening. I completely agree with your assesment.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Pearson said...

I truly appreciated this book because it seemed like something that I myself might try.

10:31 PM  

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