Log in

No account? Create an account

The Know-It-All

I recently finished reading The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, a book describing the authors quest to read the entire Encylopedia Britannica.

I am not even going to try to keep myself out of this review. It was impossible to read this and not think of my own quest to read 52 books this year.

Jacobs' quest is admittedly more ambitious than my own. The Encyclopedia Brittanica is 33000 pages long, or the equivalent of 52 638 page books. I've read some bodacious books this year, but I don't think the average length will be
638 pages by year end. His goal took more discipline. I get to pick and choose the books I read, while he had to read whatever was in the encylopedia, whether it interested him or not. In an interview with Alex Trebek, he is told "I'm curious about everything--even things that don't interest me". Jacobs clearly took Trebek's words to heart...he couldn't have possibly made it through the encyclopedia otherwise

I still found myself identifying with him often. In an earlier post, I talked about being to books what Cool Hand Luke was to eggs. The same metaphor occurs to him. Jacobs "know[s] how he felt after that 43rd egg." (Full Disclosure: Jacobs thought of the metaphor before I did.)

He had a lot of the same anxieties I have. He meets a woman at a Christmas Party who asks him "But how much are you retaining?". Yikes. I haven't gotten that question yet. But I live in fear of it. He is also concerned about exactly how useful it is to read everything in the encyclopedia. He cites John Locke's parable of the blind man who interviews people about what the color red is like and concludes "it is like the sound of the trumpet." He is even more disturbed by Plato's theory of knowledge, which says everything you need to know is already inside you. That's not encouraging to a man reading the whole encyclopedia.

He finds one factual error. The Encyclopedia Brittanica says that Robert Frost was a Harvard graduate, and Jacobs knows that Frost dropped out of Harvard. I must confess I did the same thing with Jacobs that he did with the encyclopedia. I didn't find any errors. But I did notice some fun facts that he left out.

In his section on Herbert Hoover, he points out that Herbert Hoover was an orphan.
I recently learned from reading The Forgotten Man,Amity Shlaes' history of the great depression that Hoover coined the term "Concentration Camp." It was a camp he set up for refugees from the Mississippi valley flood, far more benign than the German version.

He points out that even though the Beatle George Harrison is not mentioned in the encyclopedia a 19th century church organ designer named George Harrison is. I wondered if he knows about the George Harrison who headed the New York Federal Reserve Bank during the Great Depression. Again, I learned this from The Forgotten Man.

Jacobs probably knows all this stuff. I still can't resist showing off.

Of course the book is peppered with lots of interesting facts. Like the fact that Descartes was attracted to cross-eyed women and Aristotle married a woman 19 years his junior. Goethe wrote 14 volumes of scientific material. That last one blew me away...I had no idea Goethe wrote ANY scientific material. People were smarter and more versatile in Goethe's day.

There are also interesting facts about the Encylopedia Brittanica itself. It was started in 1768 and contributors have included Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Harry Houdini. There are Encylopedia connoisseurs who have created a cult following for the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. This cult following is so large the 11th edition even has it's own website.

Even more impressive than Jacob's reading of the encyclopedia was the actual writing of The Know-It-All.
In under 400 pages, he weaves together the most interesting facts he got from the Encyclopedia, a chronicle of his life during the time he was reading it, and some interesting ruminations on the nature of knowledge and intelligence into a cohesive whole. It works well as a story...when he finished reading the article on Zywiec, Poland I was as moved as I've ever been by any movie ending. He provides a useful insight at the end: "knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing--but they do live in the same neighborhood." That's more profound than it sounds. This is a book that's very successful on many levels. Kudos, Mr. Jacobs.


i was debating on whether or not to pick this up from the used book store near campus. i shall debate no longer...
To top it all off, the author is a really nice guy. I sent him an email telling him about my review in this blog, and very quickly got this response:

>Thanks so much! I didn't know about the >Depression-era George Harrison. (Or if I did, I'd >forgotten it). And I also didn't know about the >Hoover camps. Now of course I really do know it all.