Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A.J. Jacobs

When I was nine years old, a salesman in a brown Pinto hatchback made his way to the Cat Homestead. He sold my parents a bunch of books. I didn't know what they were till the end of the transaction.

Mama and Papa Cat had just purchased the 1985 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Papa Cat was particularly giddy.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica. The gold standard of encyclopedias. The cadillac of knowledge. The treasure trove of trivia, both useless and purposeful.

"This is going to help you girls so much in school!" he exclaimed. "This is known as the best encyclopedia in the world." He handed me one of the sample volumes the salesman brought with him.

As a nine-year-old, I was not impressed. It was heavy, with leather-like covers with the titles embossed in gold. The pages were very, very thin and lined with more gold. The font was very, very tiny. There weren't many illustrations.

At school we had the World Book encyclopedia in the library, with its red and blue covers, large font, and illustrations galore. I much preferred that version.

I figured that the Britannica's volumes were so heavy, I could use them to press the various flowers and four leaf clovers I found in the yard--and I did.

Then I hit middle school. And this is where my geekiness started to emerge. I started to read the Britannica for fun.

I never read a volume from cover to cover, but just read the articles that interested me. My reading of the Britannica hasn't helped me much, except in games of Trivial Pursuit, as well as trivia nights at pubs.

Kittens, don't ever expect me to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety. At 65,000 articles and 44 million words, it's too daunting of a task.

However, this task wasn't daunting enough for A.J. Jacobs.

Jacobs is currently the editor-at-large for Esquire magazine. In the earlier part of this decade, the Brown University graduate decided to read the Britannica cover to cover after he realized that he was forgetting more and more of his Ivy League education. He felt that, if anything, the Britannica could fill in the gaps of his knowledge.

He had another reason for reading all thirty-two volumes of the encyclopedia: He had to finish what his father, an attorney who holds the record for having the most footnotes in one article (4,824, to be exact) had originally started back in 1982. Jacobs' father started reading the Britannica, but didn't get beyond the middle of the B's.

The book is divided into chapters that correspond with each letter of the alphabet (with one exception: X, Y, and Z have one chapter together). Jacobs presents us with some very interesting trivia. Among the gems that he discovers:
  • The abalone has five anuses.
  • The city of Cleveland, Ohio was named after Moses Cleaveland, "an employee of the Connecticut Land Company, who arrived with his surveyors in 1796. His mission was to speed up the sale of land in Ohio, and in his honor, the town was called Cleaveland." (p. 46) In 1832, the letter a in "Cleaveland" was dropped because "Cleveland" "fit better on a newspaper masthead." (p. 47)
  • Pueblo women divorce by simply leaving their husbands' moccasins in their doorstep.
  • Ecstasy was patented as an appetite surpressant by Merck in the 1920s.
  • President Lincoln was not the main speaker on the day he delivered the Gettysburg Address. The main speaker was a man named Edward Everett, a former congressman from Massachusetts and president of Harvard, who spoke for two hours. Lincoln spoke for two minutes. Who has the better-remembered speech?
  • Hip-hop gets its own entry, which includes such pioneers as Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, and Grand Wizard Theodore.

And the list goes on.

It helps that Jacobs has written for such pop-culture periodicals as Esquire and Entertainment Weekly. His offbeat writing style, interspersed with anecdotes about his family and friends, keeps the text moving along. If it weren't for these reflections the book would be awfully dull and boring.

Jacobs has some very funny stories about the times he tried to put his Britannica knowledge to good use. He tried to get on Jeopardy!, but was ineligible because he once interviewed Alex Trebek. He auditioned for, and then became a contestant, on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He and a friend entered a crossword puzzle tournament hosted by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. But the funniest tale has to do with Jacobs' attendance at a Mensa convention on Staten Island.

Jacobs doesn't have much of an ego; if anything, he's a master at the art of self-deprication. He often compares himself to his "brilliant" brother-in-law, Eric, and will do anything to one-up him. He engages in a lot of mental competition with his dad, almost to the point of "what can I do to finally make my dad proud of me" syndrome. However, episodes like this in the book are not so frequent that Jacobs ends up looking like a total Eeyore. If anything, he embraces his geekiness.

Once I finished this book, I Googled A.J. Jacobs to see if he had any other books. He has an official website that lists them all. On his home page, you'll find a plug for The Year of Living Biblically, a book he wrote about spending an entire year following all of the rules in the Bible.

I've got to read that one.

But it will be a while before I do so. I've read nothing but nonfiction or heavy-duty fiction as of late, so I need to scan my shelves for some lighter fare. My brain needs a break from all of this knowledge!

But A.J. Jacobs is an author I definitely plan on reading again.

This book is the latest entry in my 100+ Reading Challenge, my Support Your Local Library Challenge, my A to Z Challenge, as well as my Dewey Decimal Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for archived lists of all past reads.


Amber said...

that sounds like an excellent book, I wonder if I shouldn't see if I can hunt him down at the library...

Anonymous said...

I don't even know people kept track of things like who has the most footnotes?!

drollgirl said...

we had the same set of encyclopedias as you! it helped for research and such, but i only looked up stuff i needed. i was not nearly as industrious as mr. a.j. jacobs. he must be scmart and filled to the brim with all sorts of trivial knowledge. bet he would be fun to hang out with at a party. or not? not sure. :)

joanna said...

We had the Britanica growing up too and I also liked to read random entries. :-) This book sounds great, thanks for the tip!

Jenners said...

Love the new look, by the way! Really cute and happy!

I love A.J. Jacobs -- you have to read "The Year of Living Biblically" -- I loved it. I think it was even better than "The Know It All" (which I totally enjoyed as well). I'm patiently waiting for his third book. Wonder what he'll do next!