I’m up to chapter F in A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. So far it has been a bit of a disappointment. That is sort of the point, actually. This fellow showed great intellectual promise in childhood but ended up working for an entertainment magazine, discovered reality TV, and basically ‘let himself go.’ He realized that he was not living up to his potential, nor up to the family standard (his father is an expert lawyer who tried and failed to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica but made up for it by writing numerous legal tomes). Jacobs’ solution was to read the entire Encylopaedia Britannica.
So far his penchant for lurid, smutty factoids makes for pretty unenlightening reading (unless you are a 14-year-old boy, in which case this is the book for you). He did have a moment of depth when he reflected on ethical relativism (Benedict XVI would have been proud). The entries on Ecclesiastes and Ezekiel also produced some serious thoughts. But overall his neurotic desire to prove himself (not his only neurosis, as we find out early) seems to be preventing him from profiting by the knowledge he’s gained. He seems to be more interested in wowing people at cocktail parties than discovering what makes humanity tick. Hopefully as the letters progress the pop culture references will diminish and the high culture references will increase.
The book reads a lot like a personal blog. It is composed entirely of interesting but disconnected snippets of information mixed with stories about the trials and tribulations of his life, large and small. He admits that the prefers the short, snappy articles in the Micropaedia to the longer, in-depth treatments of the Macropaedia. And perhaps he is smarter than the rest of us for blogging on paper and getting paid for it!
I did enjoy his “ten best ways to get your own entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica“:
- Get beheaded.
- Explore the Arctic.
- Write some poems.
- Become a botanist.
- Get yourself involved in commedia dell’arte.
- Win the Nobel Prize.
- Get castrated (men only).
- Design a font.
- Become a mistress to a monarch (ladies only).
- Become a liturgical vestment. [because of the many pictures of liturgical vestments in the EB]
I must admit I do enjoy reading encyclopedias. Not the whole thing, not alphabetically, but I do like flipping around in them and learning new things. (The same goes for dictionaries.) I would like to some day own the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but at $1200 a set it is low on the priority list. My humble New Columbia Encyclopedia and Canadian Encyclopedia will have to do for now.