Reading is Not for Sissies

Some reading-related snippets from A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (which, as you may recall, is about his reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica):

Milton, John
The British poet who went blind because he read too late at night while at school. That’s something I’ve learned: scholarship is dangerous. There’s a platoon of men who’ve gone blind (sometimes in both eyes, sometimes in one), who’ve gotten curvature of the spine, who’ve suffered exhaustion from too much reading. It makes me feel like my quest—despite its couch-bound nature—is actually treacherous, which gives me a macho thrill.

I like this 19-century French writer quite a bit. I like that he coined the term “essay,” which translates to “attempts,” or a little “project of trial and error.” That’s what I want my Esquire articles to be. Little attempts, even if my attempts happen to involve more Wonderbra jokes than Montaigne’s attemptes. It just takes a lot of pressure off when you call them attempts.
But even better than the origin of the word “essay,” I like the story of how Marie de Gournay—a French intellectual at the time—fainted from excitement when she read Montaigne’s work for the first time. She fainted from reading. What a great image. We’ve become far too jaded. I’ve been intrigued, bored, titillated, annoyed, amazed, but I’ve never even come close to fainting while reading any book.
Which is sad. I wish ideas could still get people so excited that they fainted. I wish people—including me—had a more visceral reaction to reading. The closest I’ve come to fainting during Operation Britannica was when I felt queasy after reading about the botfly, which lays eggs in horses’ nostrils, and I had to stop eating my ice cream sandwich.

These are among the more high-brow entries in this book, sad to say, although he does get more and more serious as he progresses through the alphabet. I can relate though; I know my brain has turned to mush since leaving university, so I ought not to criticize him for his People-ish approach to humanity’s accumulated knowledge and history. (I don’t even know if that should be “ought” or “aught.”) Probably his best moment was his entry on Tolstoy:

I’m a big fan of the Britannica‘s coverage of great books. … Consider its coverage of Anna Karenina, a book I never got around to finishing. Or starting. The Britannica gives an elegant description of Anna’s brother Stiva, who is “genial and sybaritic.” It says, “Stiva, though never wishing ill, wastes resources, neglects his family and regards pleasure as the purpose of life. The figure of Stiva is perhaps designed to suggest that evil, no less than good, derives from the small moral choices human beings make moment by moment.”

Though I can’t be sure it’s an accurate analysis of the book, this sentence in the Tolstoy section strikes me as a profound one. It’s a gem of a sentence, the wisest one I’ve seen in hundreds of pages. I’m reading about Tolstoy at a little Formica table at a deli, eating a low-fat muffin. I mention this because, when it is time for me to go, I am about to leave the used napkin on the table. But then I think, that’s the kind of small moral choice the EB is talking about. That’s what Stiva would do. So I pick up the napkin and throw it away. I know, I’m a saint.

Over the next few days, I adopt a new mantra, my own version of “What would Jesus do?” I tell myself, Remember Tolstoy. … When I leave my office, I make sure to turn off the lights. Remember Tolstoy, I say. When I borrow a sweater from Esquire‘s vast closet of clothes to be used in photo shoots, I return it the next day. It’s not enough to be moral about the big things, I decide. It’s not enough that I refrain from murdering and robbing banks and giving PowerPoint presentations. I’ve got to be mindful of my smallest decisions.

We’ll see how long this lasts. It crosses my mind that, as I approach the end, I’m scrounging for profundity, desperately searching for meaning. Maybe I am. But for now, I’m pleased with my new and improved Tolstoyan self.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, as Jacobs’ discovers, doesn’t end with a moral (it ends with a Polish brewery town, Zywiec), but Jacobs does glean some wisdom from it, such as “history is simultaneously a bloody mess and a collection of feats so inspiring and amazing they make you proud to share the same DNA structure with the rest of humanity,” and “you should say yes to adventures or you’ll lead a very dull life.” In the end he was glad he read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, even if it didn’t make him the smartest person in the world.

As for me, I’m not tempted to repeat his feat. As much as I enjoy factoids, I enjoy context more. It makes no sense to me to learn alphabetically, except as a pastime (and who has time for pastimes any more?). I am much more drawn to the idea of reading chronologically so I can, in a sense, follow along as ideas and movements develop. We don’t live from A to Z; we live from before to after, so it only makes sense to read that way.

And now, I must finish Anna Karenina.


2 comments on “Reading is Not for Sissies

  1. deb says:

    One of the first things I learned about my husband (when I met him — i was 15) is that he had read the entire encyclopedia, like by the time he was 12. I found this out because he knew what “menstruation” was. He'd read at least to “M.” His sisters vouch for the fact that they saw him reading the encycl. at home and they thought he was weird. Their boyfriends took him to car races and fishing in order that he might be NORMAL. I dunno, maybe this is why I married him after all….I was impressed by his love of reading and learning. I myself was reading Tom Sawyer and Wuthering Heights, NOT the encyclopedia. I think I will put Jacobs on my reading list. [BTW, this is my first week of post-graduate life and the first place i went was the library. No, no, first i went to the HUGE used book sale on Sat. WHAT GREAT FUN!!! Bought children's books in Hebrew–why not?–and a “how to read” Hebrew trainer. And i am ALL over your blogsite digging for lots more. THANKS.]

  2. Sylvia says:

    The Encyclopaedia Britannica people might be interested in meeting your husband. When A.J. Jacobs went to visit them they only knew of one other living person who had read the whole EB. Maybe that was your husband…?

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