Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“The Know It All; One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World”, AJ Jacobs

August 17th, 2009 · 1 Comment · Trash

knowitall Synopsis: Socially maladjusted US nerd consumes all 44 million words in the Encyclopaedia Britannica then provides an alphabetical cliff’s notes of the experience. The sum of the parts is less than the whole.

My Take: I am a bit of a sucker for condensed knowledge. It’s a deeply shallow (if that’s possible) way of learning, but I love adding to my stocks of knowledge by digesting pre-masticated titbits of trivia. So when I came across “The Know It All” (first Chapter available online here) in my favourite second-hand store I had high hopes. Surely a condensed and accessible Encyclopaedia Britannica would be both an interesting and rewarding read?

Unfortunately, I was sadly mistaken. These kinds of eclectic narratives depend heavily on the judgement and personality of the curator and I just didn’t warm to “The Know It All’s” author, AJ Jacobs. Partly this was because I thought he came across as a bit of a wanker, but mostly what rubbed me up the wrong way was his approach to reading and learning more broadly.

Jacobs’ body of work gives you a bit of a flavour for his approach; in addition to his Britannica reading stunt, he has also penned books on the experience of spending a year following every single rule in the Bible (“The Year of Living Biblically”) and on turning his life into a series of human experiments (“The Guinea Pig Diaries”). In short, he has become quite the exponent of the literary gimmick in recent times. You get the feeling reading “The Know It All” that despite the affectations, it’s all just a bit of a stunt for a book deal and he doesn’t have any real passion for his cause.

Yes, there are plenty of interesting facts, but Jacob’s self-reflection is facile and the bolt on memoir about his family is just dull (not all families are interesting enough to be memorialised sad to say). There are redeeming sections, but on the whole the book is formulaic and pitched at the audience of Entertainment Weekly.

One issue in particular that would have been worth some consideration, but seemed to be completely overlooked was whether Encyclopaedias have any role whatsoever in today’s society. In the times of Google, Wikipedia and the internet, is there any point in a generalist collection of introductory information on subjects chosen and edited by a chosen few? Jacobs claims that:

“The Britannica is still the gold standard, the Tiffany’s of encyclopedias. Founded in 1768, it’s the longest continually published reference book in history. Over the years, the Britannica’s contributors have included Einstein, Freud and Harry Houdini. Its current roster includes dozens of academics with Nobels, Pulitzers and other types of awards with ceremonies that don’t feature commentary from Melissa Rivers. The Britannica passed through some tough times during the dot-com craze, and it long ago phased out the door-to-door salesman, but it keeps chugging along. The legendary Eleventh edition from 1911 is thought by many to be the best-it’s inspired a fervid if mild-mannered cult –but the current editions are still the greatest single source of knowledge.”

Really? The ‘Greatest single source of knowledge?’ Come on. This is the gimmick wagging the book – a justification rather than an examination of the medium.

Jacobs almost stumbles an interesting insight into the changing role of the medium when he cites Hans Koning’s explanation for why the 11th Edition of the EB, released in 1911 is considered by aficionados to be the greatest of all Encyclopaedias:

“The eleventh was the culmination of the Enlightenment, the last great work of the Age of Reason, the final instance when all human knowledge could be presented with a single point of view. Four years late, the confidence and optimism that had produced the eleventh would be, as Konig puts it, “a casualty in the slaughter at Ypres and Argonne.”

Now here’s a topic for some critical reflection – the changing role of the EB in a world in which there is no longer a single fount of knowledge and the internet is changing the way that we seek, find and use information. Unfortunately, Jacobs isn’t interested:

“Yes, there’s the Internet. I could try to read Google from A to Z. But the Internet’s about as reliable as publications sold next to Trident and Duracell at the supermarket checkout line. Want a quick check on the trustworthiness of the Internet? Do a search on the words ‘perffectionist’ and ‘perfestionist.’ No, I prefer my old-school books. There’s something appealingly stable about the Britannica. I don’t even want that new-fangled CD-ROM for $49 or the monthly Britannica online service. I’ll take the leatherette volumes for $1400–which is not cheap, but it’s certainly less expensive than grad school. And anyway, at the end of this, maybe I can go on Jeopardy! and win enough to buy a dozen sets.”

Sigh. All he’s interested in is his gimmick and as a result the level of analysis you get from him rarely rises above that that you’d get from a reality television show. In summary, an interesting concept poorly executed.
(Random) Highlights:

From the original 1768 edition of the Britannica on Cats:

“Of all domestic animals, the character of the cat is the most equivocal and suspicious. He is kept, not for any amiable qualities, but purely with a view to banish rats, mice and other noxious animals from our houses… constantly bent on theft and rapine, they are full of cunning and dissimulation; they conceal their designs; seize every opportunity of doing mischief, and then fly from punishment… In a word, the cat is totally destitute of friendship.”

On Nathaniel Hawthorne (of The Scarlet Letter fame):

Towards the end of his life Nathaniel Hawthorne “Took to writing the figure ‘64’ compulsively on scraps of paper’.

On Montaigne and the writing process:

Montaigne “coined the term ‘essay,’ which translates to ‘attempt,’ or a little ‘project of trials and error’.

On the quirks of fate:

“On the dropping of Fat Man on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945: “The B-29 spent 10 minutes over Kokura without sighting its aim point; it then proceeded to the secondary target of Nagasaki, where at 11:02am local time, the weapon was air-burt at 1650 feet with a force of 21 Kilotons.”

Jacobs’ final insight from 44 million words:

“We have made our lives better. A thousand times better. Never again will I mythologize the past as some sort of golden age. Remember: in the 19th Century, the mortality rate was 75 percent fro a caesarean section… the workday was fourteen hours.. the life expectancy in ancient Rome was twenty nine years. Widows had to marry their late husband’s brother. Originally forks only had one tine, and umbrellas were available only in black, and you ate four-day old fetid meat for dinner.”

(I don’t disagree with this BTW).


  • Diskiss

    I found your quote when I googled “perfestionist” to test Jacob’s claim.

    I think the Know-It-All is a cautionary tale about how skimming the surface results in neither intelligence or wisdom…

    (Though it sure gets you As in public schools)

    And thanks, you have validated my suspicion of cats.