Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, 2004.

The Know-It All is not as good as The Year of Living Biblically. There’s no bias in my reasoning, that I can identify: they’re both eminently enjoyable books, filled with musings about what it is to live. Jacobs’ more recent book, though, has a stronger narrative, a clearer through-line that gives shape to his experience in a way that the A-Z nature of this earlier book lacks.

I bought The Know-It All after L. gave me—and I so enjoyed--The Year of Living Biblically as a present. Jacobs spends a year reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica. More than anything -else, I was struck by how much I am occasionally like Jacobs: enjoying the sharing of obscure, only vaguely relevant bits of trivia and arcana. It can be compulsive.

While it was a meaningful experience for Jacobs, his summary of what he learned takes only a couple of paragraphs. Throughout, he shares interesting experiencing, tidbits of knowledge, and how he makes sense of the experience. Yet while having knowledge helps one in many ways (I’ve always wanted to know everything), I was bemused by the framing of the book, that of a quest to become smarter. It seems too trite, too simplistic a frame: this problem may well explain why I found The Year of Living Biblically to be that much more powerful a quest for meaning than The Know It-All.

It’s an enjoyable book, and worth a read. You’ll pick up all sorts of interesting and completely useless bits of knowledge: Nathaniel Hawthorne was obsessed with the number 64; women in Peru wear yellow underwear on New Year’s; that the name of eggplant “comes from the white egg-shaped variety” (which may explain to my sister why the Brits insist on calling the eggplant that we know an “aubergine”); that “Etruscans sometimes wrote boustrophedon style, in which the direction of writing alternates with each line—right-to-left, then left-to-right”; that Mormons were the first settlers in Las Vegas... I expect you’ll get a bit better at Trivial Pursuit, reading it—though better still if you repeat Jacobs’ experiment!

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