Non-fiction: “The Know-it-All” by A.J. Jacobs

the Know it allOkay. Apparently, writing a book blog is harder than I thought. Without even counting the fact that it’s two a.m. on the day after Christmas (‘twas the night after Christmas / when all through the house / only Alaina was stirring / without internet, she is unable to locate another rhyme for ‘house’ except ‘mouse,’ which doesn’t make sense right now, so this parody is ruined, let’s move on), let’s also talk about the handful and a half of candy I just mainlined, so I keep getting letters mixed up on the keyboard because my hands are shaky from the sugar overload.

But really, that’s what this book is about: undertaking a near-insurmountable task, so the fact that I’m fighting a sugar high is not as ironic as I had anticipated (I’m also fighting a bit of ADHD – do I have “Sugar High” on my iTunes? HUH! I do not! What CD did I burn that to, because now I must locate it! Or, at least, watch Empire Records right now … which is back in Portland, one of four DVDs I did not bring with me for my forty-eight hour visit to my parents).

ANYHOODLE. The short story: A.J. Jacobs, erstwhile contributor to Entertainment Weekly and current contributor to NPR, decides he’s going to attept what his father could not: read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

Sidebar: Microsoft Word believes that Encyclopaedia is spelled incorrectly. Let me cite my sources, Microsoft Word. First, there is that episode of How I Met Your Mother where Ted corrects everyone on the correct pronunciation of words like Encyclopaedia – ‘en-sike-lo-pay-dee-ah,’ because of the ligature of the a and the e.

Second source: A.J. Jacobs himself: 

“I also, embarrassingly enough, have to ask what the word ‘ligature’ means — it’s when two letters are smushed together, like the ae in the official title of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (I’ve used the nonconnecting ae in this book, partly because I can’t figure out how to get the ligature on my Macintosh keyboard.)”

I refuse to figure out how to get the ligature in my Microsoft Word, mainly because I don’t feel like it.

Main bar. You’d think a book about a guy reading about practically everything would be boring beyond all recognition. You would be wrong, my friends. Mr. Jacobs undertakes his task with a good dose of self-deprecating humor and, as you would expect when one reads the encyclopedia, dishes out the oddest and most amusing facts he can find.

Jacobs hails from a long line of know-it-alls: his father, A.J. Senior, attended many graduate schools and eventually became a finance regulation lawyer. In his youth, he attempted to read the EB, but only got as far as the mid-B’s. A.J. Jr.’s desire to read the entire EB is no doubt fueled partly by some Freudian psychosis related to his father’s failure to finish (and yes, A.J. Jr. did diagnose his psychosis himself, with some help from the entry on Freud).

 A.J. reads a good chunk of each volume a day, to the detriment of some of his relationships. He and his wife, Julie, are attempting to get pregnant throughout the book, with much frustration. But A.J. just decides to use his new knowledge for the better: they adopt a “Fertility God of the Week”, based on the many different gods he reads about in his travails.

There is an on-going discussion in the book about the difference between knowledge, intelligence, and information. Does one lead to the other? Does an inordinate amount of facts equal intelligence? Does reading a lot of, really, useless information make one smarter, or does intelligence all come down to genetics and/or street smarts? Not only does he attempt to read the EB, he tries to go on Jeopardy! (but fails, because as part of his job with Esquire, he interviewed Alex Trebek, thereby giving him a conflict of interest). He also joins Mensa, and appears on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.

A.J. does have some problems with his task. First, there’s the fact that the tone of the EB never changes from article to article: 

Taiping Rebellion: “The Britannica just states that 20 million people died in its typical deadpan tone. Shouldn’t there be three exclamation points after it? Shouldn’t it say, ‘took an infuckingsane 20 million lives’?” (322)

The use of “infuckingsane,” by the way, is known as an ‘infix,’ “which is a cousin of the suffix and the prefix, except that it occurs inside a word.” Thanks, A.J.! I learned something – my love of cursing is actually sometimes grammatically correct!

Also, A.J. sometimes makes up his own facts:

Dundatree: “This the Britannica defines as ‘the mythical country where large-footed dictators come from.’ Huh. That’s a strange concept, I think to myself. I’ve never even heard of it. // The reason I’ve never heard of Dundatree is that … I dreamed it. I read so much that it’s invaded my sleep. … And now I’m making up my own facts, which I’m worried I’ll confuse with actual facts.” (66)

And then there are the items that are only funny to me. For instance, the article on Stalin: 

Stalin, Joseph: “If there’s one ironclad rule I’ve learned about government, it’s this: never trust a politician with the nickname ‘Uncle.” You’ve got Uncle Joe Stalin … Ho Chi Minh, whose nickname was Uncle Ho. And for the trifecta, you’ve got [“Uncle”] Paul Kruger, the founder of South Africa’s nefarious Afrikaaner nation… So if you see an uncle on the ballot, do not be tempted to vote for him. He is not actually your uncle. He will not tell you funny jokes and pull nickels out of your ear. Instead, he may try to have you purged. Just to be safe, stay away from politicians named Papa as well.” (316)

This is why I would never vote for “Uncle Jean,” should he ever run for office. Sorry, Jean, but the book told me not to vote for anyone named Uncle!

Brad would find the following entry hilarious, in light of the very-similar conversation we had about which was funnier: twenty-four copies of Jerry Maguire, or twenty-five copies of Jerry Maguire?

Hoop Skirts: “In the 18th century, some hoop skirts were an astonishing eighteen feet wide. And satirists talked of hoop skirts that were twenty-four feet wide. Frankly, I think those satirists need a little punching up. Adding six feet just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe they could have gone with twenty-eight or twenty-nine feet. Then they’d be funny.” (133)

By the way, Brad and I determined that 27 is not as funny as 25, but 31 is hilarious.

One of the final things I’d like to comment on is that, daunting as it is, A.J. does come down on the side of actual books:

Jump Rope: “I know I sound like a crotchety old grandfather on the porch reminiscing about the good old days of rumble seats, but I believe in pages you can actually turn.” (164)

This is why I had to buy my sister a copy of Twilight, even though she had a friend email her ‘net versions of all four ‘novels’ (and I use the term loosely). My feeling on that? You can’t throw your laptop across the room when the author writes horribly, but you can throw a book.

And if you’re going to throw a book, hadn’t it better be Twilight?

Grade for The Know-It-All: 3.5 stars


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