Another great book!
Thursday, Mar. 03, 2011 at 05:00 AM
I was looking for something a little different — had my fill of memoirs, mysteries and motivational books — when a friend suggested I try “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” the story of a guy who decides to tackle all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Granted, the idea of reading about a guy who reads seemed less than appetizing, but I was salivating after the very first page.
The author, A.J. Jacobs, takes readers on a charming, self-deprecating, yet insidiously informative journey through the 26 letters of the alphabet. (A few letters take up more than one volume; hence, the need for 32 books in the series, I soon learn.) He shares little tidbits of knowledge, but in the context of his own real world, describing, for instance, how he does the mating dance of the blue-footed booby for his wife in their efforts to start a family.
Rather than simply digesting the information he discovers, Jacobs attempts to regurgitate his newfound nuggets. During dinner conversations, he mentions that raccoons wash their food before eating it. Hanging out with friends, he throws in the statistics of albinism when his wife’s friend bemoans the fact that she’s going to the islands with such white legs. He gets into a debate about dogwood with the local florist and the true meaning of vegetarianism with his aunt.
Unfortunately, his attempts are transparent and often awkward, which only adds to the humor and pathos. It quickly becomes obvious which section he is reading, when every comment and conversation-starter begins with the same letter. His family and friends shake their heads in amusement — or sometimes irritation — yet it neither daunts him nor stops him from his goal. I find myself rooting for him, like cheering for the underdog.
Through his quest, readers not only add to their own repertoire of facts and trivia, they also learn a lot about Jacobs himself, his fears and fantasies, his successes and failures. We are in awe of him and what he is trying to accomplish and at the same time, we feel sorry for him.
If encyclopedias were this amusing and well-written, maybe we’d all be on a humble quest to be the smartest people in the world.