Lee Hasard's Reviews > The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs
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Jun 02, 2012

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‘The Know-It-All’ goes the distance on facts and fun

In his 1922 book “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippman pondered how modern man might comprehend complex current events. The American intellectual penned this passage:

« The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. »

When Public Opinion was printed, there was a comprehensive reference work dedicated to contemplating all existence that was then in the 154th year of its own existence. That work was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, initially published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768. The person who read it from cover to cover would hardly have a godlike understanding of the universe, but she or he would probably be better equipped to grasp a wider swath of the world.

Of course, reading the Britannica is no substitute for — well, for omniscience or omnipresence. The publication deals in information, emphasizing some facts and slighting or altogether omitting others. It is the type of instrument that Lippman argued was indispensable to modern life:

« I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions. »

It’s safe to say that the politics in the 20th and early 21st centuries did not adopt Lippman’s model; although Britannica or something like it might serve as a tutor or guide to decision-makers, there is really nothing like it that holds widespread sway.

Which isn’t to say that Lippman’s vision was entirely faulty. One fundamental part of his scheme which has been in play since the advent of modern society is what I shall call the agent: A person or group that, individually and collectively, gathers, analyzes and transmits information.

There can be different types of agents operating in interlocking ways. Government agents and trade associations compile information and produce reports. Print and electronic media reporters select some of these reports for interpretation, summarization and dissemination. At a more granular level, reports and articles are themselves summarized and linked to by newsletters, e-mails, bulletin board postings and the like.

The agent I’ve spent much of the past week associating with is A.J. Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazine. In his 2004 book “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” Jacobs described his experience reading the entirety of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Jacobs is, by his own admission, not an ideal tour guide through what is perhaps the most thorough compendium of knowledge ever assembled by humankind. As a youngster, Jacobs fancied himself the smartest child in the world. Time eventually lent him a more realistic perspective on his intelligence: Although he’s far from dumb, he is not very well equipped for rugged explorations of science or philosophy.

He writes with a humorous touch but describes himself as an introvert who often goes to extremes: either trying to fade into the woodwork or attempting to show off the facts at his command.

Sensibly, the author decides early on to read the Britannica in order, rather than following cross-references. Also sensibly, the book is presented in alphabetical (and chronological order). For example, here’s part of what Jacobs writes under the heading “birth control”:

« I prefer the creativity of the earlier birth control techniques, which ranged from the delicious (using honey as a spermicide) to the aerobic (jumping backward seven times after coitus).

« Those are good to know. Very relevant. I tell Julie not to jump backward seven times after sex and to keep honey safely above her belt. We can’t afford any mishaps. For the past year, Julie and I have been trying to have a baby. We’re getting a bit desperate. It doesn’t help that all of Julie’s friends are breeding like the female octopus, which lays and cares for 150,000 eggs. They’re frighteningly fertile, her friends. They seem to get pregnant if they brush up against their husbands in the hallway. Which means there’s a growing platoon of diaper-wearing creatures stomping through our lives, and an accompanying fleet of fold-up strollers and car seats. Meanwhile, Julie and I have nothing. Zilch. It’s infuriating. »

That is not, he emphasizes, for lack of trying: “at this point, our sex life has become about as erotic as artificial respiration (which, by the way, should be given at a rate of twelve breaths per minute).”

This is a pretty good example of Jacobs’ style: chatty, charming and digressive. As “The Know-It-All” progresses, he chronicles his own life story; those of his relatives; he and his wife’s efforts to conceive; his quest to appear on a television game show; and his changing relationship to encyclopedia and the information it contains.

These threads are interwoven with all manner of information. Among other things, Jacobs mentions the Berserkers of Norway, who are among a handful of groups that battled or exercised in the buff; the giraffe, which is not silent as many think but can utter low notes and moans; pool champion Willie Mosconi, who practiced with potatoes and a broomstick after his father forbade him to play the game; oysters, which can change sex according to the temperature of their environment (“I always knew there was something emasculating about warm baths,” Jacobs jests); Rasputin, the powerful Russian government official whose assassination became a rather drawn-out affair; and Walter Winchell, who is just one historical figure whose name was altered by a typographic or clerical error.

Jacobs may not be to everyone’s taste. While I enjoyed “The Know-It-All,” I found myself occasionally irritated. I would have preferred a more thorough index than the one in the paperback edition I read. I also wish that Jacobs had provided more chronological landmarks; he writes that it took him a little more than a year to read all of Britannica, but how much longer?

I also wondered how long or short some letters took to read. Jacobs notes that all Q entries occupy just 39 pages out of 33,000 in the 2003 edition, while S is the biggest letter with 2,089 pages.

And I sometimes found Jacobs too glib. But not always. When, on an overnight flight to Italy, airplane passengers are plagued by the loud snoring of one traveler whom a flight attendant refuses to rouse, Jacobs tells his wife that this is a classic ethical dilemma. Utilitarians believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people — which would lead, in that instance, to waking the loudly snoring man. Deontologists, however, would let him slumber because they believe in personal rights.

“I think we should wake the snoring jackass up,” Jacobs tells Julie. “So I guess I’m a utilitarian.” But he adds: “Unless I was the one doing the snoring. Then I’m a deontologist.”

To himself, he admits: “I could use a little more growing in the morals department. But at least I know how to label the theories. Which makes me feel better.”

Jacobs doesn’t always transition so effortlessly, or so movingly, from the trivial to the weighty. But he does it often enough that I do recommend The Know-It-All to the curious. I myself expect to read at least one of his other books in the future.

Walter Lippman might not approve, but A.J. Jacobs is an agent I trust for a fairly healthy dose of infotainment.

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