Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review: The Know-It-All

Subtitled One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, the book chronicles A.J. Jacob's quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, from a-ak to zywiec. The book is filled with the fascinating tidbits of information he discovers, for example that John Heisman of football trophy fame was a Shakespearean actor during the the off-season. Mr. Jacobs then wonders, "Why aren't there any Shakespearean football coaches nowadays?"

Mr. Jacobs also explores why he began this quest. The answer is not as straightforward as the entries. He is concerned that his time as editor of Entertainment Weekly has caused him to lose much of the knowledge he gained while at Brown. As a boy, he fancied himself the smartest boy in the world--a self-concept that was severely shaken as he grew up. And then there's the competition: his father, who has a truly amazing list of degrees and who has authored 24 or 25 serious, scholarly books on points of law, had also attempted this feat. Dad, however, dropped the project around the B's. Could the son accomplish what his father couldn't?

The project takes him about a year. There is a chapter for each letter of the alphabet, except for X, Y, and Z, which are combined. But how can Mr. Jacobs be sure he actually is becoming smarter?

Thus he investigates the nature of knowledge and "smartness." He joins Mensa, interviews a gentleman with an acknowledged stratospheric IQ, interviews Alex Trebek of Jeopardy!, and participates in the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He looks for others who have read the entire encyclopedia. His search even leads him to Chicago and the headquarters of Britannica itself.

And, oh by the way, Mr. Jacobs is married and he and Mrs. Jacobs would like to have a baby.

I have a lot of natural sympathy for Mr. Jacobs. I, too, love arcane facts and get side-tracked easily while looking up words in dictionaries or checking facts in encyclopedias. (Internet databases have not helped. I only become side-tracked more quickly and more deeply.) Some of the facts Mr. Jacobs shares are interesting, some are odd, some are downright funny. His sense of humor is much like my own: wry, a little dark, self-deprecating, and fascinated by the world around him. (He is a pessimist, however, while I tend to be an optimist.) In fact, this book was a Christmas present to me from DD#1 who saw the title and knew I'd enjoy it. (She knows me too well!)

What keeps this book from being a classic, however, is that Mr. Jacobs is truly a product of his environment: a secular Jewish liberal, born and raised in New York City (Manhattan, in fact), educated in elite private schools. Everyone around him is a liberal. His parents have an apartment in Manhattan and a country home in East Hampton. His friends get married in Italy, so Mr. Jacobs and his wife fly over, spending time in Venice before attending the wedding.

So of course he takes potshots at President Bush, with kind of a knowing wink because everyone feels this way. It's obvious. One or two cheap shots I could overlook. But there are several. They were unnecessary. It's almost as if Mr. Jacobs couldn't resist. So what could have been a classic book instead becomes more limited.

Okay, it was interesting as an anthropological study of a certain segment of Manhattan's socio-economic-cultural strata. A society I will certainly never fit into even if I do read the entire Britannica myself.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

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