Wednesday, November 17, 2010


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

I read A.J. Jacobs’ “A Year Of Living Biblically” last year, and judging by my review of it, it’s hard to imagine why I tried his other famous book. I thought his attempt to chronicle living by the words of the bible was a little juvenile and disappointing in its lack of historical analysis. I wanted to hear more about why things made their way into the bible, how people have interpreted it over the years, what it meant to him and people in our age. It ended up being a scattershot personal journey that was more about the importance of family than his intended subject matter.

This was also a lot more pop-psych than I would have hoped for. His “investigation” into what intelligence actually is amounts to various gestures toward common clichés, rather than his opinion about what being smart means. As he reports on interesting bits from the encyclopedia, he goes for the quick yuk-yuk joke rather than absorb the info or tell you what he thinks it means. “Apparently, there’s a whole group of people – and by people I mean losers – who also comb the Britannica looking for mistakes.” Ha, ha! Ha! Sigh.

All this said, it borders on informative, and it sounds like a fun way to increase your understanding of the world. A survey course of existence, forcing you to know about things you’d never read about.

I did find the entry on Thomas Paine interesting enough to want to read more of his stuff, if only to have ammunition in a theoretical fight with a Tea Partier: “His ideas were solid – relief for the poor, pensions for the aged, public works for the unemployed, a progressive income tax. But in England, where he was living at the time, it got him charged with treason. Things worsened with he wrote another pamphlet attacking organized religion. Though he made clear in the pamphlet that he was a deist and believed in the Supreme Being, he still got charged with being an atheist.” Sounds like Glenn Beck hasn’t read Paine.

I did have to identify with Jacobs in this respect:

“I’m wondering if – to continue Ezekiel’s metaphor – I bit off more than I could chew when I announced this Britannica project to the world. Because I have to tell you, I’m not sure I can go on. I’m not sure I can hear another one of those tissue-thin pages crinkle while turning. Or see another black-and-white picture of an old man with elaborate facial hair. Or learn about the average cubic meters of water discharged by another African river. Or crack open another volume with a spine emblazoned with the Scottish thistle – a plant with sharp thorns that serves as Britannica’s weird-looking and aggressive logo. Why exactly did I think this was a good idea again?”

This book was also the last one I read on a Kindle - I'll post about my thoughts on e-readers soon.

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