Hitting the Books

The Know It All book coverGo out, do an outrageous stunt for typically one year, write it up, make the bestseller lists. A few years ago it was all the rage. Whether or not these were trivial pursuits, the books claimed a big audience. Norah Vincent lived as a man, another female author gave up buying products made in China, and still another woman gave up all shopping. A man “lived biblically” (that’s A. J. Jacobs, too, by the way), and Barbara Kingsolver lived locavore with her family.

Norah Vincent’s account was a fascinating portal into gender and inspired me to write a blog. It also inspired me to read another stunt lit book. This time I wanted one that would be lighter and more fun. The Know-It-All seemed to qualify at first and did actually end up filling the bill. In a way, Jacobs got a jump on all the other stunters. The idea for reading the Encyclopedia Britannica (the reason for the “smartest person” in the subtitle) started with Jacobs’ dad decades ago. But dad never got past the B volume. A.J. takes on the whole 2002 edition with a mission to beat his dad. Dad is skeptical. Dad’s comments intensify the father-son rivalry, and add fuel to son’s fire. Jacobs pitches it to his wife, who tells him the project is a time-waster. Jacobs feels that with each passing day it’s a ridiculous folly: 33,000 pages, 32 volumes, a four foot tall stack of books. And he’s got a day job. And he and his wife are trying to get pregnant. TV, movies, eating out—all of the sudden, everything else seems unworkable. His wife says she feels like a widow because he has no time for her. Well, he doesn’t.

Jacobs has arranged his book encyclopedia-like, A to Z. It is a super-condensed format featuring the best bits from the E.B., which expand naturally into a semi-chronological diary of Jacobs’ life. The E.B. greatest hits are more interesting by far than the tangents leading into the author’s world (not that those are dull or anything). They are a good mixture of light and substantial, snack and feast. Here are some of my favorites taken from Jacobs’ favorites, a best-of, best-of:

  • Casanova ended his life as a librarian. Most of my fellow librarians didn’t know this when I first told them about it many years ago. It’d be far stranger if a noted librarian ended up pursuing a Casanova-level career late in life.
  • The idea of canned laughter isn’t new. Ancient Greek playwrights hired people to laugh at their comedies. It’s hard to imagine august figures such as Aristophanes stooping to this, but then the classical world’s players were seldom as august as we think.
  • ”Half ass” is the actual name of a type of mule from Asia.
  • Gandhi’s teenage rebellion: secret atheism, smoking and-Yikes!-meat eating. Maybe the reason Gandhi could be so ultra-austere in adult life was because, like the Amish teens who go through the anything-goes ritual rumspringa, he’d got it out of his system. And so the loincloth becomes a parallel to plain clothing.
  • The hilariously clueless E.B. entry on rap. According to the eminent reference book, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan “were among the popular purveyors of rap during the 1980s and 1990s.” I shall purvey some hip-hop forthwith.
  • Hollywood was founded by “a prohibitionist who envisioned it a community based on his sober religious principles.” Mae West wept.
  • I knew something of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 but I didn’t know that Indian soldiers “were shot from cannons in a frenzy of British vengeance (though some British officers did protest the bloodshed).” Jacobs’ understated parenthetical phrase comes off quite, well, British.
  • The kappa is the oddest mythical figure of all for Jacobs. It is a “vampire like lecherous creature” from Japan that’s “obsessed by cucumbers.” A green monkey with fishlike scales, the kappa keeps magic water in the top of its head. It refuses to lower its head for fear the water will spill out. This, by the way, is where the cuke-bearing sushi dish kappa roll gets its name.
  • Isaac Newton got some of his ideas for gravitational theory from occult books he’d read, particularly notions of repulsion and attraction over distances.
  • The Taipeng Rebellion. I recognized the term, but had long since forgotten what little I knew about it. A Chinese social revolution in the 19th century that resulted in 20 million dead. The rebellion was started by Hung Hsiu Chuan, who believed he was Jesus and came up with a novel blend of “socialism, spiritualism and Puritanism.” Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. By the way, one of the chief anti-Hung leaders was General Tso, “now reduced to a chicken entrĂ©e.”
  • The entry on umlauts unfortunately does not explain their bizarre over-usage in the New Yorker magazine.
  • The only other mammal besides humans that produces uric acid is the Dalmatian.
  • Philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote this about animals: “The question is not, can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?”
  • Chamber music, according to the E.B., “probably gives the most lasting pleasure to more music lovers than any other kind of music.” Which may explain the rap entry.
  • In the beginning, the White House was called the President’s Palace. However, the name sounded “too royal” to U.S. citizens, who changed it to the Executive Mansion.

I’m indebted to Jacobs for slimming the Britannica down for all of us with civilian amounts of time on our hands. There are so many fascinating facts that at times you feel like gorging on them. And the above samples are only the tip of the iceberg. He’s an engaging writer, to be sure, but he’s not without fault. Time and again in the book he’s on about how he’s a regular guy, but then he lets it slip that he went to a fancy private prep school, that he graduated from Brown and that he has an agent. That’s more than just a small disconnect.

I was looking forward to the son telling the father that he did in fact finish the whole of the E.B., but Jacobs Jr. never gets around to it. Maybe the Britannica’s gigantic breadth gave him the ability to put his relationship with his father in perspective.

Richard Grooms
Central Library
Social Sciences Department