Friday, February 24, 2006

Jacobs: The Know-It-All

I picked up A.J. Jacobs's non-fiction book The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World because I saw that it was about a guy who reads all the way through the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I thought that sounded like a really fabulously fun thing to do. I mean, I used to love flipping through my parents' encyclopedias--so much so that it usually took me about 45 minutes to look anything up because I'd get so distracted reading other stuff. Apparently, this is not a universal reaction, because a large part of his book consists of the sceptical or scornful reactions he gets from the people around him.

As the subtitle implies, part of what Jacobs is concerned with is what makes a person "smart"--he acknowledges that reading the encyclopedia won't do it, but what does? Mensa membership? Skill at crosswords? The ability to impress his wife? Jacobs portrays himself, humorously, as trying way too hard to impress people with his facts in his own insecurity over his intelligence. A lot of people in this book have the same insecurity, most particularly Jacob's wife's brother Eric, who comes across as so egotistical, bombastic, and just plain mean that I wonder if Jacobs's in-laws still speak to him. Even though Eric has a sort of OK moment at the end, he's still the closest thing to a villian in the book. Eric and A.J. show what strike me as the two opposite poles of being insecure--A.J. tries too hard to show that he's smart by spouting facts, and Eric just belittles everyone to prove the same thing to himself. In a way, this isn't just a book about what it means to be smart, but a look at how people deal with insecurities. I think A.J. has come better to terms with not just being smart, but with feeling confident about himself by the end of the book.

After the introductory chapter, each one deals with a letter of the alphabet, and A.J. tells us about his life and his reading as he gives us some of the choice facts from each of that letter's Britannica entries. This makes this book a great volume of fun trivia, too. If you like non-fiction, trivia, or reference works, this is a good one to pick up.

Speaking of a little of everything, here's a really fabulous soup (or, rather, "stoup") from Rachael Ray: Chicken, Chorizo, and Tortilla Stoup. It got thumbs-ups from the gang around here--it's very tasty, and melting the cheese over the top in the broiler adds a lot of texture to the soup.

So what's the longest reference work you've ever read? I once made my way through the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, which was a treat to read. If you've never read a reference work, which one would you like to read? Drop us a comment and let us know!


Post a Comment

<< Home