Tuesday, March 31, 2009

#59 - "The Know-It-All" by A.J. Jacobs

I had already read The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs and enjoyed it, so I was delighted to find The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (2004) in the "Books on CD" section of my library. Now, I pretty much always pick up my books in their original format and read them the normal way. But one morning I woke up insane, and I impulsively decided to cut up an old bridesmaid dress of mine that didn't fit anymore and turn it into a fantastic dress of my own design. I am somewhat lacking in know-how, experience, and supplies in this little venture, and the chances of me ending up with anything wearable are hovering around the teens, but I can be surprisingly stubborn. Anyway, the whole process quickly turned into an incredibly tedious and time-consuming chore, and it's impossible to watch television or movies while I work, since I always have to be staring at the fabric; so I figured books on tape/cd could be the solution.

I have something of a fascination with religion, which is why I originally picked up The Year of Living Biblically and how I was introduced to A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs mentioned his earlier work, The Know-It-All, in The Year of Living Biblically, describing how he would obsessively read his Amazon.com reviews for his previous book--something which certainly broke one of his biblical rules. But in The Know-It-All, Jacobs hadn't moved on to religion yet, and his subject of this book is the Encyclopedia Britannica. Jacob's goal is to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica: over 33,000 small-typed, but very large pages. The inspiration for this feat stems a bit from his obsessive compulsiveness; a competitiveness with his father--who once started reading the Encyclopedia Britannica; as well as a general competitiveness with anyone who might challenge his personal belief of his own supremacy in wisdom and knowledge.

I can relate to the idea of wanting to read the entire series, although that understanding doesn't go so far as me actually trying to accomplish it. Jacobs picks out some interesting anecdotes and stories from his reading and it made me wonder what other kind of fascinating historical stories and knowledge I was missing. My family had the World Book encylopedia series when I was young, so in order to get a better idea of Jacobs' accomplishment I wandered by the Encyclopedia Britannica in the library. From my quick inspection, it looked pretty dense, pretty dry, and with a lot of obscure and uninteresting (to me) information. Quite an accomplishment--even though Jacobs did admit that he started "skimming" when it got pretty long in the middle, which drives the anal side of my personality crazy. Why would you go to all that work to not really read the whole thing?

My opinion of this book changed often as it was read to me. Sometimes I was thoroughly entertained and learning new things, and other times I was thinking that the book was really long and wondering when we were going to get to the point. Some of Jacobs' intercessions of irrelevant and obscure facts that he had picked up on his reading started to drive me a little crazy, and I sympathized with his wife, who must be very patient. But there were other times when I was genuinely interested in Jacobs' new knowledge. And I was always interested when Jacobs talked about his own life: his relationship with his father; his relationship with his wife and their quest to have a baby; his experiences in a Mensa meeting; competing in the National Crossword tournament; and trying to get on Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jacobs is generally funny, likable, and honest when he talks about himself, and the way he trots out his embarassing stories was pretty entertaining.

On the whole, I think I still prefer The Year of Living Biblically, mainly because I had more interest in the underlying premise. I also wonder if The Know-It-All didn't suffer some from the reading on cd. Although the reader was good, I always felt like something was missing. I love having the physical book in my hand. Seeing the typeface and chapter breaks and other visual cues really does bring something to the book, and controlling the pace of the reading is nice too. I might have read over Jacobs' random intercessions a little more quickly, rendering them a little less annoying. And there is nothing more aggravating than when the disc starts skipping and I have to stand next to the cd player, fast-forwarding every couple of seconds (and losing a couple of words in the process). Fortunately this was only part of one cd, but it probably had an effect on my overall enjoyment. I still haven't give up on this book on cd thing entirely--that dress is way too far from being finished--but the next one I have is fiction, which might be a better listen.

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