Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, June 11, 2010

"The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World" by A.J. Jacobs

Remember how I told you that I was having trouble getting into The Sparrow? Well, I'm having even more trouble reading it now . . . because we are still trekking along on our Insane Road Trip, and would you believe I left the dang thing at home? I brought six other books with me, but I forgot the one I was reading. Well, I don't call myself the Literary Amnesiac for nothing.

By the way, did you notice this road trip has become a trek? When we started off on Monday, we were gallivanting off across the country, but I'm fairly certain that by this time next week our progress will more likely resemble a death march. Just so you know.

The six books are some of those that I ostensibly "want" to read but can never bring myself to pick up. What better time than a road trip to limit my choices and force myself to read them. Yes, I do realize that bringing six books on this trip was rather ambitious, especially since I only managed to read 5 books on my solo trip last year, and this time I have a husband, my parents, and three unruly kids to distract me. Not only that, but our journey is already half-finished, and I've only just finished one book.

Out of the six books, I picked up The Know-It-All first. I thought its format would work well for reading tidbits to Hud in hopes of keeping him awake while he was driving. I suppose it has worked so far, as we have made it through five states unscathed.

This book is the true story of a guy who spent a year reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. The book is divided into chapters by letter, with entries in alphabetical order just like the encyclopedia, although Jacobs obviously does not cover every topic. The book is made more palatable by the little bits about Jacobs's private life that are sprinkled throughout the book when he manages to relate to what he's reading (which happens more often than you'd think). Even better, I really like Jacobs' dry humor, which has Santa as a crack dealer and Attila the Hun with a good side.

It was interesting to think about what Jacobs discovered regarding memory as he read through the encyclopedia. A cognition professor tells Jacobs, "Memorization is a business where the rich get richer . . . the more you know about a topic, the more you'll be able to remember." This is, of course, not my own original idea, but it got me thinking about how memory is like a spiderweb. The more places you have to attach a new fact, the more likely you are to remember it. The more you find yourself able to link different areas of knowledge, the easier it is to add to that knowledge.

During the course of the book, Jacobs (tiny spoiler) has the opportunity to appear on the television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It was so funny to me that he lost because he didn't know which blood component is also known as an "erythrocyte." Of course, I suppose when your job is to look at millions of erythrocytes every weekend, you sort of have an advantage in that area. I guess it's one of those things you assume to be common knowledge until it's brought to your attention that only the people in your line of work know those details. But I was reminded of the time a high school acquaintance was on the show nearly ten years ago and couldn't correctly pick the Goddess of Love out of four possibilities. It's not like Regis was asking for the Roman goddess and gave both Aphrodite and Venus as choices (in which case I would have had trouble too).

I will leave you with a joke that I thought was hilarious, so I'll take the risk that at least half of you are total nerds like me and will get a giggle out of this:
René Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Yo, René, how you doing? Can I get you a beer?" "I think not," replies Descartes. And then he disappears.


Kate said...

I'll have to check out this book. I read an A.J. Jacobs last summer before I started the blog and really enjoyed it. "The Year of Living Biblically". I also love that dry sense of humor.

Have fun on your trip!

Leah said...

I have seen this book and I have wondered about picking it up. Sounds good. Like your joke (it's an eye-roller, but funny). Stay safe out there.

Pete said...

Read a review of this a while back. It looks like it would be a really interesting read. Thanks for the review!

Kathy said...

Yep, pick it up if you have a chance. It was a nice, lighthearted read. I like his style.