The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Know It All by A. J. Jacobs

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

How do you review nonfiction?

I can't talk about plot—how engrossing it is, or how uneventful. I can't praise the three-dimensionality of the protagonist. I mean, he is a real person, after all, and to say anything else would be like telling an actual human being that he's "as lifelike as a piece of cardboard", a description I know I've used. Clichés, and plot devices become irrelevant. Foreshadowing becomes obsolete*. If I start gushing about how wonderful a particular battle scene was, or how gruesome but fascinating this murderer acts, people are going to lock me up somewhere. And if I start picking out characters—er, people—and pinpointing archetypes, villains, or idiots… well, that's just uncool.


So, I ask you again, how do you review nonfiction?

Usually I don't. It's that simple. Because, after spending an afternoon or two reading, and then spending a week or two staring at a blank screen, I begin to wonder: is it really worth it? Was that last bit of nonfiction really that good?

This time, it was. I just finished The Know it All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A. J. Jacobs, and, in this case at least, I can actually say something relevant. Although this review will, most likely, be more like a commentary than a book review, I hope you'll enjoy it nonetheless.

Because he fears he's becoming "embarrassingly ignorant", Jacobs decides he needs to fill the gaps that have opened in his knowledge after years without academic stimuli. And what better way to do this, then to read the entire current edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica?

For some reason, I'm not finding this task nearly as crazy as most people would. Intimidating, yes; crazy, no. Maybe it's because I've embarked on a similar adventures in the past. One summer while I was in high school, I noticed I had no new material on my bookshelf. Undaunted, I decided that I would just have to read the dictionary. Mind you, it wasn't some pocket edition with 300 pages—this was an unabridged 1982 edition of Webster's Dictionary; one with thousands of tissue-paper pages. My mom used to make me look up my vocabulary words in that thing. Then I discovered Google. But I digress.

Anyway, I never finished the dictionary. In fact, I think I gave up halfway through the A's. But I guess my point in telling you all of this, is to say that I sympathize with Jacobs in his remarkable quest to read the Britannica.

Of course, he doesn't find this journey easy. Like most people, during the early letters, Jacobs finds himself distracted and daydreaming at regular intervals. The only facts that he seems to remember are the ones that are kind of awkward or crude to use in every day conversation. For example, scapulimancy is the art of predicting the future based on the shoulder blades of animals. I have no idea how that works, or if I'll ever need to know this fact, but next time I have a wayward sorcerer in one of my novels, he's going to have some odd ideas about seeing the future.

Once again, I can relate to this—this, random fact remembering. I am a geek after all. Like most other geeky types I know, I have literally books full of useless information floating in my brain (thanks in part to the multiple publications I own by the Society for Useless Information, I suppose). I play along at home with the folks on Jeopardy—even once tried out for the show—and let me tell you, no one ever wants to play Trivial Pursuit with me. I guess I just found it kind of funny that someone actually read the Encyclopedia, and came up with the same sorts of random factoids as I do.

Jacobs' journey is told through a series of abridged, paraphrased encyclopedia entries. Beginning with a-ak, and ending with zwieck, what we readers see is a witty, distilled commentary of the Encylopaedia Britannica as told through the eyes of one ordinary guy doing an extraordinary thing. Or, more accurately, extraordinary things. During his quest, Jacobs joins Mensa (one of my lifelong goals), meets Alex Trebek (I just want to get on Jeopardy), and ends up on a game show or two.

And here is what I suppose you could call the 'arc' of the book. Slowly, we get to see our author growing as a person. His internal arguments for, or against, different points in the Britannica begin to take a philosophical, almost scholarly tone, even when shadowed by difficulty—and I'm not just talking the reading load here. Jacobs also struggles with peer pressure, his own philosophies, and becoming a father for the first time.

Whether you consider yourself a knowledge junkie, or could cram all the trivia facts you know into a single fortune cookie, The Know it All is an inspiring read for the professor inside us all.

* (I do seem to find foreshadowing in my own life. For example: the other day, I was doing laundry, and spilt a bit of detergent on the floor. An hour later, due to a mistake on my part, the entire bottle of soap had puddled underneath the washing machine. Unfortunately, my first thought wasn't "oh no, it's going to ruin the floor!" Instead, it was, "foreshadowing!".)

Read an excerpt at the Author's website
Buy it on Amazon

Posted on July 12th, 2010

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