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AJ Jacobs’ The Know-It-All

November 4, 2004

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Cultural observers from Allan Bloom to {Jacques Barzun} have elaborately charted the great dumbing-down of Western life. {If our public intellectuals have a single cri de coeur, it might rest on the convinction that we’ve turned in our everyday pursuits away from the cultured life and from erudition. Even the reigning self-help brands – think Dr. Phil, the “For Dummies” books and their chicken soup ilk – rely on a certain folksy studiousness. Given time and world enough, all these life manuals, highbrow and otherwise, suggest with a little learning we’d lead happier, more satisfied lives.}

Enter AJ Jacobs, an Esquire editor with the most stunningly banal grasp of popular culture this side of Jay Leno. Jacobs is tired of feeling dumb so he decides to spend a year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover and write a book about it. The premise is great fodder to examine the gaps in our knowledge: Does book learning make us smarter, better people? Or is its use limited to dinner party patter and our own fevered status anxiety? Unfortunately, the author’s answers are not as intriguing as the questions.

In The Know-It-All, the journal of his educational misadventure, Jacobs’ overarching desire to be smarter is crowded by his parochial self-indulgences. The imprint of his personal life — battling, alternately, a clever in-law, his father’s towering achievements, and his inability to conceive a child — feels like it’s present merely for effect. Interspersed between entries are a series of more interesting episodes in which Jacobs tries to test out his newly acquired brain. He interviews Alex Trebek, appears on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, joins MENSA, attends a crossword puzzle tournament — he even dives into a speed reading seminar. At parties and in the office, he discovers his newfound trivia earns him little praise. What’s more, the smart folk he encounters are — cue the Eureka moment — actually quite unfulfilled. With the focus off himself, Jacobs is a more entertaining observer of what passes for highbrow culture these days. He takes a humanizing view of the sad geeks in his midst and never caves to anti-intellectualism for easy laughs.

But everywhere else, like a stand-up punch drunk on his own material, Jacobs rarely meets a cheap laugh he doesn’t like. The every-other-line gags are delivered with a tin ear. Behold the author’s faux-shock as he begins to {plumb} the Britannica: “What other incorrect ideas do I have? Is the sun actually cold? Is the sky orange? Is Keanu Reeves a brilliant actor?”

Or consider Jacobs’ perusal of the “orgasm” entry: “They can be experienced from infancy. What? Did I have orgasms when I was an infant? Did I smoke a tiny cigarette afterward?”

The promise of Jacobs’ journey through the Britannica — that he’ll unearth curious gems and bits of intellectual driftwood — remains mostly unfulfilled. Many readers will be familiar with Jacobs’ “discoveries” (Heloise and Abelard, Thomas Paine, Friedrich Engels), and others will be disappointed by his plodding over the Britannica generalities he finds bewildering: science is complex, history is bloody, geniuses are eccentric and artists are tortured. He knows his project ultimately amounts to “channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system.”

In the end, Jacobs makes the predictable admission that his reading effort was all about the journey, not the destination. Which is funny, because whether he’s waxing sophomoric about gerbils, thinking about the Britannica during sex, reading it in a fertility clinic, or slaying bugs with it — this book really was, for this reader, all about lurching to a finishing-line collapse.

Jeff MacIntyre ( writes on ideas and popular culture from Vancouver.

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