Imagine reading the encyclopedia. Not just the World Book, but the King of Kings: the Encyclopedia Britannia. Imagine reading it from cover to cover – thousands of pages, on every topic from the Aardvark to Zulu culture. Could you do it? And if you did, what would you learn? What would you remember?
I'm not sure if I could, but I'm inspired to give it a try, now that I'm reading A.J. Jacobs's book, The Know It All, published by Thorndike Press in 2005. His disarmingly honest account of one man's attempt to climb that highest of intellectual mountains is both funny and thought provoking.
Learning fact after fact, many of them by turns startling, confusing and hilarious, he struggles not to bore his friends and family to tears by constantly barraging them with his new information. He frets that if he doesn't share some of the thousands of facts he's stuffing into his brain, his head will explode. He worries about the mountain of facts he's already forgetting, as well as the sheer volume of knowledge he never realized he didn't know.
Over the months, as he spends hours every day reading, he sees more and more connections, both large and small, between his new insights and the world around him. At the same time, the skepticism and disdain he receives from friends and colleagues sheds an interesting light on how our society views the quest for knowledge. To attempt to become smarter is a waste of time; more, it's seen by many as arrogant and vain. But he perseveres.
As he strains, day after day, to reclaim his childhood fantasy of being the smartest person in the world, Jacobs yearns to connect with other intellectuals. He joins Mensa, attends a college debating team, revisits his high school for a day, and tries to get a spot on Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? His insights on his experiences are both honest and witty. I found myself liking A. J., sympathizing with his quest, and rooting for him every page of the way.
Here's to A. J., and to all of us who want to open our brains and pour in all the knowledge we can. Good luck, A. J., wherever you are. When you reach Z, I'll be lifting a glass in your honor.