Knowing it all isn’t the same as remembering it all

In A.J. Jacobs’ journey through the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, the same question is raised: will he actually know more for having read every volume and will he actually be smarter?

Some of the experts he asks say no but Jacobs finds gems of wisdom from the tome. At least one very smart person he knows calls his quest very American, very noble. That’s a nice sheen to put on a year of obsessive reading of very heavy books.

The Know-It-All follows the year Jacobs spent reading the micro and macro volumes of Britannica. A chapter for almost every letter, the memoir is structured like an encyclopedia – many little installments listed alphabetically with several longer sections that relate to Jacobs’ life around that time.
One benefit is that his insults become more impressive. In talking with a writer he states Wednesday is the deadline, otherwise he’ll be so angry he’ll have to rip the guy more assholes than an abalone. After meeting with silence, he explains that abalones are a type of snails with five assholes, actually a row of holes on the shells of which five of them serve as outlets for waste. At least he is self-aware.
I thought it was an amusing little tidbit, a nice twist on the cliche, a clever way to make it clear that I really needed the article. Instead, I came off looking like a colossal outlet for waste.
Jacobs has a very amusing way to turning a phrase, as seen above. I think it his distinctive point of view that made the pages turn so easily. He and his wife are trying to get pregnant and often turn to the various fertility gods and goddesses Jacobs learns about to help their cause. He also tries various mating rituals that he reads about, such as dance of the blue-footed booby.
As much as I enjoyed learning how his life was affected and influenced by this onerous task, I really enjoyed the more informative sections in which he describes a particularly interesting bit of information. For example:

“The voice has so rarely been heard, that the animal is supposed to be voiceless; but it is capable of low call notes and moans.” Good to know next time I’m playing with kids: “A cow says moo, a cat says meow, the giraffe says [imitate nonsexual moan here].”
Not the cute creatures we’ve been spoon-fed by the media. Elves in traditional folklore sat on people’s chests while they slept to give them bad dreams. They also stole human children and substituted deformed fairy children. Wonder if Santa is really a crack dealer.
I appreciate the Jacobs wanted to best his father at something. His dad had begun reading Britannica and made it to the mid-Bs before giving up due to his busy schedule. I remember having a complete Britannica at some point in my childhood. It was dipped into when needed – this was pre-internet obviously. Most times, nearby articles would catch my eye and a hour or two disappeared.
But reading this book and being titillated by all these facts makes me want to have a shelf full of reference books to peruse. Clicking through links on the web can be entertaining but I do prefer the tactile aspects to handling books.
Of course, if I had a choice, I would get the eleventh edition from 1911.

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