Sunday, January 31, 2010


... which is a book by a youngish man who took approx one year to read all the way through the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It's called The Know-It-All: One Man's HUMBLE QUEST to become the SMARTEST PERSON in the World by A.J. Jacob. 33,000 pages, 65,000 articles, 9,500 contributors, 24,000 images, a total of some 44 million words.

I hadn't heard about it before seeing it on the "Humour" (haha -- of course I actually mean HUMOR, right? coz I was in the US. But I am not yet ready to give up my birth-orthography) shelf in a Barnes & Noble near my sister's home in Pennsylvania. Maybe in Vestal, NY -- I forget. I was trying NOT to buy anything because books are the heaviest item in my luggage and I am determined to morph into a light-luggage traveller in my twilight years (I believe in announcing the twilight as early as possible so that I've got used to the idea well before I really need to). So one of my methods of NOT buying a book, is to find at least one small something to buy -- which may turn out to be a book -- so that I don't leave the store empty-handed and ALSO so that I don't fall for some gigantic Leviathan of a coffee-table tome just because the Book-Buying-Slot in my psyche has been left empty. If you know what I mean? I fill the pre-existing empty book-buying-space in my head quickly and with a small, light book, in order to lower the chances of finding something much heavier and more expensive to squeeze in there.

Okay. So having seen it, I also saw a CD-ROM offering to improve my memory. Hmmm! TOUGH CHOICE!! So I went with the memory CD (more of this later). But all the way home from B&N and for the rest of the week, I kept feeling I NEEDED to read that Know-It-All book. You see, like many millions of other bipedal mammals around the world, I too have hungered after that very quest, to read all the way through the Enc.Brit. My sisters and I, three of us, each have our personal set of the books. I got mine in the late '90s because a very dear friend had left me Rs 25,000 as a bequest when she died of cancer -- it was a completely unexpected windfall and rather than use it up on groceries and rent I wanted to staple the money down in some way that I would always cherish. I knew that she would have wholly approved because she had one of the brightest, liveliest minds amongst the friends I've had over the years, and believed passionately in the notion of knowledge as an end in itself.

On my way back through New York, I had a few hours to spare before meeting up with my friend Kristen at her apartment in Manhattan. I knew exactly where I would find a B&N. So I took in a movie, visited another store at which I bought gifts for my niece and her new husband, then went into the B&N on 18th St and 5th (World's Largest Book Store -- and apparently the original B&N), sailed up to the information counter and explained that I wanted a book whose name and author I didn't know (I hadn't begun my Memory Expansion course yet!) -- but I DID know what it was about. To his credit, he didn't blink or even look mildly surprised, but listened courteously as I said "... by someone who read all the way through the Britannica ..." and bing! -- "Yes," he said, "I know that book -- upstairs, in the Humour section -- " Then he looked it up on his computer and I had the name and title.

The front cover sports a recommendation from Jon Stewart: "... is a hilarious book and quite an impressive achievement. I've always said, why doesn't someone put out a less complete version of the encylopedia? Well done, A.J." And you know what? For once I can say I agree with that recommendation. It's a pleasant, friendly and cruising-speed sort of read and at the end of it, you know a thing or two that you maybe didn't at the beginning. Naturally, it helps that I love having my own edition of the Enc.Brit., that I enjoy using it and that I have believed for a long time that it is a brilliant way keep knowledge captive in the house in a form that will continue to work even when the power fails and the internet is down and the laptop's batteries are dead. But the EB eulogy-dimension aside, it's also just a warm and human story.

Alongside the gentle reeling out of facts, the author throws out a couple of hooks to keep us reading. One is his and his wife's quest to conceive a child and the other is his desire to show that there are SOME practical applications to being an EB reader: i.e., appearing on game shows. Well, not just any game show but Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And also Jeopardy -- but he disqualifies himself from Jep because he had interviewed the show's host prior to applying to appear on the show, not realizing that would be enough to invalidate his eligibility.

As it happens, I'm a WWTBAM fan. I've never watched it on TV, but it's one of the things I do on long-haul flights -- I play obsessively on the in-flight entertainment system. So far, after eight or nine such flights I have only ONCE made it to the top prize (it's the British edition of the quiz so many of the questions are UK based). I never know any of the wretched sports and local trivia questions and anyway, who am I kidding? My general knowledge is so abysmal that the other day, I sent a package to a friend in Coimbatore, and was shocked that it took 10 days to reach him. The reason? I believed C'tore was in KERALA, not TAMIL NADU!!! Aaaargh. So ... yes, it took its time getting there. And yes, I have a great deal of Swiss Cheese in my mental larder.

But I like to play nevertheless. So for me, this book had that bated-breath quality that I know so well from my in-flight activities -- and no, of COURSE I'm not going to tell you what happens! They do succeed in having a child, BTW. That's on the back cover so I'm not giving away any suspense here and besides, in my world, well ... reproduction is just not a red-button issue, right?

Along the way the author enrolls with MENSA and tells us that he gets in because of his SAT scores, but when he sits for the regular test anyway, he flunks (doesn't lose his membership however). This too resonates with me: in the very distant past -- like when I was twelve -- my school discovered that I had a high IQ and made a minor fuss over me (it was forbidden to reveal scores in those days so I have no idea). But that was 44 years ago and now my IQ is below tree-shrew-level. So I could enjoy this about the book too: recognizing in someone else that weirdly embarrassing desire for validation. The endearing thing about this account is that it could so easily have been radioactive with ego but instead is only mildly self-congratulatory. I don't know whether he was trying especially hard or not, but I found his account modest in a believable, non-phony way.

I enjoyed the tid-bits of data he shared -- Neat's Foot Oil is made from the hooves of cattle; Descartes had an obsession with cross-eyed women, and yes, the Fibonacci series continues to be a very cool thing to think about. I also noted tiny anomalies -- the god Kama is an "angel"?? No way. I should look it up in my edition of the EB to see whether it's in the book or in Jacob's interpretation of what the book says. Most of all, I enjoyed the slow coasting through that sea of information, felt glad to known now that it was worth doing and also relieved to feel no special urge to do it, now that I had sampled its pleasures through this book.

And now to turn to the Memory Expansion CD ... you know what? It was (a) a gyp because it's much too breezy and truncated to be of any real worth and (b) I've taken way too long over this book-report and (c) I'm still working my way through the exercises. I'll get back with a complete report once I can tell you whether or not I can remember my telephone number and the locations of Indian cities.


Paul said...

So that's what the magical figure is. I often used to wonder. You're 56.
I had a fellow student in college who thought the way to get through the civil service exam was to learn by heart the G.K. texts brought out by various publishers. Poor fellow, couldn't quite make it.
Then there have been a few who got through the exam and declined to join. Like Sashi Kumar of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai (former T.V. anchor).Was selected in 1975, but declined to join. And V.Rajakrishnan of the Institute of English, Trivandrum. I admire them. For realizing that the Service is not the be all and end all of existence.

Talking about the EB, I'm reminded of Ayyappa Panicker, who once casually remarked, "The sea of knowledge is vast. But the ocean of the unknown is vaster still."

I felt it was a quote worth remembering (even without a memory enhancing CD)

marginalien said...

I'm very free with revealing my age! So you could have asked and it would have been revealed. I'll be 57 in June this year ... assuming that I make it to the date, haha.

As for the enhanced memory course, I've still not got around to writing about it. There's been very little time to spare in the past couple of weeks -- never mind improving my memory, it's been a battle just to remember to wake up!

Ppaul said...

Well, I wasn't exactly dying to find out !! Ha..Ha..