The Know-It-All

It's difficult to read A. J. Jacobs's The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2004) without hearing, not so far in the back of one's mind, Joe Queenan's extremely dyspeptic review, which appeared in last week's NYTBR. As you probably know, A. J. Jacobs is a thirty-something magazine writer (Entertainment Weekly, Esquire) who dreamed up the stunt of consuming the entirety of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and then writing up the experience. Perhaps if he had omitted his altogether unjustified subtitle, Mr Jacobs might not have excited Mr Queenan's wrath. (That subtitle succumbs to the fashion for big concept/little book titles that will soon give us French Fries: the Vegetable that Saved Civilization.) There is very little searching for knowledge in The Know-It-All. On the contrary, the writer simply swallows, or attempts to swallow, whatever information the encyclopedia puts in front of him - and in the encyclopedia's rigidly alphabetized order at that. What Mr Jacobs has to say about his new learning makes it very clear that the subject of his book is A. J. Jacobs, both as an individual funny guy/smart aleck/urban neurotic and as the representative of a generation. In faulting Mr Jacobs for not having been sufficiently serious and erudite, or, in the alternative, for not having dreamed up a completely novel shtick, Mr Queenan betrays his misunderstanding of the book's aim and appeal. That he would disapprove of the aim and remain insensible of the appeal is somewhat beside the point.

Let's imagine the kind of serious book that Mr Queenan seems to be looking for. It would be a book in which the entry for Casanova eschewed recommending that librarians make a poster boy out of the famous lover as a way of sexing up their profession, which is all that Mr Jacobs has to offer. Our hypothetical entry might not assume that you already know that Casanova spent his declining years as the librarian in a Bohemian castle - where, apparently, he had plenty of time on his hands, or at least enough to produce six volumes of memoirs - but it would probably mention his exciting escape from prison in Venice, and his ringside seat at the drawing-and-quartering of Robert Damiens, the disturbed fellow who tried to kill Louis XV in 1757. It would offer an appraisal of the Memoirs's literary quality. But who would want to read this interesting paragraph? Not Mr Jacobs's target audience, that's for sure. For the whole point of The Know-It-All is to assure its readers that, while there's a lot of knowledge out there of which they're totally ignorant - they don't even know that they don't know it - none of it is very important. So there's no need to feel guilty about having studied popular culture instead of art history.

The Know-It-All is an entertainment, and, pace Joe Queenan, it's pretty funny. Forty years ago, it would have appeared as a novel written in the spirit of Lucky Jim. Hopeless schlumpf takes on impossible task, fails, but gets girl. Now it's a memoir, and the hopeless schlumpf - a persona that Mr Jacobs finds it useful to adopt from time to time - keeps his wife and wins a child, which is a good thing because having children, even in prospect, is more satisfying and meaningful than being the smartest person in the world could ever be - not that he's really in the running. Although almost everything that appears in The Know-It-All runs on a tangent from the Britannica, the longer entries are about the ways in which the project of reading it alters the author's behavior, which are rarely for the better. Let us consider three entries in the chapter devoted to 'E.' Earth: After a dinner with friends at which Mr Jacobs has somewhat fatuously disclosed his erudition regarding the ever-lengthening day (over millions and billions of years), his wife, the long-suffering but extremely cool and well-organized Julie, suggests, "Honey, I think you need to restrain yourself a little with the facts. ... I'm just saying, you seem to be losing your ability to interact with human beings." "So you're saying that I once had ability to interact with human beings?" Eraser: Mr Jacobs cannot remember the Hanukkah present that he took to the office, and bluffs (a prevision of the cheating that will appear in Ethical Relativism). "You've got too much in your keppe," says Julie, before reminding him that she gave him an aromatherapy candle. Eunuchs:

Julie's not pleased with the Britannica. She had a few minutes to spare and decided to see what it had to say about her favorite movie star, Tom Cruise. She slid out the C volume and found the answer: nothing.

"What kind of business is this?" she says, pointing to a page with illustrator George Cruikshank and a cruise missile. "No Tom Cruise? He's had a huge impact on our culture. Huge."

"They're a little light on the pop culture," I say.

"Weird," she says.

And the phenomenon referred to on page 69 is not the 'procession of the equinoxes.' It's the precession. Typo? I suspect not.

That's why, in the end, I share Joe Queenan's discomfort. In one of his most withering zingers, Mr Queenan writes, "A graduate of the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan and Brown University, Jacobs is a prime example of that curiously modern innovation: the pedigreed simpleton." Ouch. But this lets Dalton and Brown off much too easily. If Mr Jacobs is a genuine simpleton, he ought not to have been graduated from either school. I'd be fascinated to see a transcript of Mr Jacobs's coursework at Brown (he says at one point that he specialized in 'intro' courses). That art history didn't figure in his program is betrayed by his ignorance, until his brush with the encyclopedia, of the significance of Aachen, the Rhineland spa where Charlemagne built his favorite palace, the chapel of which is a vibrant exemplar of the transformation of classical into Romanesque architectural style. (See Figures 391 and 392 of the Fourth Edition of H. W. Janson's History of Art, which I take it is still the principal survey text.) But I've seen plenty of evidence in support of the proposition that even the best schools aren't teaching much these days, or at least aren't forcing reluctant students to learn anything not immediately appealing. Aside from noble holdovers such as Columbia College's great books seminar, required of all liberal arts freshmen, the idea that there are certain things that a college graduate ought to know, certain things that a college graduate ought to know how to do, has passed out of vogue. One bright and highly-credentialed young person startled the company here not too long ago by pointing to a fat tome on the shelf and asking "Who's Prowst?" 'Pedigreed simpletons,' meanwhile, are astonishing the partners at Wall Street law firms with their inability to write clearly. 

I have a theory about how our educational system broke down; it has lots to do with the Sixties radicals I went to school with, with the political correctness that they prioritized, and with the inevitable rise of a correspondingly radical right. End of discussion - literally! Radicalism can be lots of fun - the scope for shocking alone keeps clever minds busy - but it is always irresponsible, because it professes to understand things that remain opaque, and is prone to overlook the puzzling fact that no two people are quite alike or see the world in quite the same way. I'm not saying that academia ought to have been tougher or stricter with Mr Jacobs's cohort, but I can see that it wasn't very inspiring.

There was also, I recall, a lot of muttering about 'relevance' in the old days. It always seemed to me that higher education was the one place where relevance oughtn't to matter, oughtn't even to be talked of, not out of reverence but for fear of missing out. How can you judge the relevance of something until you've gotten familiar with it? The simple act of familiarization may alter your idea of relevance, particularly if you've been studying a field that has attracted inquiring minds for generations. We have already learned what happens when the guardians of culture abandon the past: we have only a fraction of the plays written by the great Athenian quartet of classical playwrights. Early Christians dismissed the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes as irrelevant or worse. Today's educated people disagree, of course, but nothing can be done about the loss. It is best to resist trying to decide for future generations without having been asked.

For my part, I've always been happy with The Columbia Encyclopedia, which comes in one, but only one, great big book. (October 2004)

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