Excerpt from The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Know-It-All

One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

By A. J. Jacobs

The Know-It-All

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My newfound knowledge bubbles up in my brain at strange times. In the elevator up to work, I stood behind an Asian man who happened to be bald. That's odd, I thought to myself. According to the encyclopedia, baldness in Asians is rare. It's rare in Asians and Native Americans. I guess what we have here is one of the unlucky few Asians who couldn't hold on to his follicles. I feel like giving him my condolences.

 

Barnum, P. T.

When he was eighty-one, Barnum fell gravely ill. At his request, a New York newspaper printed his obituary in advance so that he might enjoy it. That's brilliant. In fact, that could be a nice new revenue stream for newspapers -- they could sell obits to people on their deathbeds. The encyclopedia is giving me lots of good ideas.

 

bearbaiting

A popular form of entertainment in 16th-century England. A bear was tied to a stake, and trained dogs were set upon it. Other variations included a bull tied to a stake and a pony with an ape tied to his back. Sounds like Fox has itself a new TV show!

 

bedlam

My growing collection of facts keeps overlapping with my life. I knew it would happen, but I'm surprised at the frequency. Several times an hour, a little internal "ding" goes off in my mind. I step into the bathtub for a shower, and I flash to the 17th-century health clinics where people stayed in baths for days at a time. I have my cereal, and I'm reminded of the world's longest breakfast table, in Battle Creek, Michigan. I read about a Boy Scouts controversy in the newspaper and I think of the scout movement's founder, Robert Baden-Powell, who also, incidentally, pioneered the use of hot-air balloons in military spying.

These little sparks happen so often that I couldn't possibly work them all into conversation. Which, I'm sure, is a great relief to those around me. But I can mention some of them -- and I do. Like today at the office.

I wander in to chat with my fellow editor Mark. Mark is the office intellectual -- a tall, brilliant Texan with a floppy Hugh Grant haircut. He's been working at Esquire an astounding fourteen years, a fact that causes plenty of amusement among the rest of the staff. "Mark, weren't you Hemingway's editor?" "Mark, were you at the Rita Hayworth photo shoot?" That kind of thing.

So I make my way into Mark's office, which is difficult, since he hasn't thrown away a book in his fourteen years. The floor is covered with waist-high piles of volumes by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. It's bedlam in there (a word, by the way, that comes from Bethlehem Royal Hospital, a notorious London insane asylum).

"So that was a great event last night," I say.

"A really great event," agrees Mark.

The previous night we had been to an Esquire function that featured a speech by a budding politician named Cory Booker. Cory spoke passionately about the inner city, and ended his speech with a long, inspiring quote from James Baldwin.

"God, you have to love that James Baldwin quote."

"One of Esquire's own, that James Baldwin," says Mark. Having been at Esquire since the quill pen era, Mark has also become the office historian.

"Really?" I say. "I didn't know that."

"Yes, Esquire published 'The Fire Next Time.' "

Huh? I had just read the Baldwin essay in the encyclopedia, and I happen to remember that "The Fire Next Time" -- Baldwin's groundbreaking article on civil rights -- first appeared in The New Yorker. Usually, I keep my mouth clamped and listen in awe to Mark. He's a great talker -- he often speaks in full paragraphs -- and he knows his stuff, especially about magazine history. But this particular fact he did not know. And this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

From The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.  Pages 7-30 of the hardcover edition.  Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs

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