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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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2005, 400 pages

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Addled Brain Syndrome

Okay, I made that up. There's no such thing as addled brain syndrome. But I'm definitely suffering from something. As I vacuum up this information hour after hour, I find myself so overwhelmed that I have to take frequent breaks to walk around the office. Walk it off, as my gym teachers used to say. You only sprained that brain. It's not a fracture. Walk it off, son.

The reading is much, much harder than I expected. But at the same time, in some ways, it's strangely easier. In some ways, it's the perfect book for someone like me, who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines. Each essay is a bite-sized nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman's lurking right around the corner (by the way, the mythical Snowman's footprints are actually produced by running bears). Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities.

The changes are so abrupt and relentless, you can't help but get mental whiplash. You go from depressing to uplifting, from tiny to cosmic, from ancient to modern. There's no segue, no local news anchor to tell you, "And now, on the lighter side." Just a little white space, and boom, you've switched from theology to worm behavior. But I don't mind. Bring on the whiplash -- the odder the juxtapositions, the better. That's the way reality is -- a bizarre, jumbled-up Cobb salad. I love seeing the prophet Abraham rub elbows with Karl Abraham, a German shrink who theorized about the anal expulsive and phallic stages.

Oh yes, that's another thing. Sex. This came as a pleasant surprise to me. The Britannica may not be Cinemax, but it's got its fair share of randiness. I've learned, for instance, that Eskimos swap wives. Plus, the Achagua men have three to four spouses and flowers in the Acanthaceae family are bisexual. Yowza! That's some racy stuff. Hot. Hotter than the Schwertbad-Quelle sulfur spring. I expected the Britannica to be prudish, but it seems quite happy to acknowledge the seamy world below the belt.

And speaking of titillating R-rated material, my God -- the violence! It's extraordinary how blood-soaked our history is. One Persian politician was strangled by servants, another suffocated in a steam bath. Or consider poor Peter Abelard, an 11th-century Christian theologian who, judging from his miniature portrait, looks a bit like Steve Buscemi. Abelard came up with some interesting ideas -- namely that deeds don't matter, only intentions; in other words, the road to heaven is paved with good intentions. But how can I give much deep thought to that idea when the entry also discusses Abelard's love affair with his student Heloise, which ended rather badly: Abelard suffered castration at the order of Heloise's outraged uncle. Sweet Jesus! I'm guessing Heloise didn't get asked on a whole lot of dates after that one.

Sex, violence, MTV pacing -- all this makes my quest much more palatable. But I don't mean to give the wrong idea. As I said, it's hard. Excruciatingly hard. First, the vastness of it. I knew there was an ocean of information out there. But I didn't really comprehend what I was up against until I started trying to drink that ocean cup by cup. I'll be reading about Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and I'll get a list of the seven different ethnicities that comprise that city: Gallas, Gurages, Hareris, Tigres, Walamos, Somalis, and Dorses. Should I even try to memorize those? Six ethnicities I could handle, but seven? That's daunting.

The Britannica is not a book you can skim. This is a book you have to hunch over and pay full attention to, like needlepoint or splinter removal. It hurts my poor little head. Until now, I didn't realize quite how out of shape my brain had become. It's just not accustomed to this kind of thinking. I feel like I'm making it run a triathlon in ninety-degree heat when it's used to sitting in a hammock drinking mojitos. The math and science parts of my brain have gone particularly flabby since college. At most, I have to calculate the number of subway rides I have remaining on my little electronic Metrocard. That rarely requires quadratic equations. At my job, the toughest science I've encountered was the time I had to edit a few sentences about Botox for men. So when I read about acid-base reactions with conjugate bases and nonaqueous solvents, I'm mystified. I generally read this type of stuff again and again and just hope it'll sink in. It's the same strategy that American tourists in Europe employ when confronted with a non-English-speaking store owner. Umbrella. Um-brella! Um-BREL-la! Say it often and loud enough, and it'll click. But I forge on.

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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