The father of novelist Louisa May Alcott was famous in his own right. A radical reformer full of unorthodox ideas, he opened several schools for children. The schools had a particularly unusual discipline system: teachers received punishment at the hands of the offending pupil. The idea was that this would instill a sense of shame in the mind of the errant child. Now, this is a brilliant concept. I have a long list of teachers I wish I could have spanked, among them my fifth-grade instructor, Ms. Barker, who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale, which earned us a humiliating $1.53.
I knew he was the 19th-century author of the famous rags-to-riches novels. I didn't know he turned to writing after being kicked out of a Massachusetts church for allegations of sexual misconduct with local boys. I told you -- the Britannica can be a gossip rag.
One of my biggest challenges is figuring out how to shoehorn my newfound knowledge into conversations. Naturally, I want to show off, but I can't just start reeling off facts or I'll be as annoying as an Acarina, a type of mite that, incidentally, copulates by transferring little packets of sperm called spermatophores.
And since I've read only entries in the very early As, my new topics of expertise don't come up that often. You'd be surprised at how many days can go by without one of my friends mentioning aardvarks, much less aardwolves -- an African carnivore that the Britannica generously describes as "harmless and shy."
But today I had my first successful reference. Well, I don't know if it was actually successful. Okay, it was spectacularly unsuccessful. A total failure. But it was a start.
I'm in my office with a writer, and I need to give him a deadline for his piece.
"Can you get it to me Tuesday?"
"How about Wednesday?" he says.
"Okay. But Wednesday is the latest. Otherwise, I'll be angry. I'll have to rip you more assholes than an abalone."
"Abalones are a type of snail with five assholes."
"They've got a row of holes in their shells, and five of them serve as outlets for waste."
Silence. Annoyed look.
I thought it was an amusing little tidbit, a nice twist on the cliché, a clever way to make it clear that I really needed the article. Instead, I came off like a colossal outlet for waste.
I figure it'll be easier to show off my increasing intelligence in a relaxed social environment. So when Julie and I go to her friends' house for dinner that night, I am prepared to dazzle. We arrive at Shannon and David's apartment, exchange cheek kisses and "Great to see you's."
"Brrrrr," says Julie as she unbundles her several layers of winter wear.
"A little nippy out there, huh?" says Shannon.
"Not quite as cold as Antarctica's Vostok Station, which reached a record 128 degrees below zero," I reply. "But still cold."
Shannon chuckles politely.
We sit down in the living room and Shannon starts telling Julie about her upcoming vacation in Saint Bart's.
"I'm so jealous," says Julie.
"Yeah, I can't wait to get some sun," Shannon says. "Look how white I am."
"Albinism affects one in twenty thousand Americans," I say.
Shannon doesn't quite know how to respond to that one.
"Anyhoo," says Julie, "where are you staying?"
I probably shouldn't have said my albinism fact, but I can't help it. I'm so loaded up with information that when I see a hole -- even if it's a small hole, even a microscopic hole, the size of an abalone's butt hole -- I have to dive right in.
From The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs. Pages 7-30 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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