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Interview with A.J. Jacobs, Author of The Know-It-All (Part One)

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Reading The Know-It-All was one of the most enjoyable literary experiences I have had in the past two years for five reasons:

1. I found the concept riveting: Author A.J. Jacobs challenged himself to read the multi-volume Encyclopedia Britannica from start to finish. I found myself cheering him on, getting more involved in the story the further he got into the alphabet.

2. The author and I share some similarities, from having fathers with the same name, Arnold, to both thinking, at some point, we were smart and can become smarter through some educational project.

3. I am sucker for a well -done concept novel (See #1 above), and I like this book for the same reason I loved Word Freak, in which Stephen Fastis of the Wall Street Journal explored the world of competitive Scrabble by seeing how good he could get at that game. In that case I was reading the last part on a plane, and after it landed I did not want to get off since I first wanted to see how it all turned out. Now that’s dedication! 

As with Word Freak, the author explores fascinating questions like where the blurry line is drawn between knowledge and trivia, information that is useful and that which is not, and considers the consequences if your hobby becomes an eccentricity. If you liked Word Freak or the documentary Word Wars, also about Scrabble, or Wordplay, about crossword puzzles, I think you will like this book. 

4.  The book had some of the most intriguing, supportive blurbs I have seen in recent months, most notably this gem from Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and America (The Book): "The Know-It-All 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 encyclopedia?' Well done, A.J.”

5. The book has a great confessional quality to it, which reminds me a bit of the style of Toby Young, and not just because both have written for magazines. Both authors chronicle not only their adventures and their many instances of making an ass of themselves but also how it affects their family, friends and what others think of their deeds and misdeeds. Both also deal in their own way with the concept, later a fact, that they are going to become fathers and need to grow up.

For this first half of the interview I want to excerpt a few entries from the first half of the book:

P.T. Barnum: 'When he was eighty-one, P.T. 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.'

Book: 'The United Nations defines a book as a text that is at least forty-nine pages long. By that definition, the Britannica equals 683 books. Unsettling.'

Braille, Louis: 'Just as unsettling: the number of prodigies in the Britannica. Braille developed his writing system for the blind at age fifteen. Bentham — the one who later had himself muffified — was studying Latin at the age of four. (When I was four, I was studying the effects of shoving bananas up my nose.) At age five, Aleksandr Blog was writing memorable Russian poetry. If I had known about these whiz kids back when I thought I was the smartest boy in the world, I wonder if I would have seen them as compadres, or if it would have snapped me out of my dream.’

Deseret News: I always thought the name of Utah’s major newspaper was some sort of weird misspelling of the word “desert.” But no, Deseret is the “land of the honeybee,” according to the Book of Mormon. I guess I should have figured they would have caught a typo in the masthead after 154 years.

Scott Butki: I want to start by going back before you wrote the book. You said in the book that for a brief time in your childhood you thought you were a know-it-all genius. Was that part of the genesis of this book idea? 

A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely. When I was a kid, I was under the bizarre delusion that I was the smartest boy in the world. As I got older, I realized this, sadly, was not the case. Far from it. So Operation Britannica was a way to at least bump up my IQ a couple of points. 

Your dad also tried to read the Encyclopedia Britannica but stopped. Was that one reason you wanted to do it?

Yes, my dad made it up to the middle of the letter B, around the word “boomerang,” I think. I wanted to finish what he started and erase that black mark from our family history. I guess there was a little Oedipal competition going on. But my dad is too generous – he wasn’t jealous or threatened, just happy I was showing an interest in his beloved encyclopedias. 

I found the relationship between your father and you touching and it didn’t hurt that my dad was named Arnold. What did your dad and other family members think of the book?

Another Arnold! Excellent. It means ‘mighty as an eagle,’ by the way. My dad was very supportive. I was most worried about the reaction of my brother-in-law, Eric, who is the Harvard-educated nemesis in my book. He called me and said, 'Yes, I come off like a jerk, but at least you said that I was moderately good-looking.' That’s the key – appeal to their vanity. 

Why just the Encyclopedia Britannica? I mean if you really wanted to be Mr. Know-It-All wouldn’t you need to read dictionaries, memorize atlases, etc. Was that too much? 

It’s a good point. And some people said I should do a sequel where I read the entire Oxford English Dictionary from A to Z (it’s actually longer than the Britannica – 60 million words as compared to the Britannica’s mere 44 million). But there was something clean and self-contained about just reading the one thing. I wanted to climb the Everest of knowledge, not the whole Himalayan chain.  

At what point did this idea switch from personal project to book project? Were you stopping and writing entries all along the way?

I wanted to read the Britannica, but I knew from the beginning that it’d help me to have a tangible goal at the end – a book. If I didn’t have a book deadline, I’d probably still be somewhere in the letter 'G.' I was writing entries as I went along – I wanted to give the book a journal-like feel. 

Similar question for your next book – what is the idea behind the book and when did it switch from personal project to actual book?

The next book is called The Year of Living Biblically, and it’s about my attempt to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as possible – from the famous ones like the Ten Commandments and Be Fruitful and Multiply right on down to stoning adulterers and growing a huge beard. That one was always both a personal project and actual book. 

Have you read Word Freak? In that book author Stephen Fastis (of the WSJ) interviews Scrabble players in an attempt to better his game. They both alternate between serious and humorous, the important and the arcane. 

Yes, I did read and enjoy Word Freak. I’m not nearly at his level of play, but I did memorize all the two-letter words to help my Scrabble game. I just learned that ZA (which means pizza) was added to the Scrabble Dictionary recently. So I hope to use that very soon.  

Have you seen the movie Wordplay? I watched it while reading your book and since both address the crossword puzzle tournament I was just wondering your take on it. In your book you seem dismissive of crossword players but I bet they’d be equally dismissive of you.  

I haven’t seen Wordplay yet. But I’d like to. I hope I wasn’t too dismissive of them. I covet their knowledge of four-letter words with lots of vowels. I tried to make my portrayal of the tournament loving and gentle mocking, much like the chapter about my trip to the Mensa convention. 

Have you read Toby Young's book(s)? Between his adventures in magazines and his talking about his wife's pregnancy in terms most people wouldn't use… well, his book came to mind as I read yours. I interviewed him previously:

I actually haven’t read Toby Young’s books. I’d like to someday. Plus, I hear his book parties are great.  

I want to ask you a question I asked him: How much did you let your wife read what you wrote and how much did you change the book because of that? Because, like him, you make yourself out to be quite an idiot, at times, which I find somewhat charming. 

I let her read the whole thing before submitting it. She did have veto power, but she didn’t exercise it once. She’s startlingly understanding. 

To be continued…

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://spatulaforum.blogspot.com/ Nik

    Good interview – I really enjoyed Jacobs’ book myself, and his gentle good humor really shines through in it. It’s the kind of book that could seem unbearably smug and pretentious done wrong.

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks a lot.
    The second part was published this morning here.