Please see the first part of this two-part interview with A.J. Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All, before reading this part.
In short, Jacobs read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in an attempt to become more knowledgeable. Along the way he wrote thoughts on what he was “learning.”
Orgasm: They can be experienced from infancy. What? Did I orgasm when I was an infant? Did I smoke a tiny cigarette afterward?
Oyster: Oysters can change sex according to the temperature of the water. I always knew there was something emasculating about warm baths.
Poe, Edgar Allen: He married his cousin when she was Thirteen. Sort of the Jerry Lee Lewis of his day but with more interest in Gothic imagery.
Reproduction: The bandicoot male has a two-tipped penis, and the female a double-slotted vagina, so they can have a little orgy without sending out invitations.
Riot: You only need three rambunctious people to legally qualify as a riot. That’s all. So Julie, our kid, and I could hold our very own riot.
Scott: What was your reaction to The New York Times review of your book by Joe Queenan, that was quite critical? When I just read it my reaction was that the reviewer was taking you way too seriously. But let me ask you for the record.
A.J.: Yes, I was surprised. I found it odd that the reviewer believed that I actually thought I was going to become the smartest person in the world, whereas I thought my book’s absurdly hyperbolic subtitle might have been a tip-off. So I think your assessment is exactly right. Also, in the interest of Britannnica-esque accuracy, I should mention that The New York Times also ran a positive review by Janet Maslin.
(Jacobs also wrote a response to Queenan's review, titled, "I Am Not A Jackass," that was printed in the Times.)
Did you really believe reading these books would make you smarter or did you know — as I think you acknowledge — that it’s just filling your mind with lots of useless unrelated trivia and knowledge.
Well, I knew I wasn’t going to become Albert Einstein. Or even Alfred Einstein (Albert’s cousin and a noted music historian in his own right).
I don’t think knowledge and intelligence are the same thing. But after my journey, I’ve decided they are, in fact, distantly related. The metaphor that resonates with me is that knowledge is the fuel, and intelligence is the engine. The more knowledge you have, the easier it is to make connections and come up with creative solutions. At least that’s what I tell myself.
You talk, in the entry about juggling, about how you wanted to have at least one major project, of the type that would garner you your own entry. Is this next book the chronicling of one such project?
It certainly felt like a major project while I was doing it. It was probably even more challenging than the encyclopedia, which involved no uncomfortable facial hair growth. But as I said in that juggling entry, I’ll never create a vaccine or open a trade route, so ‘major’ is a relative term.
Would you agree that this book, in addition to serving as an odd summary of the encyclopedia, also serves as a memoir of sorts?
Yes, I wanted to make it a mix of Cliffs Notes to the encyclopedia and memoir. If you make the facts personal, I think — or hope — they are more interesting to readers. If I can relate ‘Freud’ to my relationship with my dad, or ‘Kafka’ to my relationship with my wife, then it’s not just a collection of facts. There’s a story to go along with it.
Would you recommend others duplicate your task?
Well, if you want to save a lot of time, you can read my book, of course. (Now available in paperback!) But I have had a few intrepid readers email me that they are going to give it a shot. One guy said he was going to read the Encyclopedia Judaica. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the Britannica, but there is also 36 pages on Portuguese literature (no offense to the Portuguese, but nine or 10 pages would have done me just fine). So I wish them luck.
Are you still working at Esquire? How do you balance your magazine job and your book jobs?
I’m still at Esquire. I balance it by having a very nice boss.
If you could recommend one letter, what would it be?
I’d have to go with 'Q.' First, it’s so short. Just a couple of hundred pages. Second, it has another great two-letter word – QA, a type of Babylonian liquid measurement. I don’t think it’s in the Scrabble dictionary yet, but I’m lobbying for it.