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The Know-it-All

I am reading a book called The Know-it-all, by A.J. Jacobs. As I recall, the J in AJ actually stands for Jacobs. This kind of thing bugs me.

It isn't the only thing about the book that bugs me.

It seems like this is a new format for personal journey books. Choose a "quest" and then write while you are on it. The rats book was of this type (but that one was better). This particular quest is the reading of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. AJ thinks it will improve his brain if he reads the whole thing and tries to absorb the information as well.

Of course the theory is flawed. Most of the people he mentions it to can see no point in it. And just about everyone is annoyed by Jacobs' constant references to obscure facts.

True to the nature of a confessional-quest book, Jacobs intersperses his factual journey with tales of his own life, in particular the efforts he and his wife Julie are making to have a baby. There is also the father-son competition. These tales provide a different thread to follow if one gets tired of the Napoleon references or the discourse on units of measurement.

It could be a terrific book, even given this ridiculous formulation. But there are problems. One is that, from the first page, there are the occasional improper uses of grammar or punctuation, which it seems a book on being smart should not have. There are also some interesting factual errors, which I admit come from the encyclopedia itself. One is about blue moons. AJ says the term comes from an atmospheric condition that colors the moon blue. Actually, "blue moon" refers to the second new moon in a month, according to no less of an authority than NASA, as well as many others. I don't know what the hell the atmosphere thing has to do with it.

Finally, AJ's sense of humor is wanting. The reviewers who are quoted on the back of the book found it "hilarious". I think I have laughed once and I am over half way through. Most of the time it seems like the humor is trying too hard. It doesn't flow right. IT also is clear that AJ is self-obsessed. SUre, he jokes about this. Doesn't make him any more likeable. Not like some self-obsessed writers I've read.

So I am irritated by it. Not enough to put the book down and not finish it. I usually finish books. But enough so that I read it and grumble or grind my teeth every couple of paragraphs. I will admit I have learned a few somewhat interesting things. But, unlike AJ, I won't be trying these facts out on the next unsuspecting person.

I bought two paperback books at the market yesterday. Junk reading. AJ will be getting less attention.


Judith Lautner
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January 2012


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