Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Whaddya know?

The Know-It-All, by A.J. Jacobs (Arrow, 2006)

It seems to be a fairly common symptom of the early mid-life crisis in the Western male; a gradual acknowledgement of one's own cultural inadequacy and laziness. Part of the reason I started this blog was to keep track of what exactly I was watching, reading, listening to; and also to force myself to consume the cultural slushpile with a little more critical rigour than I'd been applying in recent years. If I know I'm going to write a few hundred words about something, I'll pay more attention.

A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, had similar feelings of intellectual insufficiency, and decided to remedy them. He was a bright boy, possessed in his teenage years by the hardly unique assumption that he was the smartest kid in the world. Once he started writing about celebrity dross however, he lost his intellectual compass a little, and forgot a lot of the important stuff. So he began reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Not consulting the damn thing, note; reading it. A to Z.

It's an impressive task to set oneself, but immediately the car alarms go off in the street outside. Pardon my cynicism, but why would a journalist (especially a male journalist in his mid-30s, who's doing OK in consumer mags but isn't really perceived as an author as such) do such a thing? To write a book about it, maybe? So, from the start, the purity of the quest is compromised. He's doing this for the same mixed motives that persuade Bill Bryson to go on long walks; it's good for you, but it also provides material. Jacobs' NYC Jewish schtick provides the rest, with a few dashes of Nick Hornby, P.J. O'Rourke and maybe Bryson himself.

That said, it's a good idea, and provides a handy structure to the book. Jacobs starts on 'A', and you know (at least, you hope) he'll make it past 'Zola' by the time the story ends. En route, he uses the various entries as hooks upon which he can hang amusing nuggets of trivia (very Bryson); and also recounts various family anecdotes, as well as the saga of his and his wife's fertility traumas (hello Hornby, or if we're in a sour mood, Ben Elton). In addition, he meets various Mensans and other bright folk, ponders the distinction between 'intelligence' and 'knowledge', and applies to go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

The devil, however is in the details. At this point, Jacobs would tell you, in a mock-casual aside, who coined that cliche. Or would he? As you follow his journey of 44 million words, you start to wonder.

For example, many of the nuggets by which he claims to be astonished are, surely, pretty run of the mill stuff, especially when one considers that he's a hack specialising in pop culture. Rene Lacoste was a top tennis player before he became a sportswear mogul. The Lumiere Brothers made the first real motion picture. Madonna's middle name is Louise. Coriander and cilantro are the same thing. Nobody is really sure how the Oscar got its name. Rasputin was poisoned, shot and stabbed before being pushed through a hole in the ice. This is all stuff that would scrape a 'C' in the trivia GCSE. Semi-serious pub quizzers would laugh with derision if these arose during a match. Jacobs had never even heard of Kool Herc, the man who has as much claim as anyone to have invented hip-hop; but at least he has the grace to be embarrassed by that one.

What's worse, with this massive work of reference at hand, is that there are straightforward goofs here. Avogadro (of number sequence fame) and Sartre (of pipesmoking existentialism fame) get their names misspelled. Trotsky, we learn, was killed "by an axe murderer". No, it was an icepick; not a distinction that would have bothered the former Mr Bronstein, but a fact known by such polymaths as The Stranglers and Salma Hayek. The "ae" in the book's title is ascribed by Jacobs to "apparently Greek-inspired spelling". Well, no, that's just how "encyclopaedia" is spelled in British English.

Indeed, Jacobs' grasp of cultures beyond the boundaries of the United States seem shaky to say the least. His encounter with Miscellany maestro Ben Schott (Jacobs goes tooled up with a few factoids on how the two Englishes differ) is a masterpiece of discomfort and embarrassment. Schott, of course, knows that fruit machines are also called one-armed bandits; for Jacobs, the fact that one-armed bandits are also called fruit machines is an eye-opener of Darwinian proportions.

I hate to make generalisations, and I apologise to any inhabitants of the former colonies here, but is this something to do with Jacobs being American? You see, in many ways, I'm very similar to him: same age, Jewish, middle-class but slightly bohemian upbringing, pissed away university, ended up in publishing, realise we don't know enough important stuff. But it's only when he starts talking about baseball that I feel myself bowing to his superior knowledge. And even I knew that baseball was originally derived from rounders, which was news to Jacobs.

I know there are plenty of well-rounded, inquisitive Americans out there, as well as Brits whose cultural blinkers snap down as soon as the Eurostar leaves Waterloo. If you're offended by my crass oversimplifications, and want to pick up on any egregious goofs that I've made, please post away. But, as Richard Lewis put it, we know more about you than you know about us. Perhaps the most appropriate conclusion should have been a consideration of the very nature of the canon of knowledge, and how it influences what goes into Britannica. Is there a Western or American cultural bias? A class bias? Is it right that the editors should take the long view on inclusion, to avoid the crass neologisms that fill the press releases whenever a new dictionary appears? There's serious stuff to chew on here, and Jacobs doesn't think of going there. He'd rather be nice to his wife. Aaaaahhhh.

There is, however, one really neat sliver of triv that was new to me. Did you know that Alaska is the most northerly, most westerly and, because of the Aleutian islands crossing the 180th meridian, most easterly of the American states? But that gem comes from Jacobs Senior, apparently a delightful practical joker who would probably have written a better book than his son has.


Anonymous said...

Brava. What a wonderful review! I found you via librarything.com, because I was interested to see if anyone else noticed how trite this book was. I was frusterated that Jacobs seemed to believe, at least going into his quest, that knowing the most facts/triva somehow equated being the wisest person in the world.
I felt he was too condecending and cocky to everyone around him, primarily his wife and father. I really wished he would have learned to play along with his father's practical jokes to form some kind of a bond, instead of trying to be "better" than him. As he rubbed in that he'd gotten further through the encyclopaedia than his father, I felt pity that he had so completely missed the point. He learned facts any history book could tell you, but he didn't learn any wisdom. I felt Jacobs would have been better off reading a guide to philosophy.
I have so many other complaints, but I must be off to bed.
A female, twenty something American named Kat
aka: ratatatkat

Ashley Pomeroy said...

I found this by searching Google's image search for "Flowered Up". Is there anything more melancholy than "commnts: 1"? If it said "comments: 0" I would suspect a technical error, but that is not the case. This article has attracted one comment in the twenty months it has been around.

Tim Footman said...

True, Ashley. Although it's a fairly common occurrence in the early days of a blog, before a regular readership builds up. On the other hand, frantically keeping tabs on comment and view stats is a bit like measuring how high you can piss up a wall. Or searching for Flowered Up images.