Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia


A Know-It-All reads the Britannica

When AJ Jacobs wrote a book called The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, most people got the joke and gave the book favourable reviews. Not Joe Queenan. Writing in the New York Times Review of Books, Queenan attacked The Know-It-All, calling it "idiotic" and labelling Jacobs a "jackass."

“He seemed to not understand the premise,” says Jacobs, in an interview from his home in Manhattan. “He seemed to think I was seriously trying to become smartest person in world. When the book review called a couple of months later to ask if I'd write for them, I sent them an essay, a rebuttal to Queenan's absurd rantings. They liked it, and decided to run it.”

The entire affair became instant cocktail party conversation in the New York book circuit. Says Jacobs, "I call myself a jackass no less than three times in the book, so he couldn't even come up with his own insult!"

The Britannica: the Everest of knowledge

Jacobs, in fact, has no problem humiliating himself in print. His book details his endless embarrassments as he shares factoids with uninterested colleagues and his beleaguered wife, who eventually starts fining him a dollar for every irrelevant factoid, particularly if they are uttered during movies. "I get called Cliff Clavin all the time, but at least my facts are accurate, at least most of the time!"

Many of those facts came from a project that became the framing device for the book. Learning that his father had once tried to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, only to stop somewhere around "Borneo," Jacobs decided to read the whole thing himself, and hopefully close the gaps in his knowledge that had been yawning wider in the years since college. "I was climbing the intellectual Everest and restoring honour to the family name," says Jacobs.

Anecdotes about his family and life are interspersed with factoids drawn from the Britannica, which are arranged alphabetically. For example, the entry on "Genghis Khan" describes his father's particular interest in the world-conquering Mongol. Why? It seems Genghis was a snappy dresser. The section on "character writer" starts by explaining the uses of these sketches, then jumps off to draw a character sketch of his brother-in-law, who may well be the Smartest Person in the World, and who particularly delights in beating Jacobs at Trivial Pursuit.

Trivia vs wisdom

Most reviewers have picked up on Jacobs' humour. The section on the dragonfly notes that it can eat its own weight in thirty minutes, "just like Roger Ebert." But buried under all the humour is some fairly serious discussion of epistemology. And, Joe Queenan to the contrary, Jacobs has plenty of doubt about the value of his quest to learn through amassed factoids.

He meets his high school English teacher, now a Buddhist, who tells him that all that knowledge is actually making him dumber, as it is cluttering his mind. He then recommends Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, about two inept generalists whose knowledge is as broad as their talent is shallow. But as Jacobs writes, at least they were trying to achieve something, rather than "sitting around eating pastries, ignoring basic hygiene and persecuting Jews, which is what your average 19th-century Frenchman did."

Worse, another French intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, mocked Jacobs' very project, decades before it began. His "Self-Taught Man" is not only reading the great works of literature alphabetically, but turns out to be a child molester.

While nowhere near the depravity of the Self-Taught Man, Jacobs does agree that there is "a danger in being too obsessed with knowledge and forgetting about the social aspect." His book describes Ron Hoeflin, who lives in a tiny apartment in which the rent is lower than his IQ and who has stopped work on his magnum opus, a work of philosophy called To Unscrew the Inscrutable, because he can't afford to replace his printer.

“I was trying to figure out the difference between knowledge and intelligence and wisdom,” Jacobs says. “I’m not sure I’ve come up with a final answer, but I do have metaphor. Knowledge is fuel and intelligence is the engine. The more knowledge you have, the more intelligent you can be, the more metaphors you can make and the more facts you can use to problem solve and approach problems.”

He also talks to Robert Sternberg, who wrote the Britannica's entry on "intelligence." Sadly, Sternberg believes that reading the Britannica to become smarter is "a complete waste of time." But he does concede that reading an encyclopedia could be like reading a religious work. Says Jacobs, "It's a ritual that gave me stability and comfort; gathering knowledge has a quasi-religious feel."

And he did pick up some nuggets along the way, as in the Britannica's article on "Ecclesiastes," for example. But in reading about the broad sweep of history, he also learned that "this to, shall pass." He says: "Take the Taiping Rebellion. As a narrow-minded westerner, I'd barely heard of it. But 20 million people died. That's just shocking."

He writes: "Yes, we have the capacity to do horrible things. We have created poverty and war and Daylight Savings Time. But in the big sweep—over the past ten thousand years and thirty-three thousand pages—we've redeemed ourselves with our accomplishments. We're the ones who came up with the Trevi foundation and Scrabble in Braille and Dr. DeBakey's artificial heart and the touch-tone phone."

The wisdom of Alex Trebek and the wit of Meredith Viera

He even picked up a little wisdom from Alex Trebek, whom he interviewed for Esquire. After mistaking him for a Mexican gardener, he joined Trebek in his private office, where the game show icon swore "like Uncle Junior on The Sopranos," but nevertheless managed to work words like "escarpment" into casual conversation. Trebek also inspired Jacobs when he said, "I'm curious about everything—even things that don't interest me."

Unfortunately, meeting Trebek also disqualified Jacobs as a Jeopardy contestant, limiting one of the few ways he could profit from all that knowledge. Jacobs notes, "Apparently, we're best buddies now and he calls me every night with the answers."

With Jeopardy out of the picture, this left Millionaire, on which he did in fact appear. He opted not to emphasize his encyclopedia reading. "I didn't want Meredith to say, 'Well, Encyclopedia Boy, are you going to win the million?'"

And, in fact, he didn't. His $32,000 question required him to know what an erythrocyte was. Stumped, he called Eric the Arch-Nemesis, one of his three candidates for the actual world's smartest person. (The other two are Stephen Hawking and, in an egregious bit of flattered, your host here at Although Eric had been a biochem major, he did not know that erythrocytes were red blood cells. Worse, Jacobs had already read the entry on "erythrocytes," but had completely forgotten it.

This inability retain all 44 million words of the Britannica is a subject of much consternation for Jacobs. In fact, the Britannica talks about our inability to retain information in article about the Ebbinghaus curve. Jacobs had a hard time remembering "Ebbinghaus curve."

To his relief, though, when he actually journeyed into the Britannica's Chicago HQ, he discovered that not even the editor-in-chief knew every fact in his 33,000-page production. "In retrospect, that should have been a fairly obvious point," Jacobs concedes.

“But even a year after I finished reading the books, facts keep dribbling out of my brain,” says Jacobs. “I was visiting a friend with a cat, and I mentioned how Egyptians mummified cats, but they also mummified mice, so that the cats would have something to eat in the afterlife.”

In fact, regardless of how much he remembers, the mere act of reading more than four feet of knowledge is awe-inspiring, especially since the Macropedia can devote dozens of pages to Chinese history, plate tectonics and advanced math theory. Understandably, he sometimes simply ran his eyes over the text.

Adventures in trivia

He also continues to have what you might call "adventures in trivia." His book details excursions in which he meets like-minded fans of knowledge: a chess tournament, a crossword puzzle convention, a debate club, a Mensa event and courses in speed reading and memory improvement. "I wanted to test the limits of knowledge in the real world, and not just write a book about me reading a book."

After his own volume came out, the New York Times included Jacobs in its Night Out With column, in which it followed him to a pub quiz. "We called ourselves the Know It Alls, but we placed seventh, which I got some good ribbing for. In my defence, there were a lot of questions about 70s music. We would have done better if there'd been more questions about commedia dell' arte, because the Britannica talks a lot about that. One guy called us the Know-Nothings, so I came back with some trivia about the Know Nothing Party, which held up construction of the Washington Monument because the pope had donated the capstone."

For his next project, some have suggested he read the Oxford English Dictionary. "It's actually longer than the Britannica: 60 million words versus the wimpy 44 million in the Britannica. But I've decided my next project is to watch all the Police Academy movies."

March 2005