Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Know-It-All

When I was a wee lad of six I immersed myself in comic books. In the sixties, reading "funnybooks" was often thought of something that only dim-bulbs did. An illiterate could follow the story plot simply by "looking the pictures" instead of making an effort to read the all-important words, and this often irked teachers and public education critics.

I've not met many comic fans who turned out to be true dullards -- quite the opposite, they tended to be brainy, shy, nerds (proto-Aspergerians), who were a bit obsessive or socially inept, at worst. Most seem to enjoy reading up on variegated topics, and are more likely than not, jam-packed with obscure facts and specialized trivia.

Since I had a driving ambition to be a cartoonist/artist, I "researched" my comic books and comics histories relentlessly. For 20 years, other than those histories, I seldom read a nonfiction book or novel -- unless it was assigned as schoolwork.

Once at East High, I cribbed together a book report on Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee because I simply lacked the desire to read it over Christmas vacation. Few classmates did. Since our instructor was primarily a high school coach, I calculated my odds of "gaming the system" by "sampling" passages of the book were quite high. I felt the cognitive dissonance of a twinge of guilt (mixed with pride) when I landed an "A." I vowed that to atone, I would someday read the book in its entirety, sadly, I still haven't. However as a side note, I did own at one time, the typewritter Dee Brown used to write his book. I couldn't resist the irony, and bought it from his daughter at a Dallas yard sale.

Finally in 1981, my formal schooling had run its course. I was awarded a MFA in painting, and yet I was still reading comics. "This isn't right," I thought. "I have this poweful skill of being able to read, but I hardly ever exercise it." Then and there I resolved I would expand my cultural horizons by surveying the celebrated classics of literature. I trudged through Crime and Punishment, Of Human Bondage, On the Road, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckll and Mr. Hyde before I abandoned the high road.

I concluded I would rather read popular fiction just for kicks. I dabbled a bit with the science-fiction genre, but I was hijacked by crime fiction, which I still enjoy to this day. To start with, I mainly read the hard-boiled and crime noir classics, and predictably, for a time obsessively collected vintage paperbacks, with their lurid cover designs.

Somewhere along the way, I worked in a few popular books on science. To my surprise, it was great fun learning new things at your own speed, without any pressure of deadlines, judgement, or reports. In short, I was hooked on learning, more than I ever had been in school. I suppose it was because I chose what and when to read. Freedom.

One problem with devouring so many nonfiction books is retaining the valuable information gleaned from them. I started a reading journal with a list of the titles I've read (yes, besides collecting, I have an indexing gene). I've found that reviewing the list sparks memories of what these books were about. Also, reading the amazing Amazon listings and web reviews also helps consolidate the knowledge. So far, I'm at around 250 nonfiction books. I don't count the crime novels, though I do sometimes make checklists so I don't buy the titles twice.

Here's a book I haven't read (yet), but naturally, relate to.

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A. J. Jacobs 

33,000 PAGES



Part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), The Know-It-All chronicles NPR contributor A. J. Jacobs's hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z.

To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education, A.J. Jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His wife, Julie, tells him it's a waste of time, his friends believe he is losing his mind, and his father, a brilliant attorney who had once attempted the same feat and quit somewhere around Borneo, is encouraging but unconvinced.

With self-deprecating wit and a disarming frankness, The Know-It-All recounts the unexpected and comically disruptive effects Operation Encyclopedia has on every part of Jacobs's life -- from his newly minted marriage to his complicated relationship with his father and the rest of his charmingly eccentric New York family to his day job as an editor at Esquire.

Jacobs's project tests the outer limits of his stamina and forces him to explore the real meaning of intelligence as he endeavors to join Mensa, win a spot on Jeopardy!, and absorb 33,000 pages of learning. On his journey he stumbles upon some of the strangest, funniest, and most profound facts about every topic under the sun, all while battling fatigue, ridicule, and the paralyzing fear that attends his first real-life responsibility -- the impending birth of his first child.

The Know-It-All is an ingenious, mightily entertaining memoir of one man's intellect, neuroses, and obsessions, and a struggle between the all-consuming quest for factual knowledge and the undeniable gift of hard-won wisdom.


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