When I was a kid growing up at my grandparents’ house, I inherited-by-default the encyclopedias my mother and her sisters used—Grolier’s The Book of Knowledge, with their covers of deep read and cream-darkened-into gold. The spines were littered with silverfish, and their weight in my spindly hands, their smell, the pages already yellowed and dotted with foxing—those were Books. I cut my teeth on those babies, pored over them whenever reading needed to be done. I read them because it felt like the most natural thing in the world—I read them in the room abandoned by aunts all grown up, the same room where I read my great-grandmother’s romance novels.
The volume bearing a six-pager on Greco-Roman mythology was much abused in my years of handling; these books gave me the abridged versions of classics like Lorna Doone and The House of the Seven Gables; I remember a chapter that taught one how cheese was made. Before the age of Google, I used these musty books for reference, even though they were woefully out of date—I clearly remember one entry saying quite chirpily, “Maybe one day, we can even go to the moon!” These were my jam, dammit. [Google brings me one ping out of the vastness of the internet; if this is to be trusted, then the 1935 books means my grandparents used these as reference. Hot damn.]
I never had the Encyclopedia Britannica—they were too expensive; we used books from 1935 for reference, go figure—but I do remember I’d spot them at a friend’s house (one time, in the living room of a mah jong buddy of my grandmother’s) and I’d always envy, and I’d always scorn how they looked so unused and un-riffled through. Sure, someone probably pulled them out when homework needed doing, but what about reading the encyclopedia for fun—how come none of these fortunate souls ever thought of that?
One A.J. Jacobs did, and he read the entirety of Encyclopedia Britannica on a whim. That is: He wanted to be the smartest man in the world, if not a man who would have regained a child’s confidence of being the smartest boy in the universe. Lark alert.
Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows on Sumerian cities.
I had so much fun with The Know-It-All, as evidenced by all the mad giggling I did in the train and the hapless quoting of all the dorktastic nuggets I’d discovered…
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Well, the above is an awesome example of how a post one could be proud of could simply fizzle out under the stress of Real Life, haha. That is, I started this draft right after I read the book—which was amazing and fun and full of useless information, which is exactly the sort of thing I like spending my time with, and also full of deeply human things, like the life one can lead when one is surrounded by ridiculously intelligent and go-getter people and also when one very badly wants babies to impart all that useless information to, and wee! And I’ve kept trying to go back to the draft above, but then Real Life has always had this pesky tendency to kick all your well-meaning plans to up your self-worth right in the balls. Okay. That’s the explanation I’m going with. Toodles.