Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Know it All by A.J. Jacobs (2004)

Subtitle: One man's humble quest to become the smartest person in the world. 

This journalist, who seems to take on experiments with himself, decided to spend a year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. I could not handle this book straight through, so I would alternate a chapter of this with a few chapters or even a whole book of something else. I admired the idea itself, and wouldn't mind tackling this kind of project, but not in the short time frame Jacobs set for himself. Luckily this isn't a dry rehashing of what he learned while reading the Britannica, but told with humor, with many sidetracks exploring some aspect of what he has read or the process, and interspersed with his personal life - trying to conceive a baby with his wife, and trying to become the smartest man on earth. The latter attempts sometimes drove me nuts - I am not fond of that kind of delusion, but it was interesting to learn about Mensa and some other smart folk activities.

I am sure I learned all sorts of things by Jacobs' retelling of what he learned (I am writing this months after I read the book), but I am not much for retaining distinct facts in my brain, and was surprised that the author thought he would retain them. What I did find fascinating was the story of what Britannica has chosen to put in its many volumes. Jacobs does discuss the evolution of the Britannica and encyclopedias in general, how articles have been rewritten over the years, and the complex structure of the Britannica itself - with the macro and micropedia parts. I love the Wikipedia, since it is evolving according to people's interests, so that music groups and movie stars have extensive entries. I would love to see how they plan the entries for the Britannica - "Well, we have to include all the Greek, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Indian ancient gods. We have to balance entries between the various religions of the world today. Do we have or need every ruler of every country? How many of the kings and queens of England do we include with separate entries? Have we covered Africa, Australia, and South America enough? Do we have enough entries on women? In how much detail do we cover science, medicine, business concepts? How many plants and animals get their own entry?" Some things sounded very trivial and peripheral and not important in today's understanding of the world. How will the Britannica evolve in the future?

As a reference librarian I think this book was fascinating, and I have to remember to recommend this to my colleagues.