Everybody probably wishes that they were a little bit smarter. For magazine editor A.J. Jacobs, it’s less of a wish and more of a lifelong ambition. From his childhood illusion that he was the smartest boy in the world to the somewhat sobering realization that he hadn’t turned into the smartest man in the world, knowledge has been important to Jacobs. So, in an attempt to broaden his knowledge base, the writer set himself a momentous task: he gave himself a year to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, literally from A to Z, hoping that absorbing all those volumes of knowledge would up his intellect.
Whether or not it made him smarter remains to be seen, but it does make for a remarkably entertaining book. Each chapter represents a letter of the alphabet, broken down into various “entries” under which Jacobs makes pithy observations about both the Encyclopedia and his own life. His musings are often hilarious, as when he learns from “Aztec” entry that this ancient race predicted that the earth would be destroyed, and that humans would devolve into monkeys. “Hey, that’s the plot of ‘Planet of the Apes,” Jacobs muses. “Damn you Hollywood! You stole the idea from the Aztecs. Damn you to hell!”
The book also tracks Jacobs’s attempts to work the trivia he’s gleaned from reading the book into casual conversation, resulting in some funny moments (including a dinner party at the beginning of the quest, when he randomly begins spouting facts from the ‘A’s).
But there are also many poignant observations on human nature and the nature of intelligence. In his quest to become smarter, Jacobs consults a number of authorities on intelligence, including Mensans, the Encyclopedia Britannica staff and, that paragon of academia, Alex Trebek. Throughout it all, Jacobs and his wife ,Julie (who should receive some sort of award for marital patience), attempt to have a child, which cause Jacobs to get even more reflective (touchingly, part of his reason for reading the Encyclopedia is so he can answer such kid-friendly questions as ‘Why is the sky blue?’).
The result is a nonfiction book that reads like a good novel and has the added benefit of teaching you a few things (did you know that chef Julia Child worked briefly in the OSS, precursor to the CIA?). Will reading this book make you smarter? Doubtful. But it will make you think, and entertain you besides, which is good enough for me.