AJ Jacobs is a cool guy-not only has he written for some of the best magazines around(including my personal favorite,Entertainment Weekly),his book,The Know It All:One Man's Humble Quest To Become The Smartest Person In the World,is one of the smartest and funniest ways to take a crash course in world knowledge.
AJ chronicles the personal challenge he set himself:to do what his father attempted long ago by reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica,all thirty-two volumes. His project gave him many twists and turns,such as trying to stump family members with his newly found factoids,looking into joining Mensa,seeking a chance to be on Jeopardy!(he had to settle for the daytime version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?)and other real life adventures.
AJ has also written The Two Kings:Jesus and Elvis and is the senior editor at Esquire magazine. I was fortunate enough to corner him for a few questions:
1)You write alot about your family in Know-It-All;what
reaction did you get from them after the book was released?
I was most worried about the reaction of my brother-in-law Eric, who is the nemesis of the book. He's a Harvard-educated know-it-all who liked to mock my relative ignorance. I sent him an early copy and he was okay with it. He said that he comes off as insufferably pompous, but at least I described him as 'moderately good-looking.' So that's my advice to all the writers out there. If you ever criticize someone's personality in print, make sure to call them attractive. Vanity trumps everything.
2)What was the strangest fact you learned from the
That's a tough one. There were so many strange facts. An ocean of them.
I guess the single strangest fact is that philosopher Rene Descartes
had a fetish for cross-eyed women. Truly bizarre. But at least it's
nice to know there's someone for everyone.
3)If you had been allowed to be on Jeopardy,how well do you think
you've done against Ken Jennings?
Sadly, I think he would have trounced me. I've since met Ken Jennings,and think he's a great man. Plus, I was very honored, because he said he learned some new facts from my book, including the fact that opossums have 13 nipples. So if Jeopardy had asked only about odd-numbered nipples, maybe I would have held my own. He didn't know
that when he was on Jeopardy.
4)Which volume of the EB was your favorite?
Probably Q. First of all, it was short. Just a couple of hundred pages.And it also had a great Scrabble word -- QA. Just the two letters. It's a type of Babylonian liquid measurement. (Caveat: Qa is not in the Scrabble dictionary. But I say the Britannica trumps the Scrabble dictionary anyday).
5)You and Joe Queenan had abit of a literary feud over
his review of Know-It-All;who got the last word in that debate?
Well, I'm happy to say that most websites gave me the edge
(mediabistro, beatrice, etc.). I won't argue with them.
6)How did you feel about Know-It-All becoming a page a
That was delightful! I can't complain. Though my wife is annoyed that
they didn't put her birthday as a national holiday. That calendar would
be the one and only time that could happen.
7)What other books would you recommend to people who
want to increase their knowledge?
Mental Floss has a good book called "Condensed Knowledge" -- it's
packed with strange facts. (Full disclosure: I write for Mental Floss
magazine) Also, the above-mentioned Ken Jennings has a book coming out soon
called "Brainiac". He sent me an early copy -- it's part memoir, part
history of trivia. Lots of good facts in there. "Great Books" by David Denby is good. It can be a little dry at times,but it's a good exploration of the classics.
Check out the title link to read more of AJ's thoughts(totally agree about Denby's
Great Books-it's one of the highlights of my personal books on books home library
section)and look for The Know It All in either paperback or calendar version. My thanks to AJ for granting me this interview and looking forward to another smart
and sassy read from him.
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