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Sic transit horror mundi

Reading in prison

June 1st, 2016

BY DEAN SUESS

The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
by A.J. Jacobs
Simon & Schuster, 2004

I take for my inspiration the somewhat geeky, wannabe metrosexual (“Why do they think I’m gay?”) A.J. Jacobs, Senior Editor of Esquire and author of this quirky memoir, which chronicles Jacobs’s ambitious project of reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Jacobs’s book is loosely organized by letter of the alphabet. Within this purported order, it proceeds in cheerful disarray, which suits my reading preferences just fine. Few things appeal to me as much as aimless wandering, and Jacobs happily wanders haphazardly through the Britannica, plowing through volume after volume, trying to gain unstructured knowledge. While Jacobs does achieve some wisdom through this project, he mostly proves himself a hopeless dilettante.

Dilettantism works fine for me and my fellow prisoners; it goes hand in hand with the disordered chaos of our lives, much of which is governed by acronyms: ADD, ADHD, XYZ, WHATEVER. The more convulted, the less direct, the more puzzling and specious, the better we like it. It is something we can identify with. Excepting Jacobs’s flights of intellectual fancy, and his obsession with Mensa membership, this book is for us a perfect, jumbled read.ⁱ

All of which goes to prove a point Jacobs makes in his introduction: “I used to be smart… then… I began a long, slow slide into dumbness… At age thirty-five I’ve become embarrassingly ignorant. If things continue at this rate, by my fortieth birthday, I’ll be spending my days watching Wheel of Fortune and drooling into a bucket.” Which is exactly the state to which one of my recent cellies has been reduced.

Throughout the book — which is catalogued 031-General Information, sharing shelf space with The New York Times Book of Lists — Jacobs tries to reconcile his own sense of self-worth (IQ-based) with the dreaded Ebbinghaus “forgetfulness” curve (curse?). I suggest it is a losing proposition.²

Oddly, this sems to describe the criminal justice system. Certainly, the gambling imagery works in the prison setting, where there exist sufficient games to keep us all amused, or abused.

Jacobs’s self-confidence question also speaks to our prison population, especially when we try to avoid and deny the unraveling of our dark lives, the fading ersatz-glory of having believed we were someone.³

As we prisoners most assuredly discover, whether or not we choose to admit it. This sad decay often has much to do with drugs and alcohol. Pill-popping seems always to be closely connected with the death of dreams, and lives, curiously brought together with the Britannica in David B. Feinberg’s Spotaneous Combustion, in which the wickedly funny, HIV-positive character B.J. Rosenthal details part of his prescription drug regimen.⁴

Surely the reader has gathered that this essay is also an exercise in randomness; but that is not entirely so. I am enjoying the liberties of the footnote school of writing (also known as the high art of the parenthesis).⁵

Jacobs admires the footnote artiste, and writes glowingly of his own father’s dedication to the art.⁶

As I wind down this windy column, I realize I have told you less about Jacobs’s book than about my reading pleasures. This has become more of a reader’s review than a book review. I offer up this faulty reasoning: these are all the books I read in February 2006, and not having discipline enough to choose one, I have instead bounced about, like a ball bearing in a pinball machine (a random parenthesis of myself), in order to share my assessment of some pretty good reads.⁷

ⁱ Jacobs’s Mensa obsession: many inmates are certain they qualify for Mensa; some might. Jacobs himself is a Mensa member, based on his 1986 SAT score of 1410, which is a mercy because fifteen years later, when on a whim he sits the Mensa tests, he is given a refund because he already holds a membership. With the refund he is painfully told, “Be glad you got good SAT scores.”

² Much like the laws of thermodynamics as explained in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: “In briefest terms, the second law states that a little energy is always wasted. You can’t have a perpetual motion device becauseno matter how efficient, it will always lose energy and eventually run down. The first law says you can’t create energy and the third that you can’t reduce temperature to absolute zero; there will always be some residual warmth. As Dennis Overbye notes, the three principal laws are sometimes expressed jocularly as (1) you can't win, (2) you can’t break even, and (3) you can’t get out of the game.”

³ Take, for example, Ronald K. Fried’s character, Steiner (Christmas in Paris, 2002), a man of slowly revealed limited mediocrity, who for some short time was rewarded for his marginal talents as a television executive (need I say more?), and who enjoyed a certain middle-class empowerment and privilege, who now comes face-to-face with that mediocrity, compounded by the national revelation following 9/11 that he, as well as his country, is bankrupted by his own history and economics, finally learning that he is not so rich, not so safe, and not so bright.

⁴ "At the time… I was on several antibiotics… with varying schedules: one was to be taken every six hours on an empty stomach for ten days; another, with milk, every four hours for twenty days, and a third, twice daily, while reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

⁵ Generally reserved for scholarly works such as John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which contains more footnote material than original text, the footnote school of writing is also used to good effect in Will Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, in which the footnotes, while not Latin and Greek references as in Boswell’s work, do offer humorous, fractured, and irreverent commentary on some of history’s more renowned people. The master of editorial parentheses is William Goldman, who in The Princess Bride creates a double parody, not only interrupting himself continually, but doing so, at least in the first edition, in red lettering, as is commonly used for the words of Christ in KJV versions of the Bible.

⁶ “My father is proud of his footnotes… He wrote a legal article… with 4,824 footnotes… My dad tried to get the Guinness Book of World Records interested, but legal footnotes apparently don’t get the same respect as fingernails the size of adult rattlesnakes. So he had to settle for a mention in Harper’s Index.”

⁷ Actually, I read eight other books in February, but I didn’t think it fair to include them, thus undercutting Jacobs’s superb randomness and surpassing his achievement. After completing his read of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jacobs may have found some insight for himself, but his ego took a bruising. Far be it from me, living in an ego-crushing environment, to put the poor man at any further risk. •

From the May 2006 issue.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Suess | Link to this Entry

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