Chapter One: A
That's the first word in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "A-ak." Followed by this write-up: "Ancient East Asian music. See gagaku."
That's the entire article. Four words and then: "See gagaku."
What a tease! Right at the start, the crafty Britannica has presented me with a dilemma. Should I flip ahead to volume 6 and find out what's up with this gagaku, or should I stick with the plan, and move on to the second word in the AA section? I decide to plow ahead with the AAs. Why ruin the suspense? If anyone brings up "a-ak" in conversation, I'll just bluff. I'll say, "Oh, I love gagaku!" or, "Did you hear that Madonna's going to record an a-ak track on her next CD?"
A lovely surprise. I know exactly what this is — an ex-girlfriend of mine belonged to an a cappella group in college. They sang songs from Def Leppard and called it Rockapella. One for two. Not bad.
The next few entries destroy my average. I don't recognize the names of any Chinese generals or Buddhist compendiums. And I've never heard of Aachen, the German city that's home to Schwertbad-Quelle, the hottest sulfur spring in the country. I try to memorize the information. If my goal is to know everything, I can't discriminate, even against obscure Teutonic landmarks.
I move on to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Seems he was sort of the Frank Stallone of ancient Judaism. The loser brother, the one Mom didn't talk about too much. "Oh, Aaron? He's doing okay. Still finding his way. But back to Moses. Did you hear about the Red Sea?"
This is good stuff. I'm Jewish, but I never got any religious training, never got a bar mitzvah. I know most of my Jewish lore from Charlton Heston movies, and I wouldn't call myself observant, though I do have a light lunch on Yom Kippur. So the Britannica will be my savior, my belated Hebrew school.
Abbott, Bud, and Costello, Lou
After a bunch of Persian rulers named Abbas, I get to these two familiar faces. But any sense of relief fades when I learn about their sketchy past. Turns out that the famed partnership began when Costello's regular straight man fell ill during a gig at the Empire Theater in New York, and Abbott — who was working the theater's box office — offered to substitute. It went so well, Abbott became Costello's permanent partner. This is not a heartwarming story; it's a cautionary tale. I'm never calling in sick again. I don't want to come back after a twenty-four-hour flu and find Robbie from the mail room volunteered to be the senior editor. It's a tough world.
ABO blood group
Stomach cancer is 20 percent more common in people with type A blood than those with type B or type O. That's me, type A. This is even more disturbing than the tale of the backstabbing Costello. Clearly, I have to be prepared to learn some things I don't like.
Absalom, a biblical hero, has the oddest death so far in the encyclopedia. During a battle in the forest, Absalom got his flowing hair caught in the branches of an oak tree, which allowed his enemy, Joab, to catch him and slay him. This, I figure, is exactly why the army requires crew cuts.
A group of monks who provided nonstop choral singing in the 5th century. They did it with a relay system — every few hours, a fresh monk would replace the exhausted monk. I love this image, though I am glad I wasn't their neighbor. We're talking twenty-four-hour entertainment long before MTV went on the air. Quite possibly before Mick Jagger was born.
Addled Brain Syndrome
Okay, I made that up. There's no such thing as addled brain syndrome. But I'm definitely suffering from something. As I vacuum up this information hour after hour, I find myself so overwhelmed that I have to take frequent breaks to walk around the office. Walk it off, as my gym teachers used to say. You only sprained that brain. It's not a fracture. Walk it off, son.
The reading is much, much harder than I expected. But at the same time, in some ways, it's strangely easier. In some ways, it's the perfect book for someone like me, who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines. Each essay is a bite-sized nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman's lurking right around the corner (by the way, the mythical Snowman's footprints are actually produced by running bears). Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities.
The changes are so abrupt and relentless, you can't help but get mental whiplash. You go from depressing to uplifting, from tiny to cosmic, from ancient to modern. There's no segue, no local news anchor to tell you, "And now, on the lighter side." Just a little white space, and boom, you've switched from theology to worm behavior. But I don't mind. Bring on the whiplash — the odder the juxtapositions, the better. That's the way reality is — a bizarre, jumbled-up Cobb salad. I love seeing the prophet Abraham rub elbows with Karl Abraham, a German shrink who theorized about the anal expulsive and phallic stages.
Oh yes, that's another thing. Sex. This came as a pleasant surprise to me. The Britannica may not be Cinemax, but it's got its fair share of randiness. I've learned, for instance, that Eskimos swap wives. Plus, the Achagua men have three to four spouses and flowers in the Acanthaceae family are bisexual. Yowza! That's some racy stuff. Hot. Hotter than the Schwertbad-Quelle sulfur spring. I expected the Britannica to be prudish, but it seems quite happy to acknowledge the seamy world below the belt.
And speaking of titillating R-rated material, my God — the violence! It's extraordinary how blood-soaked our history is. One Persian politician was strangled by servants, another suffocated in a steam bath. Or consider poor Peter Abelard, an 11th-century Christian theologian who, judging from his miniature portrait, looks a bit like Steve Buscemi. Abelard came up with some interesting ideas — namely that deeds don't matter, only intentions; in other words, the road to heaven is paved with good intentions. But how can I give much deep thought to that idea when the entry also discusses Abelard's love affair with his student Heloise, which ended rather badly: Abelard suffered castration at the order of Heloise's outraged uncle. Sweet Jesus! I'm guessing Heloise didn't get asked on a whole lot of dates after that one.
Sex, violence, MTV pacing — all this makes my quest much more palatable. But I don't mean to give the wrong idea. As I said, it's hard. Excruciatingly hard. First, the vastness of it. I knew there was an ocean of information out there. But I didn't really comprehend what I was up against until I started trying to drink that ocean cup by cup. I'll be reading about Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and I'll get a list of the seven different ethnicities that comprise that city: Gallas, Gurages, Hareris, Tigres, Walamos, Somalis, and Dorses. Should I even try to memorize those? Six ethnicities I could handle, but seven? That's daunting.
The Britannica is not a book you can skim. This is a book you have to hunch over and pay full attention to, like needlepoint or splinter removal. It hurts my poor little head. Until now, I didn't realize quite how out of shape my brain had become. It's just not accustomed to this kind of thinking. I feel like I'm making it run a triathlon in ninety-degree heat when it's used to sitting in a hammock drinking mojitos. The math and science parts of my brain have gone particularly flabby since college. At most, I have to calculate the number of subway rides I have remaining on my little electronic Metrocard. That rarely requires quadratic equations. At my job, the toughest science I've encountered was the time I had to edit a few sentences about Botox for men. So when I read about acid-base reactions with conjugate bases and nonaqueous solvents, I'm mystified. I generally read this type of stuff again and again and just hope it'll sink in. It's the same strategy that American tourists in Europe employ when confronted with a non-English-speaking store owner. Umbrella. Um-brella! Um-BREL-la! Say it often and loud enough, and it'll click. But I forge on.
The father of novelist Louisa May Alcott was famous in his own right. A radical reformer full of unorthodox ideas, he opened several schools for children. The schools had a particularly unusual discipline system: teachers received punishment at the hands of the offending pupil. The idea was that this would instill a sense of shame in the mind of the errant child. Now, this is a brilliant concept. I have a long list of teachers I wish I could have spanked, among them my fifth-grade instructor, Ms. Barker, who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale, which earned us a humiliating $1.53.
I knew he was the 19th-century author of the famous rags-to-riches novels. I didn't know he turned to writing after being kicked out of a Massachusetts church for allegations of sexual misconduct with local boys. I told you — the Britannica can be a gossip rag.
One of my biggest challenges is figuring out how to shoehorn my newfound knowledge into conversations. Naturally, I want to show off, but I can't just start reeling off facts or I'll be as annoying as an Acarina, a type of mite that, incidentally, copulates by transferring little packets of sperm called spermatophores.
And since I've read only entries in the very early As, my new topics of expertise don't come up that often. You'd be surprised at how many days can go by without one of my friends mentioning aardvarks, much less aardwolves — an African carnivore that the Britannica generously describes as "harmless and shy."
But today I had my first successful reference. Well, I don't know if it was actually successful. Okay, it was spectacularly unsuccessful. A total failure. But it was a start.
I'm in my office with a writer, and I need to give him a deadline for his piece.
"Can you get it to me Tuesday?"
"How about Wednesday?" he says.
"Okay. But Wednesday is the latest. Otherwise, I'll be angry. I'll have to rip you more assholes than an abalone."
"Abalones are a type of snail with five assholes."
"They've got a row of holes in their shells, and five of them serve as outlets for waste."
Silence. Annoyed look.
I thought it was an amusing little tidbit, a nice twist on the cliché, a clever way to make it clear that I really needed the article. Instead, I came off like a colossal outlet for waste.
I figure it'll be easier to show off my increasing intelligence in a relaxed social environment. So when Julie and I go to her friends' house for dinner that night, I am prepared to dazzle. We arrive at Shannon and David's apartment, exchange cheek kisses and "Great to see you's."
"Brrrrr," says Julie as she unbundles her several layers of winter wear.
"A little nippy out there, huh?" says Shannon.
"Not quite as cold as Antarctica's Vostok Station, which reached a record 128 degrees below zero," I reply. "But still cold."
Shannon chuckles politely.
We sit down in the living room and Shannon starts telling Julie about her upcoming vacation in Saint Bart's.
"I'm so jealous," says Julie.
"Yeah, I can't wait to get some sun," Shannon says. "Look how white I am."
"Albinism affects one in twenty thousand Americans," I say.
Shannon doesn't quite know how to respond to that one.
"Anyhoo," says Julie, "where are you staying?"
I probably shouldn't have said my albinism fact, but I can't help it. I'm so loaded up with information that when I see a hole — even if it's a small hole, even a microscopic hole, the size of an abalone's butt hole — I have to dive right in.
David returns from the kitchen with a bottle of wine.
"Anyone want some cabernet?"
"I'll have a glass," says Julie.
"I'll have some too," I say. "And an amethyst if you've got one."
David cocks his head.
"Amethysts protect against drunkenness, according to the ancients," I say.
"Is that so?" says David.
"Yes. I don't want to end up like Alexander the Great, who died after getting ill from a drinking bout."
"No, I suppose not," says David. He laughs. Nervously, I think.
Julie turns back to Shannon, hoping to resume the vacation talk. "So, which hotel?"
"We've got reservations at this place I found in Conde Nast Traveler — "
"Also, speaking of alcohol consumption," I say, "what country do you think has the highest per capita rate? I'll give you a hint: it's not Ireland."
"Hmm. Is it France?" asks Shannon. She's very polite.
"Nope. Not France. The residents of Luxembourg are the biggest boozers in the world."
"Who woulda thunk?" I ask. "Luxembourg! But seriously, do not get between a Luxembourgian and a bottle of whiskey!" I say, shaking my head and laughing.
Part of me is hoping Shannon and David won't notice that all my facts start with A. But at the same time, I'm also kind of longing to be exposed. I've already logged thirty hours reading my encyclopedia, and I want them to ooh and aaah at my accomplishment. Maybe Julie senses this, or maybe she just wants to avoid further embarrassment, but she decides to spill my secret.
"A.J.'s decided to read the encyclopedia," she tells Shannon. "And he's only in the As, so you'll be hearing a lot of A facts."
"The encyclopedia?" says David. "That's some light reading."
"Yeah, it'll be good on the beach," I say.
"Seriously, why are you reading the encyclopedia?" says Shannon.
I had prepared for this. I had my answer.
"Well, there's an African folktale I think is relevant here. Once upon a time, there's this tortoise who steals a gourd that contains all the knowledge of the world. He hangs it around his neck. When he comes to a tree trunk lying across road, he can't climb over it because the gourd is in his way. He's in such a hurry to get home, he smashes the gourd. And ever since, wisdom has been scattered across the world in tiny pieces. So, I want to try to gather all that wisdom and put it together."
"I guess you're not up to P, for 'Please shut up,' " says Julie.
They all laugh at that one.
Next morning, it's back to my daily dose of Britannica. Arabian horses have twenty-three vertebrae instead of the twenty-four found in most horses. I spend a moment trying to think of a situation in which this information might be useful. Maybe I could write a mystery story where the identification of an Arabian horse skeleton is a major plot point. Maybe I could win a bar bet with a moderately — but not overly — knowledgeable equestrian. Who knows?
I was aware that Asimov was a major figure in American literature, the author of numerous science fiction and science books. I didn't know just how many books: about five hundred. The man wrote five hundred books. I don't think I've written five hundred Post-it notes. He wrote so many books, even his biographers are reduced to the vague "about five hundred." The Britannica can be depressing that way. As you read accomplishment after accomplishment, Nobel after Nobel, you are reminded just how little you've done with your life. My entry — if written today — would look something like this:
Jacobs, Arnold "A.J." (b. March 20, 1968, New York, N.Y.)
A minor figure in 20th-century American journalism. Jacobs attended Brown University, where he studied philosophy, attracted to the discipline because it required the lowest number of course credits necessary to graduate. Upon receiving his degree, he began his career writing articles for Dental Economics, the leading publication covering financial matters for dentists and orthodontists. He later established his reputation with a prescient sidebar in the pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly comparing O. J. Simpson and Homer Simpson, which received great acclaim across America, or at least within the home of his parents. He met many of the midlevel show business figures of his day, including Bill Maher and Sarah Michelle Gellar, neither of whom knew his name.
In 2000, Jacobs married Julie Schoenberg, a vivacious advertising sales representative also working at Entertainment Weekly. The marriage was apparently a happy one, despite the fact that Jacobs whined whenever Schoenberg suggested maybe he should put on pants because they were going to a nice restaurant.
Jacobs's other achievements include folding napkins into such shapes as a rabbit and a hat. See also: hypochondria and germaphobe.
I think the Asimov entry stings all the more because I have a quasi Asimov in my own family. My dad — in his spare time, just for fun — writes legal books, and has so far published twenty-four of them. These are serious volumes, books with titles like The Impact of Rule 10b-5 and Disclosures and Remedies Under the Securities Law. He specializes in laws on insider trading, the kind that Martha Stewart was investigated for breaking, launching a thousand riffs on ways she might redecorate her jail cell.
The other day, I was over at my parents' house for lunch, and I figured, since I am trying to finish my dad's quest, I should take a look at his books. So after the meal, I wandered into his study and was confronted with those twenty-four tomes. A big, sagging shelf of them.
I haven't picked one up in years, not since I was fourteen. Back then, I used to enjoy the first volume of The Impact of Rule 10b-5, mainly because my dad had inserted a Playboy centerfold into a half dozen copies to send to friends as a joke. He had kept one of these customized copies for himself. So that was probably the closest I came to going to law school — studying the case of Miss January's missing ballet tutu.
This time, I figure I should read words other than "Turn-ons: champagne, walks on the beach, and men who can help my acting career." I pick up The Impact of Rule 10b-5 and read a sentence thick with words like "fiduciary" and "annuity plan" and "corpus." No comprehension; it could be random ink splatters on the page and I would have had the same level of understanding.
I flip to the middle of the book. As expected, the pages are heavy with footnotes. Really heavy. Some pages have just a couple of lines of regular text floating at the top, then a sea of footnotes all the way down. I guess footnotes isn't the right word when they get this abundant — more like shouldernotes or foreheadnotes.
My father is proud of his footnotes. A few years ago, he broke the world's record for most footnotes in a legal article, coming in at an impressive 1,247. Soon after that, a California legal professor topped my dad's record with 1,611 footnotes. My dad didn't stand for that. He wrote another legal article and just crushed his opponent. Squashed him with 4,824 footnotes, ensuring his status as the Wayne Gretsky of 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.
I flip to Dad's own index to see if I recognize any words. More dense Latinate legalese. And then I spot this entry: "Birds, for the, 1- 894." My mother had once told me about that joke of Dad's, but I had forgotten about it. One of his better ones. But my Lord, 894 pages of text in just one volume — that's no joke. No wonder he gave up reading the Britannica — he was writing his own encyclopedia.
This investigation into my dad's oeuvre wasn't particularly good for my self-esteem. The scope and denseness of his work — those were both envy inducing. But that's not to mention that my dad has made himself the expert on insider trading. Not an expert. The expert. What had I made myself an expert on? The plot lines of the various Police Academy movies? Not even that. Though I haven't read the Britannica's write-up of psychoanalysis, I figure my dad's accomplishments have something to do with my quest to finish the encyclopedia. If I can't beat my dad on depth, at least I can get him on breadth.
assault and battery
They're always lumped together, but there is a difference. Assault is the attempt to apply force, battery is the actual application. Look at that — I'm already getting a legal education. Almost ready for the bar exam.
A very troubling entry — all the ways my body is crumbling. The bones are becoming lighter and more porous. Muscles are shriveling. And worst of all, age leads to a striking decrease in the number of living cells in my cerebral cortex. Every day, my brain's surface ridges shrink and the skull fluid swells to fill the space.
The Britannica's passages on evaporating cortexes would disturb most people, but I'm particularly rattled; oddly enough, I've had a long history of grappling with a fear of brain damage. I might as well get this out on the table now. I mentioned earlier on that, growing up, I thought I was smart. Well, that wasn't exactly the whole story. I didn't just think that I was smart. I thought that I was really smart. I thought that I was, in fact, the smartest boy in the world.
I'm honestly not sure how this notion popped into my head. My mom probably had something to do with it, seeing as she was only slightly less enamored of me than I was of myself. And it's true, I did pretty well on tests, sometimes notching up the highest score in the class. As my mom likes to remind me, on one geography quiz, I got so cocky, I wrote "New Joizy" instead of "New Jersey." Ha! In any case, with my handful of good fourth-grade test scores as evidence, I somehow made the logical deduction that no other ten-year-old on planet Earth was my intellectual equal. It's a leap, yes. But in my defense, I hadn't taken any high-level statistics courses. At the time, it just somehow made sense. I could just feel that I was unique in some way (again, my mom told me so). And since I wasn't the best-looking boy or the best hockey player or the best glee club singer, that left intelligence. So what if I didn't always get the highest score? Or even very often? That could be explained away. Maybe I wasn't trying, or maybe the other kids cheated. Deep down, I knew I was top intellectual dog.
Let me tell you, though: being the smartest boy in the world wasn't easy. I didn't ask for this. I didn't want this. On the contrary, it was a huge burden. First, there was the task of keeping my brain perfectly protected. My cerebral cortex was a national treasure, a masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel of brains. This was not something that could be treated frivolously. If I could have locked it in a safe, I would have. Instead, I became obsessed with brain damage.
Danger lurked everywhere. If my skull was touched, that might jostle the brain and squash a few valuable dendrites. So no one was allowed contact with anything above my neck — that was the holy of holies. No friendly pats on the head. No soccer, with its insane practice on bonking the ball on your pate. And if Grandma came in for a kiss on the forehead, I would dart my head like Sugar Ray Leonard. If I'd known then about the annelid worm — which can turn its skin cells into brain cells — I would have been extremely jealous.
Even seeing other people get brain damage flustered me. When I was eleven, I went to the movie Hair with my mother at New York's Ziegfeld Theater, and was horrified to watch Treat Williams and his unshowered cohorts smoking pot in a Central Park tunnel. I could almost hear their poor brain cells scream for mercy. "Can we go?" I asked my mom before the first "Aquarius" refrain. "I don't feel so good."
Drug-addled musicals aside, the thing that really unhinged me was car rides. My fourth-grade biology teacher told us that the carbon monoxide produced by cars can cause brain damage. That was it, just a throwaway line inserted into a lecture on mammalian bloodstreams. But to me, carbon monoxide became the number one enemy, my white whale, the Joab to my Absalom.
I became a window Nazi. A window had to be cracked at all times so that my brain could get fresh oxygen to dilute that nefarious carbon monoxide. It could be forty below zero and we could be driving through Vostok Station; I'd still roll down the glass in the backseat of the Plymouth Valiant.
"Can you please shut that? It's really cold," said Mom.
"Just a little fresh air, Mom," I'd say.
"That fresh air is freezing my eyelids together."
"Roll up the window, A.J.," my dad said.
I'd roll it up. I'd wait about two minutes, till the conversation had drifted to some other topic, like which fast food chain most deserved our patronage, then I'd slowly — in barely noticeable spurts — lower the window again.
"Dammit, A.J.!" my mom would say, as her lower lip turned cobalt blue. "Please put up the window."
I was smart enough to know that I shouldn't tell anyone the reason I needed that icy air. No need to spill the secret that I was the genius of all geniuses, the Leonardo da Vinci of the 1980s. That would just inspire envy and skepticism. So I'd just stare at the closed window and stew. If ten minutes went by without my lungs getting fresh air, I panicked. I needed to make sure the monoxide hadn't eaten my cranium. For some reason, and this continues to baffle me, I thought the best way to test whether my mind was still in peak form was to create new and bizarre racquet sports. That was my homespun IQ test. So I made up racquet sports involving big racquets, tiny racquets, balls the size of refrigerators, balls the size of pencil erasers. There were racquet sports involving garage doors, bathroom sinks, and telecommunications satellites. Strange, I know. But it made me feel better.
Not counting my vigilance against brain damage, there were plenty of other strains associated with being the smartest boy in the world. It was a huge responsibility, nurturing this amazing organ of mine. I knew someday soon I'd have to invent something, cure something, or write something of grand significance. I knew I should be feeding my mind the highest-quality nourishment, like physics textbooks or Dostoyevsky, but instead I was keeping it on a starvation diet by watching Gilligan's Island reruns. Even back then, I had trouble resisting pop culture's pull. I felt guilty every time I watched those hapless castaways. Not that it stopped me, but I just couldn't enjoy Thurston Howell's lockjaw one-liners like my lucky bastard classmates with their slightly above-average intelligence.
I remember the day I decided I wasn't the smartest boy in the world. I was watching TV — not sitcom reruns, for once, but a documentary on Hasidic Jews. The footage showed a room of young Hasidic boys about the same age as I was, at their desks, their noses buried in books. The narrator intoned that these boys studied for sixteen hours a day. I was blown away. Sixteen hours a day! My God. Even though I knew I had the initial advantage of the highest-quality brain, these boys studied so much, they must have pulled several lengths ahead of me in the intelligence horse race. I just couldn't compete with sixteen hours a day. This was an immense relief. A whole new day. I started watching Gilligan and Ginger and all the rest with impunity.
In the years that followed, I became increasingly less impressed with my own intelligence. My perceived place on the bell curve drifted farther and farther to the left. I went from being, in my mind, much smarter than my dad to a little smarter, to just as smart, and then, finally — if I had to guess when, it'd be somewhere in my freshman or sophomore year at college — less smart than my dad, the author of those imposing twenty-four books.
In retrospect, the revelation about my intelligence — the one inspired by the studious Hasidic boys — wasn't exactly the product of flawless logic. There's not a perfect correlation between hours of reading and intelligence. Perhaps there's very little correlation at all. Of course, I do realize I'm committing the same fallacy right now, twenty-three years later. Deep down, I know that reading the encyclopedia and jamming my brain full of facts won't necessarily allow me to reclaim my title as the smartest person alive. I know my quest is a bit of a lark. I know it's got a whiff — or maybe more than a whiff — of the absurd.
And just in case I didn't know, I'm constantly being told this by friends and family. My aunt Marti, who lives in Berkeley and is always ready to voice her skepticism, whether it's about our phallocentric government or our reliance on oppressive Western medicine, confronted me in a phone call the other day.
"Now, why are you reading the encyclopedia again?"
"I'm trying to become the smartest man in the world."
"And how are you defining intelligence? Just the amount of information you have?"
"Well, that's not very intelligent."
"Well, I haven't gotten to the letter I."
It's an easy response, but there's something to it. I'm not so deluded that I think I'll gain one IQ point for every thousand pages. I don't honestly think that the folks from the MacArthur genius grant will be kicking down my door. But I also believe that there is some link between knowledge and intelligence. Maybe knowledge is the fuel and intelligence is the car? Maybe facts are the flying buttresses and intelligence is the cathedral? I don't know the exact relation. But I'm sure the Britannica, somewhere in those 44 million words, will help me figure it out.
You can predict the future based on dice (cleromancy), dots on paper (geomancy), fire and smoke (pyromancy), entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy), animal livers (hepatoscopy), or shoulder blades of animals (scapulimancy). They had me up until the crazy shoulder blades part.
The A's have been lousy with Aztecs. They popped up under all sorts of headings, including American Peoples, Arts of Native and Alcohol and Drug Consumption (they called magic mushrooms "God's flesh"). And here they are again, under plain old Aztec. Thanks to the Britannica, I now know the Aztecs prophesied the destruction of the earth followed by an age when humans become monkeys. Hey, that's the plot of Planet of the Apes! Damn you, Hollywood! You stole the idea from the Aztecs. Damn you to hell!
I polish off the monkey-fixated Aztecs, and just like that, I'm done with the A's. It's been two weeks, and I am now one twenty-sixth of my way to the summit. I have absorbed 3.8 percent of all the knowledge in the world. I slam my Britannica shut and do a little touchdown dance. Yes! I am the alpha male.
And yet, do I feel smarter? Have I proved my skeptical aunt Marti wrong yet? Well, I do know a lot more information, but in a way, I'm feeling more insecure than ever. I'm worried I'm not intelligent enough to process all my data into some coherent conclusion or worldview. I'm worried I'm not focusing on the right things. Take Aristotle. Here's one of the great philosophers of all time. I should be drinking in his theories on morality and epistemology. Instead, I'm fascinated by Aristotle's obscure maxim about marriage: that men should be thirty-seven and women should be eighteen when they take their vows. Aristotle came up with that theory because — now here's an odd coincidence — when he was thirty-seven he married an eighteen-year-old woman. I like that he rationalized his dirty-old-man behavior with a grand philosophical statement. There are a lot of Aristotelians in Hollywood, I chuckle to myself. So that's the profound conclusion I draw from the essay on Aristotle. That he likes young ladies.
Maybe by the end of the Bs I'll be smart enough to concentrate on the Big Picture.
Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs
Chapter Two: B
I am making sacrifices in my quest for knowledge. No one can argue with that. I wake up early, about 7 A.M., which is the middle of the night for most journalists. I read in the morning, I read at night. I'm on the verge of losing a half dozen friends because I've got no time to call them back. And worst of all, I've missed several hours of crucial television, including what Julie tells me was a particularly riveting Real World episode in which an enraged girl throws a fork at another cast member.
So it's tough, this pursuit of intelligence. But I feel humbled by Sir Francis Bacon, who made the ultimate sacrifice. He died in the quest for knowledge, a martyr to the cause.
I hadn't remembered much about Bacon from school, except that he's suspected by some to be the real Shakespeare. Also, he wore a huge ruffled collar. So, as you can see, it was nice to get a refresher course.
I learned Bacon — a 17th-century intellectual and politician — had a troubled public life. He was convicted of taking bribes in 1621 and thrown in the Tower of London. His defense: yes, he took the bribes, but they didn't affect his judgment (not his best moment). As a scholar, he wrote cleverly about language and the philosophy of science.
But my favorite fact about Bacon, the one that will stick with me, is how he died. It happened in March of 1626, north of London. Bacon was riding along in his horse and carriage when he suddenly decided he needed to know whether snow delays putrefaction. So he abruptly stopped his carriage, hopped out to buy a hen, and stuffed it with snow. Unfortunately, this caused him to be seized with a sudden chill, which brought on bronchitis, and he died soon after at a friend's house.
This, to me, is a noble anecdote. Okay, it's a little embarrassing that his death involved frozen poultry. And maybe he displayed a touch of sadism — I'm just hoping the poor hen wasn't alive when he rammed snow into its gullet. But there's also something great about it. Bacon had such an itch for knowledge, he was so giddy about an idea, that he just went bonkers and bolted out of his carriage. The man couldn't wait another second to find out more about antiputrefaction techniques. I find this inspiring. If you're going to give your life for a cause, furtherance of knowledge has got to be in the top two or three. In Bacon's honor, I put down the Britannica and go defrost a frozen bagel in the microwave.
This is the official name for a penis bone. The baculum can be found in hedgehogs, shrews, and bats. Interesting. I had no idea. The only time I'd ever even encountered the concept of a penis bone was during conversations with my college friend Ileana. Ileana had a very casual relationship with the truth. She liked to tell me stories about the pet llamas in her New York apartment, and her father's love affair with singer Robert Goulet. And once, she told me a detailed story about how her brother had broken his penis bone. He had been standing naked in front of an open window admiring the view from his hotel room, when — whoom — the window slid down and snapped his penis bone right in half.
"It's been three months, and he still has to wear the penis cast," she told me. "I was the first one to sign it."
"But Ileana," I said, "the penis doesn't have a bone."
"Oh," she said. That was it — no apology, no attempt at backtracking, just an "oh." Now, after reading about the baculum, I realize that Ileana's brother was probably a hedgehog.
My newfound knowledge bubbles up in my brain at strange times. In the elevator up to work, I stood behind an Asian man who happened to be bald. That's odd, I thought to myself. According to the encyclopedia, baldness in Asians is rare. It's rare in Asians and Native Americans. I guess what we have here is one of the unlucky few Asians who couldn't hold on to his follicles. I feel like giving him my condolences.
Barnum, P. T.
When he was eighty-one, Barnum fell gravely ill. At his request, a New York newspaper printed his obituary in advance so that he might enjoy it. That's brilliant. In fact, that could be a nice new revenue stream for newspapers — they could sell obits to people on their deathbeds. The encyclopedia is giving me lots of good ideas.
A popular form of entertainment in 16th-century England. A bear was tied to a stake, and trained dogs were set upon it. Other variations included a bull tied to a stake and a pony with an ape tied to his back. Sounds like Fox has itself a new TV show!
My growing collection of facts keeps overlapping with my life. I knew it would happen, but I'm surprised at the frequency. Several times an hour, a little internal "ding" goes off in my mind. I step into the bathtub for a shower, and I flash to the 17th-century health clinics where people stayed in baths for days at a time. I have my cereal, and I'm reminded of the world's longest breakfast table, in Battle Creek, Michigan. I read about a Boy Scouts controversy in the newspaper and I think of the scout movement's founder, Robert Baden-Powell, who also, incidentally, pioneered the use of hot-air balloons in military spying.
These little sparks happen so often that I couldn't possibly work them all into conversation. Which, I'm sure, is a great relief to those around me. But I can mention some of them — and I do. Like today at the office.
I wander in to chat with my fellow editor Mark. Mark is the office intellectual — a tall, brilliant Texan with a floppy Hugh Grant haircut. He's been working at Esquire an astounding fourteen years, a fact that causes plenty of amusement among the rest of the staff. "Mark, weren't you Hemingway's editor?" "Mark, were you at the Rita Hayworth photo shoot?" That kind of thing.
So I make my way into Mark's office, which is difficult, since he hasn't thrown away a book in his fourteen years. The floor is covered with waist-high piles of volumes by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. It's bedlam in there (a word, by the way, that comes from Bethlehem Royal Hospital, a notorious London insane asylum).
"So that was a great event last night," I say.
"A really great event," agrees Mark.
The previous night we had been to an Esquire function that featured a speech by a budding politician named Cory Booker. Cory spoke passionately about the inner city, and ended his speech with a long, inspiring quote from James Baldwin.
"God, you have to love that James Baldwin quote."
"One of Esquire's own, that James Baldwin," says Mark. Having been at Esquire since the quill pen era, Mark has also become the office historian.
"Really?" I say. "I didn't know that."
"Yes, Esquire published 'The Fire Next Time.' "
Huh? I had just read the Baldwin essay in the encyclopedia, and I happen to remember that "The Fire Next Time" — Baldwin's groundbreaking article on civil rights — first appeared in The New Yorker. Usually, I keep my mouth clamped and listen in awe to Mark. He's a great talker — he often speaks in full paragraphs — and he knows his stuff, especially about magazine history. But this particular fact he did not know. And this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
"Actually, I think that appeared in The New Yorker," I say.
"No, it was Esquire."
"No, I'm pretty sure it's The New Yorker."
"It wasn't The New Yorker," says Mark. Then he wavers: "Well, maybe it was The Progressive. But it certainly wasn't The New Yorker."
I scurry back to my office and look up Baldwin on the Internet. Yup. "The Fire Next Time" appeared in The New Yorker. I e-mail Mark the news, concluding my note with some helpful advice: "Also, if you have any questions for Bavarian cream pie or beavers, just let me know."
So I had done it. I had made my first correction, and I corrected a brilliant man, to boot. I felt great. Well, actually I felt like kind of a dick. But also great.
Back to the books. The world's largest bell was built in 1733 in Moscow, and weighed in at more than four hundred thousand pounds. It never rang — it was broken by fire before it could be struck. What a sad little story. All that work, all that planning, all those expectations — then nothing. Now it just sits there in Russia, a big metallic symbol of failure. I have a moment of silence for the silent bell.
The British ethical philosopher — who advocated the greatest good for the greatest number of people — died in 1834. "After Bentham's death, in accordance with his directions, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then reconstructed, supplied with a wax head to replace the original (which had been mummified), dressed in Bentham's own clothes, and set upright in a glass-fronted case. Both this effigy and the head are preserved in University College, London." Not sure how that contributes to the greater good of mankind. The greater creepiness, yes.
Savage Norse soldiers from the middle ages who, it is said, went into battle naked. Hence "going berserk." So to truly go berserk, you should take off your pants. Noted.
A German avant-garde performance artist whose most famous piece was entitled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. For the piece, "Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe soled with felt and one with iron, and walked through an art gallery for about two hours, quietly explaining the art therein to a dead hare he carried."
Huh. And for this he gets himself written up in the encyclopedia. Maybe I'm a philistine, but I don't see the brilliance of this. If he explained pictures to a dead hamster or a dead iguana — yes, that would be ingenious. But a dead hare? Eh. Feels lazy.
The condom, according to legend, was invented by a British physician named Dr. Condom, who was alarmed by Charles II's growing flock of illegitimate offspring. That's the legend, anyway. The sober Britannica instead endorses the theory that the condom is named for the Latin word condus, which means a receptacle. The condom, the pill, the IUD, the vasectomy — they all get their proper due in this section. But I prefer the creativity of the earlier birth control techniques, which ranged from the delicious (using honey as a spermicide) to the aerobic (jumping backward seven times after coitus).
Those are good to know. Very relevant. I tell Julie not to jump backward seven times after sex and to keep honey safely above her belt. We can't afford any mishaps. For the past year, Julie and I have been trying to have a baby. We're getting a bit desperate. It doesn't help that all of Julie's friends are breeding like the female octopus, which lays and cares for 150,000 eggs. They're frighteningly fertile, her friends. They seem to get pregnant if they brush up against their husbands in the hallway. Which means there's a growing platoon of diaper-wearing creatures stomping through our lives, and an accompanying fleet of fold-up strollers and car seats. Meanwhile, Julie and I have nothing. Zilch. It's infuriating.
And it's not for want of effort. We follow her ovulations like a day trader follows the Nasdaq. She takes her temperature every morning, she makes charts and notes and annotations. Spreadsheets are involved. Still, bubkes. The Britannica points out that despite the widespread myth, women don't need orgasms to conceive. Which is a very good thing for us, because at this point, our sex life has become about as erotic as artificial respiration (which, by the way, should be given at a rate of twelve breaths per minute).
I suppose the world isn't screaming out for another child. Each week, the Britannica says, 1.4 million more people are born into this world than leave it. But I can't help it — I really want one of those little drooling, burping eight-pound creatures. I didn't expect to want a kid this badly, but I do. I yearn to be a dad.
Not that I'm ready. I'm pretty sure I'm way too self-absorbed and immature — and ignorant. When I was growing up, my father knew the answers to all the Frequently Asked Children's Questions: How far down does dirt go? Why don't the Chinese fall off the earth? Why do the leaves change color? He knew how things worked — why the fridge was cold, how the water got to our sink. I've forgotten all that knowledge. Maybe I'll feel better at Z.
The name comes from the early — and probably mistaken — belief that if the sledders bobbed their heads back and forth, it would increase the speed. Okay, ready for the sports bar.
The United Nations defines a book as a text that is at least forty-nine pages long. By that definition, the Britannica equals 673 books. Unsettling.
Just as unsettling: the number of prodigies in the Britannica. Braille developed his writing system for the blind at age fifteen. Bentham — the one who later had himself mummified — was studying Latin at the age of four. (When I was four, I was studying the effects of shoving bananas up my nose.) At age five, Aleksandr Blok was writing memorable Russian poetry. If I had known about these whiz kids back when I thought I was the smartest boy in the world, I wonder if I would have seen them as compadres, or if it would have snapped me out of my dream.
Here, the ovoid tangle of neurons that, I hope, will be encoding every mountain range and vice president and 15th-century Icelandic bishop. The Britannica's brain-related highlights so far: the Greeks believed that it produced mucus, which gives new meaning to blowing your brains out. Also, if I ever take up boxing, I should do the old bare-knuckle style, which ironically causes less devastation to the neurons. (Bare-knuckle boxers rarely hit on the head for fear of breaking their hands.) With my mortal fear of brain damage, this is important information.
This liquor was allegedly invented when a Dutch shipmaster concentrated wine, planning to add water to it when he arrived on shore. He never got a chance. Everyone started dipping into the concentrate. Impatience has its advantages.
Julie and I arrive at my parents' apartment for the holiday gift exchange. It's sort of Hanukkah-related, but since we're not so religious, we throw a nod to New Year's for good measure.
Mom greets us at the door.
"Happy Holidays!" she says, giving us each a kiss on the cheek. "And Happy 2003."
"Actually, technically, it's probably 'Happy 2007,' " I say.
"Really?" says Mom. "Why is that?"
"Well, because scientists believe Jesus was actually born between 4 and 6 B.C."
By this time, Julie has long since departed for the safety of the living room. But Mom, being my mom, is stuck listening. She's supportive of everything I do, not counting the time my sister and I took hang gliding lessons from a Deadhead or all those open car windows in arctic temperatures.
I explain to Mom that the Bible talks about Jesus' birth coinciding with the Star of Bethlehem, which wasn't a star at all, but an astronomical phenomenon. It was either a nova that occurred in 5 B.C. or the combined light of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which all nearly lined up in 6 B.C.
"Well, then, Happy 2007," she says.
God bless Mom. I have to remember to hang out with her more often.
As for the gift exchange, I get a sweater and some pants. My sister Beryl and her husband, Willy, give me a couple books that I can't even imagine reading until 2008 or so.
Julie — a master gift buyer — had scoured catalogues and stores to get my family exceedingly appropriate presents. I was happy to take partial credit. In my defense, I did help write the cards, including my masterpiece, the one to Beryl, which started: "Dear Be3Al2(SiO3)6."
"This is for me, right?" Beryl asks.
"Yep. That's the chemical symbol for the beryl mineral."
"I thought that might be it."
"One of the largest beryls was found in Brazil — two hundred tons. So compared to that, you're very skinny."
That came out wrong. I had somehow just called my sister fat, which she isn't, and which I would like to take back, but it's too late.
After the gift exchange, we all clean up the mess of wrapping paper and ribbons that has accumulated on the floor.
"So I've officially passed you," I say to my dad, as we take out the holiday detritus. "I'm in late B's."
"Anything interesting?" he asks.
"I was just reading about broccoli. You know, it's officially classed as a type of cabbage."
My dad nods his head. "I've got a good fact for you," says my dad. "You know the speed of light, right?"
"Yes. 186,000 miles per second."
"Yes, but do you know it in fathoms per fortnight?"
"Do you know the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight?"
"Uh, don't think I do."
My dad tells me that he has calculated the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight so that he can be the only person in the world who knows that particular piece of information. That, as my mother would say, is "very Arnie."
"It's 1.98 x 1014" he says.
"Wow. Really fascinating." My tone is definitely snappish, aggressive. My dad looks a little hurt. I'm not sure why I said it the way I did — I guess I felt he'd one-upped me — but it wasn't in the holiday spirit, that's for sure.
My left eye has turned a bright lobster shell red. I'm not positive it's tied to my exhausting marathon reading sessions, but I like to think it is. I consider it my first Britannica-related injury, and I wear it proudly. Though I don't want to go blind like your average early blues singer (Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson), a little manly eyestrain seems appropriate.
Julie got concerned and has bought me several bags of baby carrots to help my rods and cones. Carrots, by the way, are a close cousin of hemlock (both in the Apiaceae family), so I'm hoping Julie didn't mix the two up.
I was familiar with Brutus, the one featured in Shakespeare's classic line "Et tu, Brute." But what I didn't know was that there were two Brutuses who took part in Caesar's assassination, Brutus Albinus and Brutus Marcus. But only one Brutus — Marcus — gets all the headlines. That poor sap Brutus Albinus — also a protégé of Caesar's — needed a better publicist. "Et tu, Brute. Et tu, Brute, too?" I can't be certain, but the forgotten Brutus seems to have been the more powerful one at the time. After the assassination, this Brutus led an army against Antony; he lost, and was killed by a Gallic chieftain on Antony's orders. Ignored by history or killed by a Frenchman — I'm not sure which is sadder.
Here's something I'm learning: what a shockingly conventional thinker I am. Despite my liberal cross-cultural education at Brown, despite my delusion that I can think creatively, I'm realizing that I've been trained to look at life in a very particular way.
Consider burial. I always figured, when you are buried, your body is lying down on its back in the sleeping position. It just seemed natural. It never occurred to me that there were other options on this particular menu. But there are.
The Britannica reveals that some early cultures buried their dead in a crouching or squatting position. Also, North American Indians buried their dead in a fetal position, with the knees tucked under the chin and the body neatly tied in a bundle. Other cultures have opted for upright burial, especially for warriors.
This was startling to me. Without even realizing it, I'd always bought into the metaphor that death was the long sleep. But maybe it's not. Maybe it's the long gestation, so you should be in the fetal position. Or maybe it's the long bus ride, so you should be standing.
I like uncovering the cultural prejudices that I didn't even know I had. Maybe these revelations will have a practical application someday. Maybe I'll opt to be buried in the sitting position, remote control in hand. But for now, I feel that I've widened my perspective. And frankly, I feel ever so slightly superior, not only to my former self but to all those losers who think of burial as a horizontal affair. A small but important victory as I finish letter number two.
Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs