October 4, 2004

Know Nothing

A few weeks ago I added The Know-It-All to my recommendations list. The book, by my Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs, is about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover, and has been getting generally excellent reviews. Yesterday, however, Joe Queenan (with whom I've also worked) savaged it in The New York Times. Normally I say everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but in this case, Queenan gets some basic stuff so completely wrong that he renders his review invalid.

Queenan has three complaints about the book. The first is that the jokes are "corny, juvenile, smug, tired." Fair enough. I happen to disagree, but they didn't hire me to write the review. You can make up your own mind on this point by reading the first chapter. I might point out that immediately after leveling this charge, Queenan makes a joke of his own -- calling A.J. "a poor man's Dave Barry; no, a bag person's Dave Barry" -- that pretty much epitomizes those four adjectives.

But the review doesn't really go wrong until after this.

Queenan's second complaint is that Jacobs is unforgiveably ignorant of stuff that cultured people (i.e., Joe Queenan) already know. "A graduate of the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan and Brown University, Jacobs is a prime example of that curiously modern innovation: the pedigreed simpleton.... Jacobs constantly seeks to bedazzle the reader with his latest shocking discoveries, unaware that things he perceives as riveting arcana are common knowledge in many quarters."

But Jacobs' ignorance isn't a flaw of the book, it's the premise. He states explicitly and from the outset that despite his educational pedigrees, he never learned or has forgotten almost everything that smart people are supposed to know. He's not trying to dazzle us with facts as if nobody knows them (though I can promise you that not even Queenan knew most of the facts that are in this book), he's explaining how it feels for him to learn them for the first time. The bulk of Queenan's review is given to chastizing Jacobs for not knowing certain things. This is a little like condemning Angela's Ashes because Frank McCourt is too poor. He had to steal coal? Why would anyone do that? This loser seems unaware that heat is common in many quarters.

This brings us to Queenan's third unsupportable complaint, which he introduces by saying, "the premise of the book is completely wrong." What's really completely wrong is Queenan's idea of what the premise is. He thinks it's this: "The animating idea of this misguided endeavor is that corralling a vast array of unrelated facts will, in and of itself, make a person more interesting. This is idiotic. Facts absorbed without context merely magnify the intellectual deficiencies of the autodidact, because a poorly educated person does not know which facts are important."

If you followed the first chapter link above, that paragraph will sound familiar. It sounds an awful lot like this one: "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."

The fact that Jacobs raises, in chapter one, the same point with which Queenan attacks him, should indicate that Queenan is missing something here. It's true that the conceit of the book (which is subtly but genuinely different from a "premise") is that our narrator intends to read the Britannica in hopes of becoming as the subtitle says, "the smartest person in the world." But even if the hyperbole didn't tip you off, it's plain from the start that this will probably be, as Queenan puts it, "a foolish enterprise." Indeed, Queenan's supposed complaint about the book is nothing less than the conclusion of the book itself. And we also learn that Jacobs has other, more interesting, motivations for taking on this project.

Queenan repeatedly questions (without evidence) whether Jacobs actually read all 33,000 pages of the Britannica. I can pretty much guarantee that he did. What I'm less sure of is whether Queenan read all 400 pages of The Know-It-All.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


This is a little like condemning Angela's Ashes because Frank McCourt is too poor. He had to steal coal? Why would anyone do that? This loser seems unaware that heat is common in many quarters.

I just LOL'd. Thank you. Great way to end the day.

Dear Mr. Professional Writer,

Is there an English word for a review of a review?

Thank you.

Arturo the engineer.

Arturo: That word is "fisk".

Nah, a fisk is a point-by-point rebuttal of any article, not necessarily a review, and it's much more by-the-numbers than my artful, um, whatever its called.

Can't find fisk in the dictionary. Who is Fisk?

No, you are wrong. Queenan is right. I have heard Jacobs on NPR too many times. I recently heard him go on at length about Victoria Woodhull. He tried to dazzle the interviewer with her story as being so little-known, but then blew his theory about her obscurity when he mantioned that someone is making a film about her in Hollywood. My guess is that he never took an intro to American History in the 19th century. If he did, he must have been asleep in class.

I finished the Know-It-All pretty unconvinced myself that Jacobs had actually read the whole thing. I mean, he admits to some serious skimming in the book, and I guess I think he probably did a lot more skimming than what he lets on. Take awhile and start looking at the random facts he cites over the course of the book (not the alphabetic entries, but the facts from other volumes sprinkled within the alphabetic entries) and his note-taking seems like it must have been erratic, if his reading wasn't.

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