I know the name of Turkey’s leading avant-garde publication. I know that Bud Abbott was a double-crosser and John Quincy Adams married for money. I know that there’s a heated controversy over who invented the accordian. I know that dwarves have prominent buttocks.
I know that Hank Aaron played for a team called the Indianapolis Clowns and that the British tried to tax clocks in 1797 (big mistake). I know that Adam of Bible fame lived longer than the combined ages of the correspondents of 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II (930 years, to be exact). I know that absentee voting is huge in Ireland. I know that South America’s Achagua tribe worshipped lakes, that the man who introduced baseball to Japan was a communist, and that Ulysses S. Grant thought Venice would be a nice city “if it were drained.”
I know all this because I have just read the first 100 pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I feel as giddy as famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo on a high altitude flight – but also alarmed at the absurd amount of information in the world. I feel like I’ve just stuffed my brain till there are facts dribbling out of my ears. But mostly, I am determined. I’m going to read this book from A to Z–or more precisely a-ak to zywiec. I’m not even out of the early A’s, but I’m going to keep turning those pages till I’m done. I’m on my way. Just 32,900 pages to go!
How did this happen? How did I find myself plopped on my couch squinting at tiny font about dwarf buttocks and South American lakes? Let me back up a little.
I used to be smart. Back in high school and college, I was actually considered somewhat cerebral. I brought D.H. Lawrence novels on vacations, earnestly debated the fundamentals of Marxism, peppered my conversation with words like ‘albeit.’ I knew my stuff. Then, in the years since graduating college, I began a long, slow slide into dumbness. At age 35, 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.
Like many in my generation, I’ve watched my expensive college education recede into a haze. Sure, I remember a couple things from my four years at Brown University. For instance, I remember that a burrito left on the dorm room floor is still somewhat edible after five days, as long as you chew really hard. But as for bona-fide book-learning? Off the top of my head, I recall exactly three things from my classes:
1) When my comp lit professor outed Walt Whitman.
2) When the radical feminist in my Spanish class infuriated the teacher by refusing to use masculine pronouns. “La pollo.” “No, el pollo.” “La pollo.” “No, no, no, el pollo.” Etc.
3) When the guy in my Nietzsche seminar raised his hand and said, “If I listen to one more minute of this, I’m going to go crazy,” then promptly stood up, walked to the back of the class, and jumped out the window. It was a ground floor window. But still. It was memorable.
My career choices are partly to blame for my intellectual swan dive. After college, I got a job as a writer at Entertainment Weekly, a magazine devoted to the minutiae of movies, TV and music. I crammed my cranium with pop culture jetsam. I learned the names of N’ Sync’s singers, as well as their choreographer. I could tell you which stars have toupees, which have fake breasts, and which have both. But this meant anything profound got pushed out. I could talk confidently about the donut-eating Homer, but I’d forgotten all about the blind guy who wrote long poems. I stopped reading anything except for tabloid gossip columns and books with pictures of attractive celebrities on the cover. In my library, I actually have a well-thumbed copy of Marilu Henner’s autobiography.
Things improved slightly when I got a job as an editor at Esquire magazine (I now know that syrah and Shiraz are the same wine grape), but still, my current knowledge base is pathetically patchy, filled with gaps the size of Marlon Brando-whose autobiography I’ve read, by the way.
I’ve been toying with the idea of reading the Britannica for years. Since I haven’t accomplished anything particularly impressive in my life, unless you count my childhood collection of air sickness bags from every major airline, I’ve always thought of this as a good crucible. The tallest mountain of knowledge. My Everest. And happily, this Everest won’t cause icicles to form on my ears or deprive me of oxygen, one of my favorite gases. I’ll get a crash course in everything. I will leave no gap in my learning unfilled. In this age of extreme specialization, I’ll be the last guy in America to have all general knowledge. I’ll be, quite possibly, the smartest man in the world.
I’ve actually dabbled in reference books before. After college, I spent a couple days poring over Webster’s dictionary–but mostly I was looking for two-letter words that I could use in Scrabble to make annoyingly clever moves. (I was kind of unemployed at the time.) And that turned out to be a very successful experience. You can bet your bottom xu (Vietnam monetary unit) that I kicked the butt of my jo (Scottish slang for girlfriend) without even putting on a gi (karate outfit).
But the encyclopedia idea I stole from my father. When I was a freshman in high school, my dad, a New York lawyer, decided he was going to read the Britannica. My father is a man who loves learning. He went to engineering grad school, then to business grad school, then to law school. He was about to enroll in medical school when my mom told him that maybe it’d be a good idea to get a job, since jobs earn money, which is kind of helpful when trying to buy food. But even with a day job, he continued his book addiction and scholarly writing. Back in 1982, he decided the Britannica was a good way to become an instant expert on all subjects. He made it up to the mid-B’s–I think it was right around Borneo–before giving up, blaming his busy schedule. Now I’m going to take up the cause. I’m going to redeem the family honor.
I called up my dad to tell him the good news.
“I’m going to finish what you started.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” he said.
“I’m going to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
A pause. “I hear that the P’s are excellent.”
I figured he’d have a wisecrack. That’s his way. He’s got a universe of information and wisdom in his head, but with my sister and me, he’d rather tell jokes and play silly games, like filling our water glasses to the very top, making it impossible to drink without spilling. He saves his serious talks for work–or for the other lawyers in the family, of which there are a good dozen. Maybe that’ll change soon. Maybe when I start telling him about the intricacies of the Phoenician legal system, he’ll include me in the adult circle.
I tried my idea out on my wife, Julie, that night as we started scrubbing a mound of dishes.
“I think I need to get smarter, ” I said.
“Why? You’re plenty smart.” Julie motioned for me to hand her the sponge.
“I think I need to cut down on Reality TV,” I said.
“We could probably limit ourselves to two or three hours a day.”
“And I think I’m going to read the encyclopedia.” No response. “The Encyclopaedia Britannica, from A to Z.”
I could tell Julie was skeptical, and with good reason. I met her when we were both working atEntertainment Weekly. She was on the business-side, selling ads and chatting up clients, as comfortable in social settings as I am awkward, as practical as I am unrealistic. The romance was slow to start-mostly because she thought I was gay-but she’s stuck with me for five years now. In that time, she’s heard me announce plenty of other grand schemes–like the time I tried to start a magazine-wide ping-pong league, or my plan to write a screenplay about a president with Tourette’s Syndrome (working title: Hail to the Freakin’ Chief)–only to see them fizzle.
“I don’t know, honey,” she said finally. “Sounds like kind of a waste of time.”
Make that skeptical and slightly concerned. Julie has enough trouble dragging me out of the apartment to interact with actual, three-dimensional human beings. The encyclopedia, she no doubt surmised, would give me one more excuse to stay pinned to our comfortable couch. “What about eating dinner at every restaurant in New York?” Julie suggested. “You can start with the restaurants with A names, and work your way to the Z’s? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
A valiant try. But I’m dead serious about Operation Encyclopaedia.
I got no more enthusiasm when I told my friends. “Can’t you just read the Cliff’s Notes?” was a popular response. One friend suggested that I read every volume of the children’s book Encyclopaedia Brown instead. Some wondered if maybe the World Book wasn’t more my speed. At least that one has lots of pictures. No, it has to be the Britannica, I told them.
And it does. Last night, I did some preliminary research on encyclopedias. The Britannica is still the gold standard, the Tiffany’s of encyclopedias. Founded in 1768, it’s the longest continually published reference book in history. Over the years, the Britannica’s contributors have included Einstein, Freud and Harry Houdini. Its current roster includes dozens of academics with Nobels, Pulitzers and other types of awards with ceremonies that don’t feature commentary from Melissa Rivers. The Britannica passed through some tough times during the dot-com craze, and it long ago phased out the door-to-door salesman, but it keeps chugging along. The legendary Eleventh edition from 1911 is thought by many to be the best-it’s inspired a fervid if mild-mannered cult –but the current editions are still the greatest single source of knowledge.
Yes, there’s the Internet. I could try to read Google from A to Z. But the Internet’s about as reliable as publications sold next to Trident and Duracell at the supermarket checkout line. Want a quick check on the trustworthiness of the Internet? Do a search on the words ‘perffectionist’ and ‘perfestionist.’ No, I prefer my old-school books. There’s something appealingly stable about the Britannica. I don’t even want that new-fangled CD-ROM for $49 or the monthly Britannica online service. I’ll take the leatherette volumes for $1400–which is not cheap, but it’s certainly less expensive than grad school. And anyway, at the end of this, maybe I can go on Jeopardy! and win enough to buy a dozen sets.
A couple days after placing my order, my boxes arrive. There are three of them, and they’re each big enough to hold an air conditioner. I rip open the cardboard and get a look at my new purchase. It’s a handsome set of books– sleek and black, with gold embossing on the spine that spells out the first and last entries in that volume. An actual example: Excretion/Geometry. Another: Menage/Ottawa, which somehow confirms what we’ve all heard about those wanton Canadians.
Seeing the Britannica in three-dimensions not only causes Julie to panic that it’ll eat up most of our apartment’s shelf space, it also drives home the magnitude of my quest. I’m looking at 33,000 pages, 75,000 articles, 4,500 contributors, 24,000 images. I’m looking at 32 volumes, each one weighing in at a solid 4 pounds, each packed with those giant tissue-thin pages. The total: 44 million words.
As a clever procrastination device, I pile all the volumes on the floor in one big stack. It reaches past my nipples. Four foot two! Practically a Danny DeVito of knowledge. I do a little shadow box with my new adversary, feint a right jab, then step back and look at it again. It’s a disturbing sight. Is this whole endeavor really a bright idea? Is this the best use of my time? Maybe I should try to accomplish something easier, like taking a course at Columbia University or buying a new bathing suit. But no, I’ve made a commitment.
I plunk the first volume on my lap. It feels weighty. It feels learned. It feels good. When I crack it open, the sturdy spine gives me a pleasant amount of resistance. And then I start to read.
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 magazineEntertainment 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 wasreally 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 movieHair 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 watchingGilligan’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 theBritannica, 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, includingAmerican 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.