This book apparently began with the author
A.J. Jacobs deciding to carry on from where his father left off - reading the
Encyclopedia Britannica (which by the way, since it is truly British, should
be the “Encyclopaedia” Britannica)! In fact, by page 78, the author admits
that with the Scottish heritage of the EB, the Greek spelling was used, hence
“Encyclopaedia”, but continues after that with the American spelling.
Perhaps he is a slow learner.
What Jacobs has done is almost an abbreviated version of Bill Bryson’s A
Short History of Nearly Everything, but allowed the Encyclopedia Britannica to
do the research. All Jacobs had to do was read it, and absorb. And comment.
This he has done very well, adding in his own literary license footnotes, as
it were, with many bringing forth the previously dry and dusty facts and
giving them more relevance. For example, when discussing child prodigies he
writes, “Braille discovered his writing system for the blind at age 15.
Bentham (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
Amongst other unforgettable facts you can glean from the EB, with Jacob’s
help, is that a gymnasium is the Greek translation of “a school for naked
exercise”. This may explain in part the current popularity of going to the
gym. And we are only up to the letter “G”.
I was also interested to find that the Thai ‘sniff kiss’ is not a SE Asian
original. The Laplanders do it. My inability to sniff kiss properly at least
proves that I haven’t been promiscuous all over Lapland, if nothing else.
While dwelling on items pseudo-sexual, Jacobs mentions that “Elephant
copulation lasts 20 seconds.” And follows that up with “That should make a
lot of men feel better.”
And did you know that mime started in the Greco-Roman times and Jacobs lets
you into the secret that “Mime plots centered principally on scenes of
adultery and other vice. Evidence exists that acts of adultery were actually
performed on the mime stage during the Roman Empire. Execution scenes with
convicted criminals in place of actors are on record.” This all makes
gyrations in the nude on the stage of Thailand’s chrome pole palaces seem
fairly tame by comparison. But then, perhaps they didn’t try and stay open
past 1 a.m.
The Know It All (ISBN 0-09-948174-X, Arrow Books 2004) is all in all a fun
book and one that could stimulate a few readers to look up the EB themselves.
Knowledge is power is the old adage, which may or may not be so, but it
certainly makes for great books! At B. 450, this book does have value, even if
just as a catalyst or a jumping off point for further study. And look at what
you can learn, even if it is just how to have the odd snog with a Laplander,
or laughing behind your hand at the next elephant you see flogging its bananas