I first read about this book in my brother’s copy of Mental Floss, a semiannual rag that’s, well, random stuff for intellectuals. Kind of like McSweeney’s, only less pretentiously literate.
The setup is this: the author, who is a senior editor at Esquire, plans to read the entire 32-volume, 65’000-article, 44-million word Encyclopædia Britannica. I expected something entirely quirky, and it was, but what surprised me most was just how good the book turned out to be.
In some ways, the book is akin to George Carlin’s Brain Droppings—though decidedly less blue—in that it is structures mostly in little dollops under headers taken from the encyclopedia. Consider Jacobs’ entry for “giraffe,” reproduced here in its entirety:
“The voice has so rarely been heard, that the animal is supposed to be voiceless, but it is capable of low call notes and moans.” Good to know next time I’m playing with kids: “A cow says moo, a cat says meow, the giraffe says [imitate nonsexual low moan here].”
However, other entries are considerably longer, and Jacobs uses these entries to weave together a tale not only rich in private jokes (a comment in the S’s, for instance, will be funny to those of us who remember some witticism from the B’s), but with a strong frame narrative to help it along: he includes his interview with Alex Trebek, his performance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, his travails with his wife in an attempt to conceive a child, and his amorphous-yet-heartwarming relationship with his father (and, to a lesser extent, his brother-in-law).
Along the way, we’re treated to a variety of viewpoints on intelligence (hence, the practicality of Jacobs’ quest), strange Mensa members, and enough trivia to send one reeling. One of my surprise favorites thus far this year. A truly enjoyable read.