Some men cross deserts of ice and others sail solo around the world, but New York journalist Jacob’s endurance test was more demanding. Because he felt he had been smarter at university than he was working as an editor at Esquire (where he knew details of Britney's life) he decided he needed to arrest his long, slow slide into increasing dumbness.
So he decided to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from start to finish. No skimming, just working his way doggedly through all 34,000 pages and 44 million words of it.
In a sense he was following a family tradition: his lawyer father had attempted the same feat once but given up around “Borneo”.
When Jacobs tells him of his intention his father says, “I hear the Ps are excellent”.
Jacobs also inherited his father’s wit because this account -- alphabetical of course -- is hilarious as he tries to impress friends with his new-found knowledge, endures the often dry indifference of his long-suffering wife Julie, and heads off to join Mensa, interview people with sky-high IQs, and even enter Jeopardy in the expectation his chock-full brain will win him millions.
As a challenge it is daunting but his persistence is admirable and he takes the leather-bound volumes on holidays, and hunkers down every night for hours reading about migration, Milton and mime in rigid sequence.
“Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities,” he observes.
“The changes are so abrupt and restless you can’t help but get mental whiplash. You go from the depressing to the uplifting, from tiny to cosmic, from ancient to modern.”
In the turn of a page he leaps from theology to worm behaviour, but he revels in the odd juxtapositions, and throughout this information-filled book he offers insight, philosophy and gossip. (Napoleon’s sister slept with Metternich, the Austrian statesman).
But what is also here is Jacobs’ self-effacing humour and his short-comings laid bare, his eccentric and prank-playing father who is a great character in his own right, a family of high power intellects among whose company he feels inferior, and the fact he and his wife are trying for a baby.
So this is as much autobiography as his quest to become, as he puts it humbly, “the smartest person in the world”.
It’s an absurd task Jacobs set himself, but in the year it takes him to get from "a-ak" to "Zywiec" he makes it a wonderfully informative and often laugh-out-loud read.
And you might even come away just that fraction smarter.
By Graham Reid, posted