The Know Enough

HERE'S THE PROBLEM. IN 2004, I WROTE A MEMOIR ABOUT HOW I read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z—every one of its 44 million words. I called the book The Know-It-All. So, when it came time for my book tour, people kind of expected me to, well, know it all.

It's in the damn title. I mean, Bob Dole wouldn't have written a memoir called One Soldier's Story if he had spent World War II milking cows in Kansas. My tour was scheduled to begin in September, so for the entire summer, I studied furiously. I knew that I'd get quizzed at every reading, on every radio interview, at every cocktail party. And I knew I needed to be prepared for whatever someone might throw at me, whether or not it was in the encyclopedia. I bought a heap of almanacs and trivia books to supplement the Britannica, and tried to memorize every state capital, every British monarch since Alfred the Great, every species of marsupial.

Problem is, there are a lot of freakin' species of marsupials. The whole thing was an impossible task, akin to drinking and retaining the Atlantic Ocean (from the Greek for "Sea of Atlas"). A lifetime of taunting seemed inevitable. "What's the matter?" they'd say. "Don't know the first bishop of Iceland? You're not a know-it-all. You're a know-nothing!"

Then, one day in late August, about a month before the tour began, I had a flash of insight. It happened when I was at a get-

together with my wife Julie's entire family—mom, dad, brother, and various nephews and nieces. We were all in Julie's parents' living room, watching Romeo + Juliet, the funky MTV version directed by Baz Luhrmann. During a snack intermission about halfway through, Julie asked me when Shakespeare wrote the original Romeo and Juliet, the one without the Mexican mafia gangs.

At once, everyone turned to hear my enlightened response.

"Um . . ." I scoured my brain. Nothing. I scoured some more. Still nothing! I couldn't remember the date of a single Shakespeare play, much less the date of his most famous romantic tragedy. In fact, I couldn't remember much about Shakespeare at all, except that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and had longish hair. Oh, and one other fact, which I figured I might as well share. "Well, I do know that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the exact same day: April 23, 1616."

"That's odd," said my mother-in-law. At which point commenced a lively discussion of death-related date coincidences (Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July, Aldous Huxley died the same day JFK was shot), and everyone forgot that I was totally ignorant of when Romeo and Juliet arrived on the scene.

This was a stunningly successful bait and switch. And it led to the most important insight of the whole project: To be a know-it-all, you don't actually have to know it all. You just need to know one remarkable fact about every topic under the sun (a heavenly body, by the way, that is 330,000 times the mass of Earth). I made a mental note to take full advantage of this while on tour.

As it turns out, the trick saved me from humiliation on multiple occasions. Whatever the question, I always had something to say—even if it wasn't 100 percent on-target. During one reading, for instance, I was accosted by a pesky attendee who was intent on stumping me. "Who was the pharaoh after Tutankhamen?" he asked.

"It's funny," I replied. "I was just thinking about the ancient Egyptians. Did you know that they made mummies of their cats—but they also made mummies of mice so the cats would have something to eat in the afterlife? Very considerate."

Sure, people might figure out you're dodging questions like a cabinet nominee testifying before a Senate subcommittee. But if you're interesting enough, they just won't care.

Here's a handy chart of other fascinating bits of trivia, so you can be a conversational MacGyver too:

Topic: Philosophy

Fact: French philosopher Rene Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women.

Topic: Theater

Fact: George Bernard Shaw sat for a very early nude photo in the pose of Rodin's Thinker.

Topic: Medicine

Fact: Bayer aspirin invented heroin.

Topic: Film

Fact: Humphrey Bogart coined the phrase "Tennis, anyone?" when he was a Broadway actor playing a rich guy.

Topic: Sex

Fact: Elephant copulation lasts twenty seconds. Topic: Books

Fact: Edgar Allan Poe married his thirteen-year-old first cousin, making him the Jerry Lee Lewis of his day. Topic: Sports

Fact: Touchdowns used to be worth two points, and field goals were five points.

Topic: Politics

Fact: George Washington's false teeth were not made of wood. They were made of human teeth and elephant ivory.

A. J. Jacobs is the author of The Know - It - All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. He does not know the name of the first bishop of Iceland.

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