24 November 2008

The Know-It-All

I'm reading The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A. J. Jacobs -- I remembered hearing good reviews, and they're for the most part right. It's an amusing book to read, because it's part trivia and part A. J. Jacobs, who's an editor at Esquire, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year or so, which is long enough that while he was reading it amusing stories unfolded in his life -- most of which have some trivia worked in. Is it great literature? No. But it's fun. And there's the inevitable moment when you know something that Jacobs doesn't mention he knows; that makes you feel a little smarter when you're reading any book, but especially one with this book's subtitle.

It's amusing and interesting to be reading this during my less ambitious attempt to read the The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
. But I'm mostly making this post because I couldn't resist sharing this, from when Jacobs joins Mensa:
Of course, I'm terrified that I'll be rejected. In fact, I'm pretty sure that they'll send me a letter thanking me for my interest, then have a nice hearty laugh and go back to their algebraic topology and Heidegger texts and Battlestar Galactica reruns.

From britannica.com, it looks like the EB does not have an article titled "algebraic topology". But there are articles titled "topology" and "mathematics" with sections named "algebraic topology", and they do seem to have serious treatments of mathematics in there. Jacobs admits (p. 338) that "the math sections... are my bête noire.

1 comment:

Todd Trimble said...

In roughly the same genre, a book I enjoyed a few years ago is Word Freak by sports journalist Stefan Fatsis. It tracks his progress toward becoming a master level Scrabble player, and gives some pretty vivid and amusing descriptions of the characters he meets on the Scrabble tournament circuit. It's pretty well written, I might add.