The Philosophical Apprentice

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” Albert Einstein

The Know-it-All by A.J. Jacobs (Book Review)

A.J. Jacobs’   The Know-it-All is the first (but hopefully not the last) book I read in 2013.

A.J. Jacobs is a editor / writer for Esquire magazine who ” in the years since graduating college” began  “a long, slow slide into dumbness”. Jacobs sought to counteract his intellectual decline by tackling the mighty Encyclopaedia Britannica “from A to Z”. Along the way Jacobs interviews Alex Trebek, joins MENSA, seeks to star on Jeopardy, competes on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, struggles along with his wife to conceive a child and manages to pull off the monumental task of reading the entire encyclopedia.

Despite the relentlessly glib and  ironic tone, the book was very entertaining and in parts, hysterically funny. Jacobs is self-deprecating throughout which allowed me to pull for him during the book particularly when he detailed his struggles with his wife to conceive a child (may he have more than one). Jacobs also, I’m glad to know, studied philosophy in college and, while he’s rather disparaging of MENSA, in general he’s very respectful of those honestly pursuing the Socratic life. A case in point is his portrait of Ron Hoeflin, a man with a reputed IQ of 190. Jacobs writes

Ron’s fifty-nine years old, a bear of a man with graying hair and smudged glasses. He’s legally blind, but he can see things up close, which forces him to read with a magnifying glass. He grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, memorized pi to two hundred decimal places as a kid ( he still remembers the first fifty digits) and eventually got a Ph.D in philosophy from the New School for Social Research. He makes his modest living putting together regular newsletters for HiQ societies. As he’ll tell you himself. he’s shy and awkward, not exactly a social butterfly, barely even a social caterpillar; he reminds me of Dustin Hoffman’s idiot savant in Rain Man, but without the idiot part. I like him immediately.

In a passage that t really captures the spirit of the philosophic quest Jacobs says that Hoeflin

seems interested in my encyclopedia project. Turns out he’s an obsessive reader too. Every day without fail, Ron reads philosophy at the Wendy’s on Eight Avenue and Fifty-sixth street over an iced tea, a Caesar salad, and chicken sandwich. Why Wendy’s? “It’s got good lighting, and it’s more social. Even though I don’t talk to people, there are people around me, which I like”. It was there that he read  the entire Encyclopedia of Philosophy in 420 days, about ten pages a day.

For my part I found this was an inspiring passage, and I was inspired by the passage as well as the entire book to consider  reading the entire Britannica myself. It’s a crazy idea and Jacobs tells us that everybody told him he was crazy as well. Still I’m tempted and it occurred to me recently to use what I  read in the Britannica as daily writing prompts for the blog.



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