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Excerpt: The Know-It-All

In which Jacobs, an Esquire editor, sets out to become the smartest person in the world by reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, from A-Z. Here, one of our favorite sections from the Ms.

By A.J. Jacobs - September 24, 2004

Madonna
The Britannica just added Madonna to the edition this year, and you could tell the editors wrote the entry while wearing one of those sterile full-body suits people use when containing an Ebola outbreak. It's wedged in between write-ups for the first Madonna and British legal historian Thomas Madox, and contains sentences like this one: "Her success signaled a clear message of financial control to other women in the industry, but in terms of image she was a more ambivalent role model." In Britannica-speak, that roughly translates to: "Madonna is a whore. A very dirty whore."

The entry did teach me some Madonna facts, including her middle name (Louise) and that she was a member of Patrick Hernandez's disco revue in Paris. Not that I know what that is, but I'll be sure to bring it up next time I see a Madonna video.

Whenever that is. Reading about Madonna makes me miss pop culture. I'll get back to you someday, pop culture. I promise. It's just this Britannica is so damn long. Did they have to cover every single Nobel Prize winner and African canyon and South American capital? Couldn't they have left out a few? Who would have noticed?

Mahler, Gustav
He had a mother fixation that manifested itself in a slight limp he unconsciously adopted in imitation of his mother's lameness. The man most in need of therapy in the Britannica so far.

majuscule
Everyone keeps asking when I'm going on Jeopardy! And I have to say, I'm starting to feel pretty good about my chances. I've been watching my old pal Alex Trebek give the clues and I've made huge strides in my ability to shout out the proper questions before the contestants (especially if I use the pause button on my TiVo).

In fact, I may just be too smart for my own good. The other night, I watched Alex give the following $100 clue: "This is another term for uppercase characters, such as the ones that start a sentence."

I knew that. Easy. "Majuscule!" I shouted out, confidently. "What is majuscule!" "Majuscule" is the official name for uppercase letters and "minuscule" is the name for lowercase letters.

One of the contestants twitched his thumb and rang in. "What is capital letters," he said.

"Correct," said Alex.

Oh, yes. That's right. Capital letters. I should have known that. I was reminded of that woman at the Mensa convention who kept saying "interstices" when the word was "gap." I felt like a tool. But also, quite superior.

If I am eventually going to try out for Jeopardy! I figure it'd be good to get some advice from an expert. So I track down one of the all-time big money winners, a five-time champion named Dave Sampugnaro, who I found on the Internet (his e-mail handle is jeopardyboy). He agrees to meet me for coffee. Dave is a nice man with a goatee, wire rim glasses, and an abundance of nervous energy that, during our meeting, keeps his leg bouncing and his hands busily twisting a straw wrapper. "I haven't read the entire encyclopedia," he tells me when we sit down. "But when I was five I read the Information Please Almanac."

Nowadays, when Dave isn't at his day job—he works at IBM—he spends his time collecting. He collects antique license plates, soft drink thermometers, presidential signatures—and most of all facts. The man is a fact machine. Our meeting is like a boxing match with factoids.

Dave tells me that Ulysses S. Grant's wife was cross-eyed and posed for paintings only at a concealing angle. I counter with my classic about René Descartes and his cross-eyed fetish. He responds with the nugget that James Buchanan was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other, so he'd look at visitors with his head cocked to the side. I rally with a bit about a cousin of James Buchanan who invented a submarine that allowed him to walk on the bottom of the Mississippi River, where he found a fortune in lead and iron. After which he pounds me with the fact that Abe Lincoln was the only president to hold a patent—it's for a device that lifts boats over levees.

The conversation is fast and wide-ranging and slightly exhausting—but exhilarating. No eye rolling here. No awkward silences. Dave loves facts as much as, maybe more than, I do, and he's just bursting to spout them and drink them in.

Dave warns me that Jeopardy!'s not an easy experience. "I was so nervous in the greenroom, I was shaking. I tried to pick up a glass of water and I was spilling it everywhere." And that's if you get on. Dave tried out no less than seven times over eight years before getting the nod. Hopefuls have to take a 10-question test, then a harder, 50-question test, then have an interview with the producers to see if they are camera-friendly—and even if they pass those they might not get called.

There aren't too many secrets to success, Dave says. Go with your first instinct when answering clues. And be passionate about knowledge—you should never think of studying as a chore. Facts are your friends.

Speaking of facts, he's got plenty more: "You know, at one time there was only one bathroom in the White House and the president had to wait his turn if someone was in there."

When I get back to my office, I start to think about Dave's eight years of auditions. Jesus. I figure I better start now. So I call the Jeopardy! publicist to see when the next auditions might take place—and that's when I get an unpleasant surprise. The publicist says that I'm no longer eligible, since I've met Alex Trebek. What? It's not like Trebek and I play Yahtzee every Saturday afternoon. I doubt he'd recognize me in a lineup of other skinny white journalists. And I, for one, mistook him for a Mexican gardener. Doesn't matter. Jeopardy! is The New York Times of game shows, and there can be no appearance of impropriety. As far as they're concerned, my two-hour interview with Trebek put me in the inner circle next to his wife and mother and Merv Griffin. Answer: This is hugely frustrating. Question: What are the overly strict Jeopardy! rules?

Maybe I should look into Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I can win more money and no one will see how bad my handwriting is.

mammals
Elephant copulation lasts twenty seconds. That should make a lot of men feel better.

Mann, Horace
In his final speech, the educational reformer told students: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Good wisdom. Great wisdom even. I have to remember that.

manure
The Britannica isn't a Farrelly brothers movie, but it does have more than its fair share of scatology. And thank God for that, because I desperately needed to expand my knowledge of waste products.

You see, when I married Julie, I became uncle to her brothers' kids—four adorable, squeaky-voiced children under 10. Not having much experience with the Nickelodeon crowd, I initially had some trouble connecting with them. But then I hit upon a secret. Two words, to be exact. My entire relationship with my nieces and nephew was forged with the phrase "monkey poop." For five years, I have worked this phrase into every conversation I have with them.

"What would you like for your birthday?" I'll ask Andrea, age seven.

"Gameboy pinball!" she says.

"Well, I was thinking of getting you 57 pounds of monkey poop. Would that be okay?"

"Nooo!!!" she'll scream, running away. "No monkey poop!"

My monkey poop joke has been my biggest hit, my equivalent of Bill Cosby's dentist routine. I think my nieces and nephew were just happy to have found an adult who is less mature than they are. And yet, after five years, even something so brilliant as monkey poop began losing its freshness. I needed some new material. The encyclopedia was there to help.

One Sunday, all the kids and their parents made one of their day trips to the city, and used our apartment as headquarters.

"What's for lunch?" I ask Natalia, age nine.

"I dunno," she says.

"You think Aunt Julie will be serving whale poop?"

"Whale poop?" she asks.

"Yeah, whale poop is delicious."

"Uh-huh."

"Seriously, a lot of people do eat whale poop."

"Yeah, right."

"You don't believe me?" I take out volume A, and turn to ambergris. I show Natalia the definition: a foul-smelling substance found in the intestines of whales that, when dry, takes on a sweet aroma, and is used in spices and perfumes. She is duly impressed. She runs into the kitchen.

"I'd like some whale poop, please! On French bread!"

Who said the Britannica doesn't have practical knowledge? This is killer material. Next, I impress my nieces and nephew with stories about fossilized dinosaur poop (it's called coprolite). I segue into the best method for storing manure (stack it, so that it doesn't leach nitrogen), which wasn't quite as big a hit. But I redeem myself with the casebearing beetle. When it's threatened, it pulls its legs inward and disguises itself as caterpillar droppings.

"Everybody, pretend to be caterpillar poop!" I shout.

We all drop to the floor and pull in our arms and legs.

"Hey, are you by any chance caterpillar poop?" I ask Natalia.

"No, it's me! Natalia! Fooled you."

Julie's sister-in-law Lisa walks into the room to see the five of us on the floor in little balls.

"What's going on here?" she asks . "Shhh," says her daughter, Allison, age five. "We're pretending to be caterpillar poop."

Lisa looks at me. She is not amused.

"I thought we discussed this. We would not be making monkey poop jokes anymore."

"But this is caterpillar poop," I say. "Totally different."

A.J. Jacobs is a senior editor at Esquire. This is excerpted from The Know-It-All, by A.J. Jacobs. Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs and published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Excerpted with the permission of the author and publisher. You can buy this book at Amazon.com.



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