Thursday, May 04, 2006

I am so smart, I am so smart, SMRT, I mean SMARRT

I used my three day trip home to become an expert on everything. I’ve long considered myself the expert on everything, but some people persist in disagreeing with me. So in order to quash their belief that I don’t know all that there is to know, I read the following books:

The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by AJ Jacobs.

Lara gave me this book, presumably because she originally thought it was about me. It is actually about an editor for GQ magazine who decides to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and gives us an account of this year in his life. It is quite entertaining, as he not only relates what he learns, but frequently stops to reflect upon the very nature of knowledge and intelligence. Although he does gain an absurd mastery of trivia, he still regularly fails at his academic endeavors. He joins Mensa, interviews Alex Trebek, enters chess and crossword tournaments, and even gets onto Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The most aggravating thing in the book is that I knew the answer to the question that gets him kicked off of Millionaire. Red Blood Cells you fool! The book became a bit redundant, but is still highly recommended. It even has a quote from Jon Stewart on the cover, so who wouldn’t read it?

The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

This book claims to hold All World Knowledge. Much in the tradition of the almanac it discourses on the past, present and future, though the future section is rather limited. The hobo section is quite larger than you’d expect. Though not quite as long as the previous book, it contains even more trivia since it has fewer personal asides. Of course all the trivia is fictional. Mr. Hodgman made up the entire thing. That takes talent my friends. The book is immensely silly; so silly in fact that I could only read for about thirty minutes or so before having to put it down. But after a few minutes of the real world I jumped back into it. Similar to Monty Python, Hodgeman is obviously an immensely intelligent man, who has decided to turn his talents towards pure silliness. Mr. Hodgman is now a regular on the Daily Show and can be seen in the latest Mac commercial. Hodgmania has begun, and it’s about time! Also highly recommended.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker

I’d filled myself upon trivia, both fictional and non, and decided to get one step more cerebral. Pinker had written the most comprehensible of my Psychology textbooks, so I decided to give this a shot. The first chapter is great, but unfortunately I was stopped there by that bane of modern literacy, books on tape! I did attempt to read while listening to a book on tape, but it was too complicated, even for a mind like my own.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Luckily this fit into my grand scheme perfectly. In six hours Mr. Bryson goes through all of ancient and modern physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, biology, ecology, chemistry etc. Sounds like a blast doesn’t it? It was actually quite entertaining. This is coming from a neuroscientist, but I was amused. He connects all the various people in the fields and their discoveries and how they impacted one another. He points out amusing quirks in the science, but more importantly in the scientists. The feuds and arguments he discusses in his dry British humor kept my attention throughout. It’s a great way for any nerd like myself to see the big scientific picture, and a great way for the masses to get introduced to some pretty complex theories in a very digestible manner. On your trip to Barnes and Noble to get my trivia books, make sure to pick this up as well.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I was hoping to round out my comprehensive trip with some fine arts, but this story disappointed. It is possible that I would’ve liked it better if I actually read it, but the book on tape certainly didn’t stand up to my other literature of the trip. The book was extremely repetitive, and I assume this was an abridged version. It was also extremely slow paced, and the main “action” involves traveling from one library to another. They managed to make vampires boring! That is quite a feat. As a connoisseur of vampires, I felt this didn’t bring much to the mythos and they randomly changed established vampiric conventions in a displeasing manner. It certainly wasn’t a horrible story, but it was a bit dull and oscillated between confusing and patronizing. I suppose I’ll have to rely upon Guns, Germs and Steel to cover my history for me.

So did I learn more at college or on the drive home from Utah? I think it’s too close to call.

Song of the moment: “Sensitive Artist” by King Missile


Emily said...

Bill Bryson is American, although I guess it is possible that his humour is not.

ellie o said...

I too read The Know it All and found it fascinating, hilarious,and endearing (and fell in love with the author). If it is this, Lara, who gave it to you, and with whom you have reconciled, you may have a real "catch" there (though I didn't find her quite so fascinating as the weirdos on your chinese blog).

Good luck

Erin said...

I've been interested in reading a couple of the books you mention, so I enjoyed your opinions. You certainly did get a lot of reading done!

I read one of Bill Bryson's travel books last year and was annoyed with him. He seemed very condescending.

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