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It is one of the ideas most people had at times, but then again almost everybody shies away from the sheer magnitude and unclear rewards: reading an encyclopedia front to back, as if it was a novel or at least a non-fiction book with a narrative. There is no logic bringing you to do this, but then again there is no logic keeping you from doing it. If you want to know everything that’s written in the book, you may just as well start at Aaa and finish at some Polish town the name of which I forgot, but which started with Zy…  A.J. Jacobs does this, and he does it with the mother of all encyclopedias, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He considers it a writing project, because he is, above all, a very entertaining writer. I have once read a review by a journalist who had just survived I think 14 hours of the full-length Faust 2 performance, and I was reminded of this here. He sprinkles in knowledge from the encyclopedia, we learn about a lot of things we did not know before (major theme of the Encyclopaedia seems to be favouritism of cross-eyed women in French philosophers. That, and liturgical overgarments). But the interesting bit, of course, is to learn about A.J.’s own experience. In the theatre review mentioned, the author came back to the topic of food, developing a furious jealousy of a colleague of his who was clever enough to bring a foot-long sausage sandwich into the hour7-to-hour9-slot. Here, we learn how the EB always seems to provide him (sometimes more, sometimes less useful) advice on how to get his wife pregnant, ideas on how to fill small talk with substantial references to royal venereal disease, or chances to get filthy rich by winning Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. This Bildungsroman of a man longing to become another edition of Goethe or Leibniz as comprehensively literate and educated (and we learn how much Goethe despised Leibniz – I did not have a clue!), and struggling at the same time with the concepts of educated versus intelligent, is great to read. We know exactly what he was like when, as a boy in school, he was convinced to be the smartest person on the planet, and we can feel with him how this view started crumbling over time. Shrunk to human size, he now strugglers to climb not on the shoulders of giants, but on the pile of books that reaches 4 foot level in his study and accompanies him for a full year, 60 Million words, 65 000 entries, if I remember correctly. Quite an achievement, but I am glad he did it on my behalf, so I do not have to be the one… and just while reading his book, I learned that EB will cease their print publication  after what … 140 years? Sic transit Gloria mundi…

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