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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mr. Know-It-All, Part the Last

Oh, the outrage of it all! You get a great idea for a book, you work hard at writing it, and then you get savaged by a review from a writer who is essentially tilling the same field that you are. My outrage at this situation has been smouldering for a little over a year now and I have finally reached the point where I have to get it out of my system.

When I first picked up A.J. Jacobs' THE KNOW-IT-ALL: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2004), the story of one (apparently slightly deranged) man's attempt to read The Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover (reportedly 33,000 pages and some 44 million words give or take a couple) I wasn't sufficiently impressed to even read a word of it. My first feeling was that a book like this should have a denser design -- it should have more heft and the words should be shoehorned in so tightly that you'd be curious enough to investigate further. At first glance, it looked shockingly lightweight. A couple of weeks later I picked the book up again and actually started skimming it and reading random entries (the book is comprised of entries arranged alphabetically as the encyclopedia is). I quickly became addicted to reading the book and read perhaps seventy pages or so without being sidetracked by another book (an all too rare occurence as any book addict knows and the highest compliment you can pay to a book). I only stopped at that point because I wanted to save the rest of the book to savor in a few more installments.

One thing was immediately clear -- this A.J. Jacobs was one witty guy. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, had achieved something remarkable. He took an idea anybody could have thought of (and no doubt almost every writer wished they had) and he created a book that had you smiling on every page. I kept waiting for this book to disappoint me but it never did. Jacobs' interweaving of his personal life and his family into the entries made the book even more compelling (at great expense to Jacobs no doubt as I'm sure the retribution was quick to follow).

It has now been more than a year since Joe Queenan wrote his unfavorable review -- 'The Know-It-All': A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing (published October 3, 2004 in The New York Times). He called Jacobs' book interminable: corny, juvenile, smug, tired. Worse, he called Jacobs "a poor man's Dave Barry; no, a bag person's Dave Barry." Queenan then went on to pick apart several entries as if he were vetting a real encyclopedia rather than a witty take on an encyclopedia. Here's some of the other unflattering comments in the review: mesmerizingly uninformative, this misguided endeavor, lack of sophistication, the pedigreed simpleton, his staggering lack of sophistication.

It seems though that Queenan is the one guilty of a lack of sophistication. There's nothing quite as illogical as a humorist trying to write a serious review of a humorous book. Queenan missed the point entirely -- it should have been obvious to anyone that Jacobs didn't read every word in The Encyclopedia Britannica (nor did he need to) or that he really thought he would become the smartest person for having done so. Queenan's attempts to discredit Jacobs by dissecting a few entries and parading some of the critic's obscure knowledge was nothing if not embarrassing. It's unfortunate that because he couldn't find a hook for his review, he had to stoop to trashing the book and insulting its author.

A.J. Jacobs, to his credit, didn't even fire a return volley until February 13th, 2005 when his essay "I Am Not A Jackass" appeared in The New York Times. Not surprisingly, it possessed the same sparkling wit that his book did and stood in contrast to Queenan's witless review. Calling Queenan's review "one of the most mean-spirited reviews in the 154 year history of The New York Times", Jacobs went on to say: "The writer --- a humorist named Joe Queenan -- seemed genuinely angry at me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines." Jacob's most satisfying blow was dealt at the end of his piece when he said : "Oh, and you can make sure your Amazon ranking for the bully's new book is much, much lower than yours. Which it is."

Queenan's negative review stands in stark contrast to the other reviews of the book which are uniformly positive. Both his review and Jacob's essay are available on The New York Times website and are certainly worth reading (at least Jacobs' is). After comparing Queenan's witless rant to Jacobs' measured and wit-filled response, I know why I'm still a subscriber to Esquire after thirty plus years and why I stopped buying Queenan's books a long time ago. In fact, if I can find the Queenan books I have I think I'll deposit them in the garbage. If it'll let me.

My only regret is that Jacobs didn't challenge Queenan to some sort of intellectual duel.


Next up: The Man Who Collected Lightbulbs

2 Comments:

Blogger Bill said...

The question is, why would anyone ask Joe Queenan to review a book? Queenan always writes in the same bitchy style, no matter what the subject is. Has he ever had a nice word to say about anybody or anything?

7:10 AM  
Blogger Marian The said...

Yes, the review was unnecessarily mean-spirited, and did miss the point of the book, but "sparkling wit"? Are you serious?
I certainly don't care if he actually learned anything while reading the EB, but I was neither charmed nor entertained by his experiences.
Dull, clunky, and a waste of a really cool idea.

1:55 PM  

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