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What I'm Giving | December 4, 2013 0 comments
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
Forty-four Million Wordsby A. J. Jacobs
My journey took me from a-ak (the first word in the encyclopedia, a type of East Asian music) to zywiec (the last word, a town in south Poland). And along the way, I learned a surprising amount about books and reading both from the encyclopedia and from the act of reading itself. Here, a concise encyclopedia of reading.
As far as addictions go, it wasn't a bad one. My habit only cost me $1500 (the price of a set of Britannicas). And my only health complication was that I needed a new prescription for my glasses.
After my reading each day, I'd feel full, like I'd stuffed my head with a Thanksgiving dinner. I wish I could have unbuttoned the pants around my brain and let out my cerebral cortex a bit. But I was happy to be digesting some hearty fare, instead of what I used to feed my brain, which was the junk food of celebrity autobiographies (e.g., the memoir of Taxi star Marilu Henner).
By the way, my six-month-old son, Jasper, apparently considers Ezekiel his role model. Jasper is quite fond of eating his books, with Five Little Monkeys being particularly delicious.
And that's not to mention its usefulness. One night, I used the J volume to kill a cockroach in my New York apartment. You can't do that with an e-book.
And I'm not alone. Since I started, people started telling me their own stories of how books can come in handy. One guy I knew drove his parents crazy by using a volume of the Britannica as a makeshift drum in his percussion set. My cousin did physical therapy on his wrist with a volume of the encyclopedia. And I read about how explorer Ernest Shackleton lugged a set of Britannicas with him on an Antarctic expedition and ended up using the pages for kindling. So don't leave home without a book it could keep you from freezing.
Poe, Edgar Allan
Way back in the A's, I read about a thirteenth-century religious zealot named Astruc of Lunel who forbade the study of science or philosophy by those under the age of twenty-five. An actual age limit! Was there a bouncer at the libraries who asked people for their IDs?
And if that's not enough to make you appreciate reading, I even learned that it can save your life. At least if you're an accused criminal in sixteenth-century England, as was playwright Ben Jonson. In the J section, the Britannica talks about how Jonson killed a man in a duel.
Jonson escaped punishment by invoking a legal loophole called "benefit of clergy." The concept of benefit of clergy started in twelfth-century England when the Church convinced the king to offer immunity to priests and other ecclesiastical officials. By the sixteenth century, however, the definition of "clergy" had stretched to include anyone who could read the fifty-first Psalm in Latin.
On the one hand, this is a crazy law elitist, unjust, arbitrary. On the other hand, it's kind of nice that reading and scholarship were once so highly valued; they had the very tangible benefit of stopping a hatchet from removing your head from your shoulders. It's beautifully clearcut: You read Latin, you live. You don't read Latin, you'll soon be experiencing a nice case of rigor mortis (though you won't know the definition of rigor mortis, you illiterate jackass).
What a great image. I love that reading can have such an effect on people. Granted, I never passed out while reading my Britannica not even after some of those marathon six-hour sessions. But I understand what Montaigne's readers felt. After my year, I once again understood the amazement, the wonder, the thrill of reading.