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Original Essays

Forty-four Million Words

by A. J. Jacobs
  1. The Know-It-All: One Man
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[F]unny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs's quixotic, totally endearing quest." Jonathan Safran Foer

    "The Know-It-All is a terrific book. It's a lot shorter than the encyclopedia, and funnier, and you'll remember more of it. Plus, if it falls off the shelf onto your head, you'll live." P.J. O'Rourke

A couple of years ago, I realized my once-sharp brain had turned to a big lump of oatmeal. So I decided to do something about it. I decided to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Every page of it. All 44 million words. My book is the tale of that journey.

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.

It's safe to say I was addicted to reading. I spent at least six hours a day hunched over my volumes. And if I didn't, I would get antsy. I'd get cranky. I'd all but get the shakes. I needed my information.

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.

Asimov, Isaac
I learned in the A section that Asimov wrote 500 books. Five hundred. I don't think I've written 500 Post-It notes. The man was as addicted to writing as I was to reading. Inspiring? A little bit. But to a writer like me, it was also extremely intimidating. I've got 496 books to go before equaling Asimov. Better get cracking.

The United Nations defines a book as a text that is at least forty-nine pages long. Maybe all of Asimov's books were forty-nine pages. That'd make me feel better.

The Britannica talks about Ezekiel, the Biblical prophet who ate a scroll to symbolize his appropriation of its message. I like that image. It's the literal version of the eating/reading metaphor, as in "voracious reader" and "hungry for knowledge." There's something to that metaphor.

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.

I learned that Gutenberg's invention was inspired by a wine-making press. So there you have it: publishing would not exist without booze. This helps explain many lunches I've had with editors.

Everyone asked me whether I read the encyclopedias online or in the paper-and-ink edition. The unequivocal answer: The good old paper-and-ink version. In my journey, I rediscovered that there's something great about the physicality of a hardcover book. It's not disembodied information. It's not a bunch of 1's and 0's on a microchip. I learned to love the sound of a new volume cracking open. The smell of it. The feel of it on my lap.

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.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel
One of the strangest facts in the encyclopedia: Towards the end of his life, Hawthorne became obsessed with the number sixty-four and wrote it on scraps of paper wherever he went. More proof that writers are a bit compulsive.

Jefferson, Thomas
I always took heart when I ran across another extreme reader in history. Like Jefferson, who, when he was a student, spent his days like this: fifteen hours with his books, three hours practicing his violin, and the remaining six hours eating and sleeping.

Reading the Britannica was hard, no doubt about it. But at the same time, it was strangely easier than I expected. In some ways, it's the perfect book for someone like me who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines. Each essay is a bite-sized nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman's lurking right around the corner (by the way, the mythical Snowman's footprints are actually produced by running bears). Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities.

Poe, Edgar Allan
He married his thirteen-year-old cousin. Which, I guess, makes him the Jerry Lee Lewis of his day. The Britannica, by the way, is packed with the dirty secrets of esteemed authors. I was disturbed to learn that Chaucer apparently was fined for beating a Franciscan friar in a London street.

I became more grateful than ever for the opportunity to read anything I want. It's a gift, really. This struck me as I read about banned book after banned book, usually for including a reference to the life below the belt, or perhaps an unflattering portrayal of those in power.

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).

Perhaps my favorite fact about reading came in the Britannica's write-up of sixteenth-century French writer Montaigne. It relates the story of how people, when they read Montaigne's essays for the first time, would faint. They literally swooned. His ideas were so powerful, his readers passed out.

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. spacer

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