A hopeless task

by Jamie Lutton

When I think about writing a book on books, I keep coming back to a memory of line in a Science Fiction book I read 35 years ago, called Children of the Atom.  The characters in these books were all child geniuses, and were all academic specialists in one field or another.  One of them remarked that the last person who had read everything - and in the West only - lived in the 11th century. This is a real person (I will dig up a copy of the book, and give you his name later). And this, I found out later, was before the Crusades brought back to the West  more of the classical texts that had been previously lost, like Plato's Republic.  The character in the book had been made aware that she could not read all the books in the world, or know all things.

I knew at an early  age that I never could do that when I realized that most science was a closed book to me. My dad had hopes that I would be a chemist when I was a child. He could tell I was bright. He gave me a chemistry set when I was eight or so. But it did not take. I was not excited by doing experiments limited by the kit, though later my brother Tom and I,  who did get his doctorate in inorganic chemistry, would blow up things merrily every fourth of July. Perhaps I should have been given more magnesium to play with. 

 I did like paleontology, and read all I could find on extinct animals of all sorts, but the nuts and bolts of chemistry, physics, and at first, math, did nothing for me. (my love for math came later)  This was also because I am  female, so I did not have the stick in my back that the male child of a scientist might have, to try harder. The cultural expectation as well as my parent's expectation would have been greater. It also was a problem that I was crazy, and so expectations for me were limited.  So, I read and read and read, but avoided most of the sciences, except geology and paleontology, until I was an adult.

 It is hopeless, then to try to write a book that is an introduction to everything. And, besides that, someone else has done a pretty good job if you wanted to know a little bit about everything. I want to recommend the book The Know-It-All, by A. J. Jacobs. He read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, every volume.  Even if you think this would be dull, read the first few pages of this book about his experience. He covers, very well, what happens to the typical mind after college, and the withering away of book-knowledge into fragments and disassociated facts. It also has a witty introduction, that has shows the author's humility about his own abilities. He is ironic about being a 'genius' of any kind.

 I have been sweating out reading The Medea for my book, and am getting closer to being able to convey the essence of this 2,500 year old play.  Then, at my shop. this book came across my desk yesterday.  I liked it so much, that I am stopping, and recommending it to everyone who reads my part of this blog, so they might enjoy it as much as I did. In the book I will put this book in my section of good books-on-books.  There are a lot of  books-on-books, each with their own eccentricities, and flaws; I will try to list all the ones I have read, so that you can decide if you want to read them. That list is coming in its own time.  But as I just discovered this one, I wanted you to enjoy it now.

Instead of listing books you 'should' read, it discusses his absorbing of the miles and miles of entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I like to recommend the Encyclopedia, anyway. It is far better than Wikipedia, which is replacing it for common use, and is better written.  It is a shame that Wikipedia computer encyclopedia is replacing a much better source of deep information. If I had the room in my tiny apartment, I would not be without a set of the Britannica; it is irreplaceable.

 But that is the issue, isn't it. The space the thing takes up. That is why so many good books are going by the wayside; too much room, and too heavy to move. So, pick up Know-It-All, and perhaps you might have an urge to buy a set for yourself.  On the used book market, with a little bit of luck, you can get an Encyclopedia Britannia for about $200 that is reasonably current.

I just remembered this: in Children of the Atom, one of the child geniuses, when he is very little, reads the Britannica cover to cover.  So, that is why, I suppose, I linked these two books in my mind. I never had that ambition myself, until I read that Jacobs had done so. But I don't think I can fit it into my schedule, until I write more on my books on books. Maybe when I am 60.  I do not think the same good results would come from reading Wikipedia from end to end. And, besides, you can't hold the volumes of Wikipedia in your lap, and skip about, and hold the volumes, and carry them from place to place. Not the same thing.