Friday, October 03, 2008
BooksFirst: September 2008
The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by AJ Jacobs
Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson
The two books I read this month were both non-fiction, but represent two very different styles. I say styles, not genres, because the style can be applied to any specific topic.
Last month I made a brief mention of what I call “stunt journalism.” This is where the writer does something unusual or different solely for the sake of writing about it. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (from last month), Michael Pollan did things like buy a beef cattle, work on an organic farm, and go boar hunting, all things he normally wouldn’t have done if he weren’t writing a book about the food chain.
In The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs reads the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Clearly this is something a sane normal person would not have done without a book contract. This book is subtitled “One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World”, but “My Year As An Insufferable Prick” would have been more apt. Not only does he read the entire encyclopedia, to the distress of his wife, friends, and coworkers, he tries to drop into conversation little nuggets he learned whenever he can. While clearly this is done for comic effect, it annoyed me and I wasn’t even the woman he was trying to impregnate.
One of the sub-threads in the book is a running tale of the attempts by his wife to get pregnant. For some reason, writers tend to find fertility and the lack thereof fascinating to themselves, and by extension to their readers. The heroics he goes through to plant a seed are sitcom stale and really have nothing else to do with the book. But he does manage to knock up his old lady, thus giving the book a happy ending.
A less happy ending is the other running bit, which is his attempt to win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (because he once interviewed Alex Trebek, he is ineligible for Jeopardy, a much better way to land a claim as the smartest guy in the world). He finally makes it on the show, and while I won’t spoil the ending, let’s just say he’s keeping his day job.
Spread throughout the book are smaller mini-stunts such as joining Mensa just to mock its members, attending a crossword convention, interviewing a rabbinical scholar, and just behaving like an asshole. The chapters are done alphabetically and the little vignettes all tie into individual encyclopedia entries. The book is funny and breezy, but by the end of it I was ready to clock him and tell him that people that think they know everything really annoy those of us that do.
Another non-fiction format that I frequently fall for is the insider’s expose. Anthony Bourdain with Kitchen Confidential really reinvented this genre by ladling on heaping loads of sarcasm over generous dollops of eye-opening revelations. Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man was my most recent foray into this field.
With Smile While Your Lying, Chuck Thompson takes the reader into the world of travel journalism where every hotel is more luxurious than the last and every foreign dish is a delicacy waiting to be discovered. That travel journalism is an incestuous web of blurb-happy hacks feeding at the trough of publicity hungry resorts should be no shock. If anything, the book is too tame. I want more gorey tales of the fraud and lies that perpetrate the glossy magazines and the Sunday travel sections.
Like Know-It-All, this is several books struggling for equal time. One is a memoir of a young wastrel slowly sucked into a sleazy disreputable slice of journalism. He’s got great stories of his youth traveling in Asia on a shoestring. And the chapter on his short-lived attempt to break the mold of standard travel writing is revealing and fresh. The book also attempts to tell what to really expect when traveling and give insights on how to find the REAL country. Finally, it also tries for some snarky observations. I got a blogpost a while back from his lambasting of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and other Tacky Tourist Drinking Districts™ (my phrase, not his).
Thompson is an amazingly talented writer. Every page has a wicked turn of phrase or incredible insight. But overall, the book falls short. Read it for some great insights, but I thought it fell just a little short of its promise.
In two months I've read four non-fiction books. In a way, it's my own form of stunt blogging. Next month I go back to some light entertainment. I promise.