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Two Achievements By The New Year

Category Articles
Date January 26, 2005

Two men started our new year with their very different achievements. The first was 35 year old New Yorker Tucker Shaw who photographed everything he ate in the year 2004 from breakfast on January 1, through all his meals, every glass of milk, each piece of candy, fruit or bag of crisps until his supper on December 31st. He is the first man in history ever to have done this. He certainly ‘snapped’ away a lot of times. The discipline of the routine he established, he said, reminded him of his Christian grandparents out west who always prayed bowing their heads before they had a meal. He bowed and took a photo. The book he has written containing all the photographs of this unusual achievement of self-disciplined photography will come out in June. It is to be entitled “A Year in the Life of My Mouth” (Chronicle Books).

The other man’s achievement was very different. He too is 35; is there something about the mid-thirties for self-assertion? His name is A. J. Jacobs. He bought a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and read it through in a year; 33,000 pages, 9,500 contributors. 65,000 articles, 24,000 images all neatly bound in 32 volumes; the total, 44 million words. So Jacobs started with A-ak, an ancient East Asian music. Then A-capella – unaccompanied singing., and then Aachen and so on . . . and on . . . and on . . .

The edition of the Encyclopaedia which Jacobs chose to read was the fifteenth, published in 1974. There is a fan club for the eleventh edition published in 1911, for the purity of its style, and the humanistic triumphalism of its writers (such as T.H. Huxley) with their solemn pronouncement that the remainder of the 20th century would be characterised by the “lessening of international jealousies.” The world of the EB to this day is one in which civilization is progressing and everything treated rationally and sensibly is working out for the best.

A.J. Jacobs is not the first person to have read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. George Bernard Shaw read it in the British Museum. C.S. Forester, the author of the Captain Hornblower adventure books, read it through twice. Aldous Huxley carried with him half-sized volumes on his journeys as the best travel reading around. The only other man reading the entire Britannica today lives in a small town in China and he wrote encouraging A.J. Jacobs in his dogged endeavour.

There is one American who read the entire Britannica when he was a child. He is now in his nineties. His name is Michael DeBakey. He became a world famous heart doctor. He implanted one of the first artificial human hearts in 1963, and he himself appears in the EB. So A.J. Jacobs got in touch with him and asked about his experience. “When I was a child my parents allowed us to take one book out of the library every week. I came home one day and said there was a wonderful book at the library but they wouldn’t let me take it out. My parents said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘It’s the Encyclopaedia Britannica.’ So they bought a set. I was about ten or twelve years of age, so it must have been 1919 or so. By the time I went to college I had finished the whole thing. I had four siblings, and all of us would rush through our lessons so we could read the encyclopaedia.”

When Jacobs asked his advice as to his own reading of the EB DeBakey told him, “You have a job and a family. You only have a limited amount of time. The thing you want to do is skip over the topics you aren’t interested in.” Those counsels were quite unacceptable to Jacobs. He said, “I was trying to finish something consequential – if simultaneously ludicrous – for the first time in my life. I can’t run 14 miles of a marathon and take a taxi through the districts that don’t appeal. I’ve got to be curious about things that don’t interest me.”

So on he went, sitting in his customary groove on the white couch and reading away until finally he reached the last entries. Zuchetto – the skullcap worn by Roman Catholic clergymen. Zulu – the African nation. Zunz – a Jewish scholar. Zurich ware – a type of Swiss porcelain. Zveno Group – a Bulgarian political party. Zywiec – a town of 32,000 people in south-central Poland. And then it was over. 44 million words. 65,000 articles. 9.36 pm on a Tuesday and the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has been read in its entirety. Jacobs thought, “I wasn’t sure what to do. I shut the back cover quietly. I stood up from the couch, then sat back down. What now? I knew first hand the oceanic volume of information in the world. I know that I know very little of that ocean and I know this, that after a year I’ve got my life back.” So what did A.J. Jacobs actually do next? He wrote a book now in print about reading the EB through in a year called “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” (William Heinemann, £10.99).

How can we turn this? What strength of will have people made in the image of God to persevere in self-appointed goals? Certainly that is true. How much more should those who also have limitless access to a divine Saviour do the things God requires of them throughout their entire life time – turning the other cheek, and forgiving seventy times seven, loving their wives as Christ loved the church, etc.

Or can we turn it thus? A record of everything that has entered a man’s body, and a record of much that has entered a man’s mind is known to those two men and to any who might be interested, whereas God himself knows everything about us all exhaustively. Every action done; every word spoken; every thought in our minds, every fleeting imagination; the dreams so quickly forgotten; the desire that spontaneously exploded and died down; all are known to God. “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebs. 4:13). How solemn, to live in a moral universe and to be dealing with the Creator who knows us exhaustively. “There is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.” (Psa. 139:4).

Or can we turn it thus, that all the wisdom of man is vanity? Has the knowledge these two men gained been of saving or sanctifying value to them? Has their disclosure of this information been of similar value to those who have heard, as they shook their heads and marvelled at the achievements? What was Solomon’s experience after all his studies? “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. I thought to myself, ‘Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.’ Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Eccles. 1:13-17).

Or perhaps we should challenge whether such hours of mere reading are a justifiable use of time in a dying world? Was that goal not a sinful goal? An entire year spent sitting on a white settee reading, isn’t that an indulgence? There are needs all around me, in my home, amongst my friends and neighbours and I shelter myself sitting down in a quiet room burying my nose in high culture? That too is a way to hell. When God the Son came from heaven he did not spend a year fenced off from mankind ‘studying.’ He went about doing good, and wept over a great city. Nor was the Saviour very perturbed about what went into a man’s mouth. Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’) He went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.” For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean”‘ (Mark 7:18-23).

Our goal then is not to read many books but to know one book supremely well, God’s own book, the Bible, because it is full of information of the most wonderful man this world has ever seen. Our concern is not what goes into our bodies as much as what is coming out of our hearts, and as so much of that is tainted by sin to apply ourselves to the God who can wash our hearts and make us clean, and deal with the power to live from within a life that glorifies and pleases him, and so fulfill our chief end in life.

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