Esquire’s Senior Editor, A. J. Jacobs came to the Annual Private Law Libraries lunch meeting last Sunday in Philadelphia and served up his unique mix of insights about several issues at the heart of our daily lives: knowledge, truth, outsourcing and the law… except not quite in the way you might expect.
A. J. Jacobs is the author or The Know it all: One Man’s Humble Quest to become the Smartest Person in the World. and A Year of Living Biblically.
I had the honor of introducing A.J. Jacobs as the guest speaker. There is of course a story, which I used to convince the Board that this unlikely choice, was the perfect choice.
It all started several years ago, in a fall associate research class where I try to impart my “rules of research” to each incoming class of eager, young lawyers. My “Rule 11” is “consult an expert by identifying and reading a leading treatise on your subject…” I always amplify this rule with a first hand account of my experiences at Shea & Gould in the late 1980’s where I encountered obsessed law firm partner, legal scholar and serial prankster Arnold S. Jacobs.
It would be an understatement to say that Arnold S. Jacobs was a library supporter. He was in fact a library user of Olympic magnitude. I learned to understand and respect the process of treatise writing when Jacobs came to the library seeking research assistance while updating his 5 volume Litigation and Practice Under Rule 10b5.
It was an exercise that extended for months. He was always monitoring and reading every new case on rule 10b5. But as part of the editorial process he would read and “cite-check” every case cited in the treatise and then read every case citing to the original 10b5 case, ad infinitum.
I should have been suspicious the day he asked me to research the criteria for getting into the Guinness Book of World Records. Jacobs wanted to find out if writing a law review article with the largest number of footnotes would qualify for a Guinness record. He didn’t meet the Guinness criteria but he did manage to get his first footnote record into something called the “Harper’s Index.” He held the record for an article with 1,247 footnotes, but lost the title briefly to Professor who wrote an article with 1,611 footnotes. Then Jacobs “upped the ante” by publishing An Analysis of Section 16 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 32 N.Y. L. Sch. L. Rev. 209(1987). This weighed in at 4,824 footnotes. And no one has broken that record in the past 25 years.
Back to the training class. When I took a break after describing Jacobs’s thorough research process, I was approached by a young associate. She said she had just read a book that she was sure was written by the son of my rule 10b5 obsessed partner – and “it was the funniest book she had ever read.” I got a copy of the The Know it All and I howled. I gave copies to my managers and they howled.
AJ Jacobs is not only the son of Proskauer partner, Arnold S. Jacobs who has written over 25 books , but also the grandson of the late Theodore Kheel, the great labor arbitrator, who wrote the classic 10 volume treatise Kheel on Labor Law. I knew the name Kheel from my childhood in NYC, it was a time when union strikes were long and disruptive: teacher’s strikes, subway strikes, newspaper strikes. Mr. Kheel’s name was a staple of the morning radio news reports.
So what’s a young man with such a pedigree to do when graduates from college? AJ became a writer for Entertainment Weekly. But the seed of competitive intellectual ventures had been planted.
“Jacobs the Elder” had once attempted to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and had only gotten as far as Borneo….
The Know it All recounts “Jacobs the Younger’s” one and half year marathon read of the 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Jacobs explained to the audience that the The Know it All grew out of his attempt to finally accomplish a goal which his seriously over-achieving father had not accomplished. This project did take a toll on his eyes and his life. He inserted little known facts into conversations at work and at home. His wife ended up fining him one dollar for every useless fact he inserted into a conversation.
The book not only fascinated me because of the interesting or outrageous factoids, but also because of his exploration of various “cults of knowledge.” Jacobs hunts down, interviews and or joins a wide variety of information obsessed communities: Mensa meetings, puzzler competitions, Jeopardy contestants… However if there is one omission… it is an exploration of one of the many communities of librarians who transform the glut of available data in to meaningful answers for millions of knowledge seekers in public libraries, academic libraries to private special libraries around the globe.
In the most edgy moment of the day, Jacobs described his attempt to adhere to a “radical honesty” movement. This is recounted in an article entitled, I think you’re fat, which says it all!
My Outsourced Life describes Jacobs’s month-long attempt to outsource his life to Bangalore, India. And of course, Jacobs didn’t just stick to the obvious daily routines: responding to emails, making his appointments, paying bills. He tried to outsource, fights with his wife, reading bedtime stories, finding a “Tickle me Elmo” toy.
Reading the full article you will discover that he outsourced a research project! Ok, it wasn’t a legislative and regulatory history, but we still have cause for concern. An assistant in India named “Honey” conducted a research project for Jacobs on the person Esquire had chosen as the “Sexiest Woman Alive.”
If you weren’t worried about the threat of outsourcing before now, Jacobs assessment may be a wake up call. “When I open Honey’s file… There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college.”
Jacobs explained that the idea for A Year of Living Biblically arose when he and his wife learned they were having their first child. While growing up, his family had been “Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant.” He wanted to explore his Jewish roots in order to determine if any of this heritage should be passed on to his children.
He read various versions of the Bible and determined that there were over 700 laws. He set out to try to follow all of the laws to see if they improved his life. He stopped shaving completely because he couldn’t figure out where the “corners of his beard” were, he wore only clothes of unmixed fibers. He confessed that as a NY journalist he faced special challenges “Not coveting, not gossiping, not lying.” Stoning an adulterer proved particularly elusive. One day while walking through New York’s Central Park dressed like a Shepherd, he finally confronted a man who confessed to being an adulterer and sprayed him with a handful of pebbles he has been carrying for this unlikely event.
At the end of the year Jacobs said that felt he had been changed by the experience. He was happier. He noted the particular importance of “giving thanks” in all spiritual traditions. The most profound change came from actively engaging in a daily practice giving thanks throughout the day. He learned to be thankful for every small thing that went right in his life. At the end of the year he came to realize that for the 2 or 3 things that had gone wrong each day, a hundred things had gone right.
Like other members of the audience (who thanked me throughout the day for inviting A.J. to our lunch) I was profoundly moved by his comments. I am thankful to him for the gift of laughter and especially thankful for the powerful reminder to give thanks!