January 4, 2007

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The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class, by David S. Kidder & Noah D. Oppenheim (Rodale Press, 2006, 377 pages)
By Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com.

Similar to the way some people organize their underwear drawers, entrepreneur David Kidder and Today Show producer Noah Oppenheim have organized their knowledge into daily compartments: Mondays are for history, Tuesdays literature, Wednesdays visual arts, Thursdays science, Fridays music, Saturdays philosophy and Sundays religion. Lather, rinse, repeat for each week of one year. And it just so happens they start with a Monday, like 2007 does.

The idea is that if you can read just one little page a day, you’ll end up with a substantial education at the end of the year.

Week 1 Day 1 is a lesson on “The Alphabet.” (“The alphabet was extremely successful.”)

Week 1 Day 2, “Ulysses” (“It retells Homer’s Odyssey in the context of a single day”).

Week 12 Day 6, “Medieval Philosophy.” Week 20 Day 4, “Gravity” (“But why does every object in the universe pull on every other object? No one knows.”).

Three hundred sixty-five is a lot of topics; the real test will be how much of this you remember after sticking with it for a year.

My hopes are not high.

The entries are highly abstract and not written in the most engaging way. They tend to lack context: material you already are familiar with will be interesting, but the entries you know nothing about won’t stick. To wit: “Hagia Sophia: The Hagia Sophia was built in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) under the personal supervision of the Emperor Justinian.” I still don’t know what the Hagia Sophia is—a boat? a bridge? a time machine?—or what millennium it was even built in. And if I don’t already know where Constantinople is or who Justinian is, then just throwing in their names provides me nothing but distraction. Starting out with “The Hagia Sophia is a huge church built around 500 AD” might have been better.

So maybe it’s a good refresher, as perhaps the title “devotional” implies (working best for those already devoted?), but it’s not the best place to start.

To top it off, the whole thing is written in print so tiny it hurts. Each entry ends with “ADDITIONAL FACTS” in even tinier italic print; why these facts aren’t blended with the main text is not apparent.

And a pronunciation guide might have been nice for some terms, like “a priori” and “Rodin”—what good is it to wax all smart about the pineal gland at the cocktail party if you mispronounce it?

The authors mention plans for further editions. In fact their Web site, theintellectualdevotional.com, includes a forum for reader input on future editions—but it’s full of messages about porn and cheap pharmaceuticals. So much for intellectual devotion.

Bottom line: nice idea, poorly executed, although the built-in ribbon bookmark is cute. This book doesn’t ignite my intellectual devotion.

Might go good in the bathroom, though. C

— Lisa Parsons