Master Class: John Hodgman On How to Know Everything

John Hodgman is a human compendium of facts. All of them, to be exact. The comedic author, actor, and “Daily Show” correspondent shares the secrets to obtaining total knowledge, and why you should never smoke e-cigarettes.

Master Class: John Hodgman On How to Know Everything

John Hodgman is unique among know-it-alls. Most earn this title based on attitude and a tendency to correct others during casual conversation. Instead, Hodgman took the much more direct approach of writing an entire trilogy of books containing the totality of world knowledge. Although some of the information in those books is not actually true–indeed, some of it is based on imagined hobo best practices of the 1920s and ’30s–the author still knows the information. Then again, as he explains, some of what we all know to be true is just generally agreed-upon stuff that somebody else made up.

Hodgman on the show Bored To Death

That Is All is the final book (now out in paperback) in Hodgman’s trilogy. Appropriately enough, it focuses on the apocalypse, which may be just around the corner. If the world ends on December 21, 2012, though, as the Mayans and Hodgman have predicted, the author will leave behind a legacy that a decent chunk of humanity has already appreciated. Beyond his stint as the PC in Apple’s ubiquitous “Mac vs. PC” ads, Hodgman has appeared in several movies and TV shows, showcased his knowledge chops as The Daily Show’s “resident expert,” and he presides over weekly podcast, Judge John Hodgman.

Since the clock is apparently ticking, the satirical author and comedian has generously shared some of his remaining time on Earth discussing the methods by which he came to know all things; an itinerary he is not ashamed to admit includes “making stuff up.”

Be a Sponge for Knowledge

I won’t go so far as to say I was born knowing everything, but I was born knowing most things. My books of complete world knowledge don’t describe all world knowledge, but all world knowledge as perceived by me. I literally put down an accurate or fanciful reflection on everything that I have ever learned in my 41 years. Most of it, of course, is the kind of knowledge everyone picks up; not through direct study, but as shrapnel. The kind that gets lodged in your brain through, you know, History Channel documentaries or Highlights magazine when you’re a kid or a weird documentary you may or may not have seen on hobos at the age of 13. And of course, a lot from trivia books that I read as a young teenager. But I think most of the trick of projecting complete world knowledge is figuring out what you know. What it is that you’ve picked up along the way. And so much of it is garbage facts, but that is in part what my books are about.

Don’t Distinguish Between Facts and Folklore

There is this sort of folklore in American culture of received knowledge. If you’re getting attacked by a shark, punching it in the nose makes it stop–it’s been proven. There’s a reason for it, because of a particular sensory organ in the shark’s nose. But the common wisdom that more people are killed on the beach from coconuts hitting them on the head rather than shark attacks every year is not true–almost nobody is killed by coconuts falling from palm trees–and this is a problem.

I’d always heard both things. They both carried the weight of truth simply because they were passed along, urban legend-style. And a lot of facts are not urban legends necessarily, because there are plenty of rural fake facts, such as: you can read the future by looking at a pig spleen, which is something I did not make up. That is actual rural folklore–a freshly slaughtered pig spleen will reveal what will happen, weather-wise, in the next 6-8 months. It’s like reading just about any sort of entrails, you know. But ultimately, so many facts are just the stories we tell each other to explain what our civilization is or is not.


Allow New Knowledge to Be Created, Perhaps Influenced By You

There are occasions where I feel like I’ve generated facts, not through direct action, but through writing these books; that, like the Borges story Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius (look it up), by simply talking about how lobsters used to have fur, suddenly in the deep pacific, a furry lobster is discovered within a week. Isn’t that strange? Simply by talking about the bloodwave overwhelming North America and the world, when it’s awakened by one of the Unspeakable Gods, which is one of my predictions for the end-time period known as Ragnarok, suddenly I’m getting emails about the Yangtze river turning red for reasons nobody knows. Is that coincidence? Of course it is, but it does suggest in a narcissistic/sociopathic way that I am influencing events and as my books have taken a darker turn with my predictions for the end of the world, I think it’s probably for the best that I just stop.

Daily Show’ Resident Deranged Millionaire

New facts are constantly being generated without my help, though. In fact, there seems to be very little I can do to affect that. I’m trying to get everything down in my complete books of world knowledge, and yet people keep coming up with new events that have occurred and new theories. It’s really quite frustrating. I’m trying to tie it all up with a bow for everybody and yet civilization marches on. Here we are, now approaching my predictive date for the end times, December 21, 2012, which is of course not my date, but the one the Mayans have been threatening us with for a long time. And as far as I can tell, it’s very disconcerting, but if you look at the signs around, I’d hate to break this to you, but the world might not end. I think my mistake was relying on the Mayans. I mean, those guys? Come on. If they were really that advanced, they would have made a calendar out of paper, not stone. What was I thinking?

Accept that Some Accepted Knowledge Will Change

Electronic cigarettes are ridiculous-looking. Whenever I see one, I wonder, have I been transported to a terrible science fiction movie? Perhaps a really cheap one from the ’80s or ’90s, where they really couldn’t afford a whole lot of production design, so instead of building a future city, they just started filming in a relatively new airplane terminal or mall. And to show that it’s the future, they have people sucking on LED glowing sticks instead of smoking cigarettes. The thing that makes it so outdated and archaic is that you’ve stopped seeing people smoking indoors in most places for so long that it no longer even serves as a signifier of the future. It is like what a 1990s movie would think the future would be, not knowing that by the first decade of the 21st century, cigarettes would have largely disappeared from the visible landscape and gone almost entirely into private spaces and a few really crummy cigar bars.

Apple commercial with Justin Long

Share Your Knowledge Only When Asked, Mostly

Nobody ever asked me to write a thousand pages of fake facts and amazing made-up true history, but otherwise I have generally followed a prefect in life, which is: 1) Put out the best work you can, whether that is writing for the internet or just telling jokes to your friends. 2) Meet interesting people. 3) Align yourself with the people who are doing the work you find interesting, so that they may inspire you to do equal or better work. 4) Destroy those people and erase them from history. 4) If you are asked to do something, say yes. Wait to be asked to do something more often than you ask to do something, but when you are asked, say yes. I put myself in the hands of fate; I hope people will ask me to do things. So far, I haven’t been let down. I’ve had some incredibly odd adventures–in the last six years, in particular, but certainly before that as well. I hope that people will continue to ask me to write and comment and do things, and speak, and do comedy, and everything else. The main message is: Hey everyone, if the world doesn’t end? I’m available.