Book Review: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A. J. Jacobs

10 Jan

The Know It All- Book CoverDISCLAIMER: It is well known that my sense of humor is idiosyncratic. Contrary to what some may think, I do find things funny, just not usually what others do. In this world, there is funny “ha-ha” and funny “ah-ha”. While I understand the “ha-ha” style of humor, I am, at most, bemused by it. Now, funny “ah-ha”, that’s my thing!

The quest that Jacobs sets himself on, to read the entire 2002 Encyclopædia Britannica is one with which I am familiar. No, I don’t intend to read the great EB, but I have set myself on two similar quests. One is to watch the 1,001 best movies of all time…well, I also added in Roger Ebert’s best of the decade lists, so I’m up to about 1,025. The Western’s, full of gung-ho macho men and terrible stereotypes, kill me…but I digress. The other, which I see as more of a life-long quest, is to read the “Must-read books of all time.” While rather Eurocentric, the list does reach out enough to not be completely discounted. The reason for this quest is my feeling that I had not read enough of “the Classics”. I have to say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is leaps and bounds better than any movie version and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables  taught me more about the battle of Waterloo than I would ever have absorbed in history class. What I mean to say is, I understand the desire to accomplish, intellectually, the nearly impossible. That’s what drew me to this book.

Jacobs was, as a 12 year old, convinced he was the smartest person in the world. Coming from a hugely accomplished family, including a father who had published multiple law tomes, and a brother-in-law who’s an equal opportunity “mansplainer”, he felt he’d fallen behind.In a bit of Oedipal brilliance, he decided to finish the task begun by his father decades before, and thus, the quest began.

The book is presented alphabetically, just as Jacobs tackled the EB. Each letter receives a chapter. Some entries include a brief recap of the information in the EB, others provide a fun fact previously unknown to Jacobs, and still others, my favorites, use the entry as a segue into anecdotes about Jacobs’ life in the year it takes him to read all the volumes. His attempts to out-know his brother-in-law, his young cousin, and his realization of just how obnoxious one can be when endlessly spewing facts, including the $1 fee imposed by his wife for each useless or ill-timed fact he made her listen to, their struggles to conceive a child, and a dawning realization that he really is getting to understand his father through this journey…all this is what makes the book such a good read. Plus, he gets to meet Alex Trebek (which disqualifies him from competing on Jeopardy!, much to his chagrin), compete on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and join MENSA.

Some of my favorite moments:

  • Under the “embalming entry (p. 75 paperback), Jacobs takes a brief detour into the human tendency to find loopholes in laws…including this gem. In medieval times, “monks were banned from eating meat on Friday. Somehow– and there’s no explanation of the logic behind this one– the monks decided that baby rabbits were fish.” That one set me off in serious, tear-streaming laughter for a solid 5 minutes. Hell, it still makes me laugh.
  • “Yes, [Isaac] Newton was a complete nut job, the angriest and nastiest scientist in history. The Britannica comes right out an uses the phrase ‘pronounced psychotic tendencies.'”
  • Jacobs, an avowed hypochondriac, finds the biographical sketches fascinating for the multitude of gruesome deaths suffered by historical figures. Livingstone– hemorrhoids, Harlow– uremic poisoning. (p. 284 paperback)
  • Written in 2003, the one of the only elements that date the book is a reference (p. 80 paperback) to the “market leader” in Internet and CD/DVD encyclopedias, Microsoft’s Encarta. I had completely forgotten Encarta and it amused me to realize how much things have changed in just 10 years.

So Naomi, what do you really think?

A fun, fast, and entertaining read, I’d recommend this book as a friendly travel companion…much friendlier than a volume or three of the Encyclopædia Britannica. (p.227 paperback)



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Posted by on January 10, 2013 in Book Reviews


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