The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

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Overview

33,000 PAGES
44 MILLION WORDS
10 BILLION YEARS OF HISTORY
1 OBSESSED MAN
Part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), The Know-It-All chronicles NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs's hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z.
To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League ...

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The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

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Overview

33,000 PAGES
44 MILLION WORDS
10 BILLION YEARS OF HISTORY
1 OBSESSED MAN
Part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), The Know-It-All chronicles NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs's hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z.
To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education, A.J. Jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His wife, Julie, tells him it's a waste of time, his friends believe he is losing his mind, and his father, a brilliant attorney who had once attempted the same feat and quit somewhere around Borneo, is encouraging but unconvinced.
With self-deprecating wit and a disarming frankness, The Know-It-All recounts the unexpected and comically disruptive effects Operation Encyclopedia has on every part of Jacobs's life — from his newly minted marriage to his complicated relationship with his father and the rest of his charmingly eccentric New York family to his day job as an editor at Esquire. Jacobs's project tests the outer limits of his stamina and forces him to explore the real meaning of intelligence as he endeavors to join Mensa, win a spot on Jeopardy!, and absorb 33,000 pages of learning. On his journey he stumbles upon some of the strangest, funniest, and most profound facts about every topic under the sun, all while battling fatigue, ridicule, and the paralyzing fear that attends his first real-life responsibility — the impending birth of his first child.
The Know-It-All is an ingenious, mightily entertaining memoir of one man's intellect, neuroses, and obsessions, and a struggle between the all-consuming quest for factual knowledge and the undeniable gift of hard-won wisdom.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Becoming the smartest person in the world is more difficult than it sounds. That was the first lesson Esquire editor A. J. Jacobs learned when he began a self-induced cram course to fill gaps in his Ivy League education. His quest for total knowledge inspired him to master the entire 33,000 pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a task more intellectually exhausting than stimulating. Jacobs's observations on the nature of knowledge are both whimsical and wise.
From the Publisher
"The Know-It-All is a hilarious book and quite an impressive achievement. I've always said, why doesn't someone put out a less complete version of the encyclopedia? Well done, A.J." —Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show

"Tender....Entertaining....This book really does seek a working definition of what it means to be smart."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"A.J. Jacobs turns the act of reading the entire Britannica into a hilarious memoir....It's the stunt of the book itself that allows the funny, touching memoir to be so stuffed with nutritious bits of trivia that you feel smart for reading it."—Joel Stein, Time

"The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs's quixotic, totally endearing quest."—Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated

Christopher Byrd
Fueled by candor, memoirs are an ideal forum for someone who wants to be appreciated, so it tidily works out that Jacobs's candor about his own catty behavior and the temptation to look smart is endearing. In his all-American effort to better himself, he hasn't renounced his love of entertainment. Plucked with care, the book's facts will provide enough anecdotes to perk up conversations and weather the season's social events. More substantially, The Know-It-All belongs to the category of literary expeditions whose chief reward is their nudging toward a fantastic, heretofore forbidding, work.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Imagine, the original Berserkers were "savage Norse soldiers" of the Middle Ages who went into battle stark naked! Or consider the Etruscan habit of writing in "boustrophedon style." Intrigued? Well, either hunker down with your own Encyclop--dia Britannica, or buy Esquire editor Jacobs's memoir of the year he spent reading all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition-that's 33,000 pages with some 44 million words. Jacobs set out on this delightfully eccentric endeavor attempting to become the "smartest person in the world," although he agrees smart doesn't mean wise. Apart from the sheer pleasure of scaling a major intellectual mountain, Jacobs figured reading the encyclopedia from beginning to end would fill some gaps in his formal education and greatly increase his "quirkiness factor." Reading alphabetically through whole topics he never knew existed meant he'd accumulate huge quantities of trivia to insert into conversations with unsuspecting victims. As his wife shunned him and cocktail party guests edged away, Jacobs started testing his knowledge in a hilarious series of humiliating adventures: hobnobbing at Mensa meetings, shuffling off to chess houses, trying out for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, visiting his old prep school, even competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Indeed, one of the book's strongest parts is its laugh-out-loud humor. Jacobs's ability to juxtapose his quirky, sardonic wit with oddball trivia make this one of the season's most unusual books. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Oct.) Forecast: NPR listeners have heard Jacobs interviewed in about a dozen segments since he started this reading project, and will be eager to lay hands on the book. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This guide to everything you don't know and don't really care about that much is narrated to you over the family dinner table by your smartyparts older brother. Jacobs, an editor, author, and NPR contributor, sets out to read the entire Encylopaedia Britannica, apparently as a way to avoid acknowledging that his wife is pregnant with their first child. In a series of A-to-Z entries, Jacobs writes about himself as well as the knowledge that he gleaned from his project. This means you can skim his "guide" for some interesting trivia, try and find just the storyline about the upcoming birth, or read it straight through, of course. If you persevere, you can look for some interesting thoughts about knowledge vs. wisdom and book learning vs. emotional growth. An optional purchase for academic and larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/04.]-Terren Ilana Wein, Univ. of Chicago Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-When Jacobs, a pop-culture junkie and magazine editor, got a bee in his bonnet to read the entire abridged set of the Encyclopedia Britannica to stave off the decline of his recalled knowledge, his wife, family, and coworkers looked on with disbelief, amusement, and annoyance. They thought he'd give up on his quest, but fortunately he did not, for his recap manages to impart the joys of learning, along with a lot of laughs. The alphabetical arrangement of his book allows Jacobs to share highlights, many of which show his fixation on the morbid, the insane, and the grotesque in history. Cort s had syphilis. Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women. Throughout, the author digresses with anecdotes about such things as his trip to a Mensa meeting, his visit with Alex Trebek, and (mainly) his wife's attempts to get pregnant. While the pregnancy woes probably won't hold the same resonance with teens as with adults, they are all short, and soon there is another funny or gross item. As Jacobs wraps up, he leaves readers with the sense of satisfaction and wistfulness that often occurs when finishing a particularly satisfying book, only multiplied by the magnitude of what he has accomplished. This is a love note to human knowledge and the joys of obtaining it.-Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Esquire editor Jacobs (The Two Kings, not reviewed) squares off against all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and returns to his corner in comic triumph. "In the years since graduating college, I began a long, slow slide into dumbness," he writes of the intellectual swan dive he hoped to reverse by tackling all 33,000-pages worth of the EB. Jacobs moved through it like a combine, harvesting a great swath of general knowledge-all general knowledge: "If my goal is to know everything, I can't discriminate, even against obscure Teutonic landmarks." The bite-sized entries suited a man "who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines." Yet the task required attention, like removing a splinter, he ruefully notes. Then again, the task is lightened here (often humorously and certainly ad infinitum) by Jacobs's ability to self-reference a good number of the choice selections he presents, from atrophy to chess, rock tripe to year. He takes pleasing swipes at the EB's deadpan seriousness: there will be no Tom Cruise entry, and in the 2002 edition's grudging acknowledgement of Madonna's existence, "you could tell the editors wrote the entry while wearing one of those sterile full-body suits people use when containing an Ebola outbreak." Of course, Jacobs couldn't help but try to insinuate his latest strange fact into everyday conversations, which typically ground them to an abrupt halt, and he tenders ways in which you, too, can gain an entry: get beheaded, for instance, or become a botanist, win a Nobel Prize, become a liturgical vestment. It is all enormous fun, educational even, and let's hope that Esquire gets a cut of the deservedly juicyroyalties, since Jacobs appears to have read much of the encyclopedia on the job. Doubtlessly more enjoyable than reading the EB itself, with lots of arcane nuggets readers can casually drop on the unsuspecting like sacks of flour from a great height. Agent: Sloan Morris
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743250627
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 284,918
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

GEOFFREY CANTOR made his Broadway debut in the tony Award winning Sideman. He has appeared on numerous television shows, including Ed, The Street, and Law & Order. He is most recognized for his numerous television commercials.

A.J. JACOBS is a senior editor at Esquiremagazine and the author of The Two Kings: Jesus and Elvis, America Off-Line, and Fractured Fairy Tales. Since his local grocery store did not carry the type of mint cake chosen by Tenzing Norgay to celebrate his successful ascent of Mount Everest, Jacobs celebrated the completion of his feat with some Ring Dings. He lives in New York City with his wife.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: A

a-ak

That's the first word in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "A-ak." Followed by this write-up: "Ancient East Asian music. See gagaku."

That's the entire article. Four words and then: "See gagaku."

What a tease! Right at the start, the crafty Britannica has presented me with a dilemma. Should I flip ahead to volume 6 and find out what's up with this gagaku, or should I stick with the plan, and move on to the second word in the AA section? I decide to plow ahead with the AAs. Why ruin the suspense? If anyone brings up "a-ak" in conversation, I'll just bluff. I'll say, "Oh, I love gagaku!" or, "Did you hear that Madonna's going to record an a-ak track on her next CD?"

a cappella

A lovely surprise. I know exactly what this is — an ex-girlfriend of mine belonged to an a cappella group in college. They sang songs from Def Leppard and called it Rockapella. One for two. Not bad.

Aachen

The next few entries destroy my average. I don't recognize the names of any Chinese generals or Buddhist compendiums. And I've never heard of Aachen, the German city that's home to Schwertbad-Quelle, the hottest sulfur spring in the country. I try to memorize the information. If my goal is to know everything, I can't discriminate, even against obscure Teutonic landmarks.

Aaron

I move on to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Seems he was sort of the Frank Stallone of ancient Judaism. The loser brother, the one Mom didn't talk about too much. "Oh, Aaron? He's doing okay. Still finding his way. But back to Moses. Did you hear about the Red Sea?"

This is good stuff. I'm Jewish, but I never got any religious training, never got a bar mitzvah. I know most of my Jewish lore from Charlton Heston movies, and I wouldn't call myself observant, though I do have a light lunch on Yom Kippur. So the Britannica will be my savior, my belated Hebrew school.

Abbott, Bud, and Costello, Lou

After a bunch of Persian rulers named Abbas, I get to these two familiar faces. But any sense of relief fades when I learn about their sketchy past. Turns out that the famed partnership began when Costello's regular straight man fell ill during a gig at the Empire Theater in New York, and Abbott — who was working the theater's box office — offered to substitute. It went so well, Abbott became Costello's permanent partner. This is not a heartwarming story; it's a cautionary tale. I'm never calling in sick again. I don't want to come back after a twenty-four-hour flu and find Robbie from the mail room volunteered to be the senior editor. It's a tough world.

ABO blood group

Stomach cancer is 20 percent more common in people with type A blood than those with type B or type O. That's me, type A. This is even more disturbing than the tale of the backstabbing Costello. Clearly, I have to be prepared to learn some things I don't like.

Absalom

Absalom, a biblical hero, has the oddest death so far in the encyclopedia. During a battle in the forest, Absalom got his flowing hair caught in the branches of an oak tree, which allowed his enemy, Joab, to catch him and slay him. This, I figure, is exactly why the army requires crew cuts.

Acoemeti

rd

A group of monks who provided nonstop choral singing in the 5th century. They did it with a relay system — every few hours, a fresh monk would replace the exhausted monk. I love this image, though I am glad I wasn't their neighbor. We're talking twenty-four-hour entertainment long before MTV went on the air. Quite possibly before Mick Jagger was born.

Addled Brain Syndrome

Okay, I made that up. There's no such thing as addled brain syndrome. But I'm definitely suffering from something. As I vacuum up this information hour after hour, I find myself so overwhelmed that I have to take frequent breaks to walk around the office. Walk it off, as my gym teachers used to say. You only sprained that brain. It's not a fracture. Walk it off, son.

The reading is much, much harder than I expected. But at the same time, in some ways, it's strangely easier. In some ways, it's the perfect book for someone like me, who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines. Each essay is a bite-sized nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman's lurking right around the corner (by the way, the mythical Snowman's footprints are actually produced by running bears). Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities.

The changes are so abrupt and relentless, you can't help but get mental whiplash. You go from depressing to uplifting, from tiny to cosmic, from ancient to modern. There's no segue, no local news anchor to tell you, "And now, on the lighter side." Just a little white space, and boom, you've switched from theology to worm behavior. But I don't mind. Bring on the whiplash — the odder the juxtapositions, the better. That's the way reality is — a bizarre, jumbled-up Cobb salad. I love seeing the prophet Abraham rub elbows with Karl Abraham, a German shrink who theorized about the anal expulsive and phallic stages.

Oh yes, that's another thing. Sex. This came as a pleasant surprise to me. The Britannica may not be Cinemax, but it's got its fair share of randiness. I've learned, for instance, that Eskimos swap wives. Plus, the Achagua men have three to four spouses and flowers in the Acanthaceae family are bisexual. Yowza! That's some racy stuff. Hot. Hotter than the Schwertbad-Quelle sulfur spring. I expected the Britannica to be prudish, but it seems quite happy to acknowledge the seamy world below the belt.

And speaking of titillating R-rated material, my God — the violence! It's extraordinary how blood-soaked our history is. One Persian politician was strangled by servants, another suffocated in a steam bath. Or consider poor Peter Abelard, an 11th-century Christian theologian who, judging from his miniature portrait, looks a bit like Steve Buscemi. Abelard came up with some interesting ideas — namely that deeds don't matter, only intentions; in other words, the road to heaven is paved with good intentions. But how can I give much deep thought to that idea when the entry also discusses Abelard's love affair with his student Heloise, which ended rather badly: Abelard suffered castration at the order of Heloise's outraged uncle. Sweet Jesus! I'm guessing Heloise didn't get asked on a whole lot of dates after that one.

Sex, violence, MTV pacing — all this makes my quest much more palatable. But I don't mean to give the wrong idea. As I said, it's hard. Excruciatingly hard. First, the vastness of it. I knew there was an ocean of information out there. But I didn't really comprehend what I was up against until I started trying to drink that ocean cup by cup. I'll be reading about Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and I'll get a list of the seven different ethnicities that comprise that city: Gallas, Gurages, Hareris, Tigres, Walamos, Somalis, and Dorses. Should I even try to memorize those? Six ethnicities I could handle, but seven? That's daunting.

The Britannica is not a book you can skim. This is a book you have to hunch over and pay full attention to, like needlepoint or splinter removal. It hurts my poor little head. Until now, I didn't realize quite how out of shape my brain had become. It's just not accustomed to this kind of thinking. I feel like I'm making it run a triathlon in ninety-degree heat when it's used to sitting in a hammock drinking mojitos. The math and science parts of my brain have gone particularly flabby since college. At most, I have to calculate the number of subway rides I have remaining on my little electronic Metrocard. That rarely requires quadratic equations. At my job, the toughest science I've encountered was the time I had to edit a few sentences about Botox for men. So when I read about acid-base reactions with conjugate bases and nonaqueous solvents, I'm mystified. I generally read this type of stuff again and again and just hope it'll sink in. It's the same strategy that American tourists in Europe employ when confronted with a non-English-speaking store owner. Umbrella. Um-brella! Um-BREL-la! Say it often and loud enough, and it'll click. But I forge on.

Alcott, Bronson

The father of novelist Louisa May Alcott was famous in his own right. A radical reformer full of unorthodox ideas, he opened several schools for children. The schools had a particularly unusual discipline system: teachers received punishment at the hands of the offending pupil. The idea was that this would instill a sense of shame in the mind of the errant child. Now, this is a brilliant concept. I have a long list of teachers I wish I could have spanked, among them my fifth-grade instructor, Ms. Barker, who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale, which earned us a humiliating $1.53.

Alger, Horatio

I knew he was the 19th-century author of the famous rags-to-riches novels. I didn't know he turned to writing after being kicked out of a Massachusetts church for allegations of sexual misconduct with local boys. I told you — the Britannica can be a gossip rag.

amethyst

One of my biggest challenges is figuring out how to shoehorn my newfound knowledge into conversations. Naturally, I want to show off, but I can't just start reeling off facts or I'll be as annoying as an Acarina, a type of mite that, incidentally, copulates by transferring little packets of sperm called spermatophores.

And since I've read only entries in the very early As, my new topics of expertise don't come up that often. You'd be surprised at how many days can go by without one of my friends mentioning aardvarks, much less aardwolves — an African carnivore that the Britannica generously describes as "harmless and shy."

But today I had my first successful reference. Well, I don't know if it was actually successful. Okay, it was spectacularly unsuccessful. A total failure. But it was a start.

I'm in my office with a writer, and I need to give him a deadline for his piece.

"Can you get it to me Tuesday?"

"How about Wednesday?" he says.

"Okay. But Wednesday is the latest. Otherwise, I'll be angry. I'll have to rip you more assholes than an abalone."

Puzzled look.

0

"Abalones are a type of snail with five assholes."

Silence.

"They've got a row of holes in their shells, and five of them serve as outlets for waste."

Silence. Annoyed look.

I thought it was an amusing little tidbit, a nice twist on the cliché, a clever way to make it clear that I really needed the article. Instead, I came off like a colossal outlet for waste.

I figure it'll be easier to show off my increasing intelligence in a relaxed social environment. So when Julie and I go to her friends' house for dinner that night, I am prepared to dazzle. We arrive at Shannon and David's apartment, exchange cheek kisses and "Great to see you's."

"Brrrrr," says Julie as she unbundles her several layers of winter wear.

"A little nippy out there, huh?" says Shannon.

"Not quite as cold as Antarctica's Vostok Station, which reached a record 128 degrees below zero," I reply. "But still cold."

Shannon chuckles politely.

We sit down in the living room and Shannon starts telling Julie about her upcoming vacation in Saint Bart's.

"I'm so jealous," says Julie.

"Yeah, I can't wait to get some sun," Shannon says. "Look how white I am."

"Albinism affects one in twenty thousand Americans," I say.

Shannon doesn't quite know how to respond to that one.

"Anyhoo," says Julie, "where are you staying?"

I probably shouldn't have said my albinism fact, but I can't help it. I'm so loaded up with information that when I see a hole — even if it's a small hole, even a microscopic hole, the size of an abalone's butt hole — I have to dive right in.

David returns from the kitchen with a bottle of wine.

"Anyone want some cabernet?"

"I'll have a glass," says Julie.

"I'll have some too," I say. "And an amethyst if you've got one."

David cocks his head.

"Amethysts protect against drunkenness, according to the ancients," I say.

"Is that so?" says David.

"Yes. I don't want to end up like Alexander the Great, who died after getting ill from a drinking bout."

"No, I suppose not," says David. He laughs. Nervously, I think.

Julie turns back to Shannon, hoping to resume the vacation talk. "So, which hotel?"

"We've got reservations at this place I found in Conde Nast Traveler — "

"Also, speaking of alcohol consumption," I say, "what country do you think has the highest per capita rate? I'll give you a hint: it's not Ireland."

"Hmm. Is it France?" asks Shannon. She's very polite.

"Nope. Not France. The residents of Luxembourg are the biggest boozers in the world."

"Huh."

"Who woulda thunk?" I ask. "Luxembourg! But seriously, do not get between a Luxembourgian and a bottle of whiskey!" I say, shaking my head and laughing.

Part of me is hoping Shannon and David won't notice that all my facts start with A. But at the same time, I'm also kind of longing to be exposed. I've already logged thirty hours reading my encyclopedia, and I want them to ooh and aaah at my accomplishment. Maybe Julie senses this, or maybe she just wants to avoid further embarrassment, but she decides to spill my secret.

"A.J.'s decided to read the encyclopedia," she tells Shannon. "And he's only in the As, so you'll be hearing a lot of A facts."

"The encyclopedia?" says David. "That's some light reading."

"Yeah, it'll be good on the beach," I say.

"Seriously, why are you reading the encyclopedia?" says Shannon.

I had prepared for this. I had my answer.

"Well, there's an African folktale I think is relevant here. Once upon a time, there's this tortoise who steals a gourd that contains all the knowledge of the world. He hangs it around his neck. When he comes to a tree trunk lying across road, he can't climb over it because the gourd is in his way. He's in such a hurry to get home, he smashes the gourd. And ever since, wisdom has been scattered across the world in tiny pieces. So, I want to try to gather all that wisdom and put it together."

"I guess you're not up to P, for 'Please shut up,' " says Julie.

They all laugh at that one.

Arabian horses

Next morning, it's back to my daily dose of Britannica. Arabian horses have twenty-three vertebrae instead of the twenty-four found in most horses. I spend a moment trying to think of a situation in which this information might be useful. Maybe I could write a mystery story where the identification of an Arabian horse skeleton is a major plot point. Maybe I could win a bar bet with a moderately — but not overly — knowledgeable equestrian. Who knows?

Asimov, Isaac

I was aware that Asimov was a major figure in American literature, the author of numerous science fiction and science books. I didn't know just how many books: about five hundred. The man wrote five hundred books. I don't think I've written five hundred Post-it notes. He wrote so many books, even his biographers are reduced to the vague "about five hundred." The Britannica can be depressing that way. As you read accomplishment after accomplishment, Nobel after Nobel, you are reminded just how little you've done with your life. My entry — if written today — would look something like this:

Jacobs, Arnold "A.J." (b. March 20, 1968, New York, N.Y.)

A minor figure in 20th-century American journalism. Jacobs attended Brown University, where he studied philosophy, attracted to the discipline because it required the lowest number of course credits necessary to graduate. Upon receiving his degree, he began his career writing articles for Dental Economics, the leading publication covering financial matters for dentists and orthodontists. He later established his reputation with a prescient sidebar in the pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly comparing O. J. Simpson and Homer Simpson, which received great acclaim across America, or at least within the home of his parents. He met many of the midlevel show business figures of his day, including Bill Maher and Sarah Michelle Gellar, neither of whom knew his name.

In 2000, Jacobs married Julie Schoenberg, a vivacious advertising sales representative also working at Entertainment Weekly. The marriage was apparently a happy one, despite the fact that Jacobs whined whenever Schoenberg suggested maybe he should put on pants because they were going to a nice restaurant.

Jacobs's other achievements include folding napkins into such shapes as a rabbit and a hat. See also: hypochondria and germaphobe.

I think the Asimov entry stings all the more because I have a quasi Asimov in my own family. My dad — in his spare time, just for fun — writes legal books, and has so far published twenty-four of them. These are serious volumes, books with titles like The Impact of Rule 10b-5 and Disclosures and Remedies Under the Securities Law. He specializes in laws on insider trading, the kind that Martha Stewart was investigated for breaking, launching a thousand riffs on ways she might redecorate her jail cell.

The other day, I was over at my parents' house for lunch, and I figured, since I am trying to finish my dad's quest, I should take a look at his books. So after the meal, I wandered into his study and was confronted with those twenty-four tomes. A big, sagging shelf of them.

I haven't picked one up in years, not since I was fourteen. Back then, I used to enjoy the first volume of The Impact of Rule 10b-5, mainly because my dad had inserted a Playboy centerfold into a half dozen copies to send to friends as a joke. He had kept one of these customized copies for himself. So that was probably the closest I came to going to law school — studying the case of Miss January's missing ballet tutu.

This time, I figure I should read words other than "Turn-ons: champagne, walks on the beach, and men who can help my acting career." I pick up The Impact of Rule 10b-5 and read a sentence thick with words like "fiduciary" and "annuity plan" and "corpus." No comprehension; it could be random ink splatters on the page and I would have had the same level of understanding.

I flip to the middle of the book. As expected, the pages are heavy with footnotes. Really heavy. Some pages have just a couple of lines of regular text floating at the top, then a sea of footnotes all the way down. I guess footnotes isn't the right word when they get this abundant — more like shouldernotes or foreheadnotes.

My father is proud of his footnotes. A few years ago, he broke the world's record for most footnotes in a legal article, coming in at an impressive 1,247. Soon after that, a California legal professor topped my dad's record with 1,611 footnotes. My dad didn't stand for that. He wrote another legal article and just crushed his opponent. Squashed him with 4,824 footnotes, ensuring his status as the Wayne Gretsky of footnotes. My dad tried to get the Guinness Book of World Records interested, but legal footnotes apparently don't get the same respect as fingernails the size of adult rattlesnakes. So he had to settle for a mention in Harper's Index.

I flip to Dad's own index to see if I recognize any words. More dense Latinate legalese. And then I spot this entry: "Birds, for the, 1- 894." My mother had once told me about that joke of Dad's, but I had forgotten about it. One of his better ones. But my Lord, 894 pages of text in just one volume — that's no joke. No wonder he gave up reading the Britannica — he was writing his own encyclopedia.

This investigation into my dad's oeuvre wasn't particularly good for my self-esteem. The scope and denseness of his work — those were both envy inducing. But that's not to mention that my dad has made himself the expert on insider trading. Not an expert. The expert. What had I made myself an expert on? The plot lines of the various Police Academy movies? Not even that. Though I haven't read the Britannica's write-up of psychoanalysis, I figure my dad's accomplishments have something to do with my quest to finish the encyclopedia. If I can't beat my dad on depth, at least I can get him on breadth.

assault and battery

They're always lumped together, but there is a difference. Assault is the attempt to apply force, battery is the actual application. Look at that — I'm already getting a legal education. Almost ready for the bar exam.

atrophy

A very troubling entry — all the ways my body is crumbling. The bones are becoming lighter and more porous. Muscles are shriveling. And worst of all, age leads to a striking decrease in the number of living cells in my cerebral cortex. Every day, my brain's surface ridges shrink and the skull fluid swells to fill the space.

The Britannica's passages on evaporating cortexes would disturb most people, but I'm particularly rattled; oddly enough, I've had a long history of grappling with a fear of brain damage. I might as well get this out on the table now. I mentioned earlier on that, growing up, I thought I was smart. Well, that wasn't exactly the whole story. I didn't just think that I was smart. I thought that I was really smart. I thought that I was, in fact, the smartest boy in the world.

I'm honestly not sure how this notion popped into my head. My mom probably had something to do with it, seeing as she was only slightly less enamored of me than I was of myself. And it's true, I did pretty well on tests, sometimes notching up the highest score in the class. As my mom likes to remind me, on one geography quiz, I got so cocky, I wrote "New Joizy" instead of "New Jersey." Ha! In any case, with my handful of good fourth-grade test scores as evidence, I somehow made the logical deduction that no other ten-year-old on planet Earth was my intellectual equal. It's a leap, yes. But in my defense, I hadn't taken any high-level statistics courses. At the time, it just somehow made sense. I could just feel that I was unique in some way (again, my mom told me so). And since I wasn't the best-looking boy or the best hockey player or the best glee club singer, that left intelligence. So what if I didn't always get the highest score? Or even very often? That could be explained away. Maybe I wasn't trying, or maybe the other kids cheated. Deep down, I knew I was top intellectual dog.

Let me tell you, though: being the smartest boy in the world wasn't easy. I didn't ask for this. I didn't want this. On the contrary, it was a huge burden. First, there was the task of keeping my brain perfectly protected. My cerebral cortex was a national treasure, a masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel of brains. This was not something that could be treated frivolously. If I could have locked it in a safe, I would have. Instead, I became obsessed with brain damage.

Danger lurked everywhere. If my skull was touched, that might jostle the brain and squash a few valuable dendrites. So no one was allowed contact with anything above my neck — that was the holy of holies. No friendly pats on the head. No soccer, with its insane practice on bonking the ball on your pate. And if Grandma came in for a kiss on the forehead, I would dart my head like Sugar Ray Leonard. If I'd known then about the annelid worm — which can turn its skin cells into brain cells — I would have been extremely jealous.

Even seeing other people get brain damage flustered me. When I was eleven, I went to the movie Hair with my mother at New York's Ziegfeld Theater, and was horrified to watch Treat Williams and his unshowered cohorts smoking pot in a Central Park tunnel. I could almost hear their poor brain cells scream for mercy. "Can we go?" I asked my mom before the first "Aquarius" refrain. "I don't feel so good."

Drug-addled musicals aside, the thing that really unhinged me was car rides. My fourth-grade biology teacher told us that the carbon monoxide produced by cars can cause brain damage. That was it, just a throwaway line inserted into a lecture on mammalian bloodstreams. But to me, carbon monoxide became the number one enemy, my white whale, the Joab to my Absalom.

I became a window Nazi. A window had to be cracked at all times so that my brain could get fresh oxygen to dilute that nefarious carbon monoxide. It could be forty below zero and we could be driving through Vostok Station; I'd still roll down the glass in the backseat of the Plymouth Valiant.

"Can you please shut that? It's really cold," said Mom.

"Just a little fresh air, Mom," I'd say.

"That fresh air is freezing my eyelids together."

"Roll up the window, A.J.," my dad said.

I'd roll it up. I'd wait about two minutes, till the conversation had drifted to some other topic, like which fast food chain most deserved our patronage, then I'd slowly — in barely noticeable spurts — lower the window again.

"Dammit, A.J.!" my mom would say, as her lower lip turned cobalt blue. "Please put up the window."

I was smart enough to know that I shouldn't tell anyone the reason I needed that icy air. No need to spill the secret that I was the genius of all geniuses, the Leonardo da Vinci of the 1980s. That would just inspire envy and skepticism. So I'd just stare at the closed window and stew. If ten minutes went by without my lungs getting fresh air, I panicked. I needed to make sure the monoxide hadn't eaten my cranium. For some reason, and this continues to baffle me, I thought the best way to test whether my mind was still in peak form was to create new and bizarre racquet sports. That was my homespun IQ test. So I made up racquet sports involving big racquets, tiny racquets, balls the size of refrigerators, balls the size of pencil erasers. There were racquet sports involving garage doors, bathroom sinks, and telecommunications satellites. Strange, I know. But it made me feel better.

Not counting my vigilance against brain damage, there were plenty of other strains associated with being the smartest boy in the world. It was a huge responsibility, nurturing this amazing organ of mine. I knew someday soon I'd have to invent something, cure something, or write something of grand significance. I knew I should be feeding my mind the highest-quality nourishment, like physics textbooks or Dostoyevsky, but instead I was keeping it on a starvation diet by watching Gilligan's Island reruns. Even back then, I had trouble resisting pop culture's pull. I felt guilty every time I watched those hapless castaways. Not that it stopped me, but I just couldn't enjoy Thurston Howell's lockjaw one-liners like my lucky bastard classmates with their slightly above-average intelligence.

I remember the day I decided I wasn't the smartest boy in the world. I was watching TV — not sitcom reruns, for once, but a documentary on Hasidic Jews. The footage showed a room of young Hasidic boys about the same age as I was, at their desks, their noses buried in books. The narrator intoned that these boys studied for sixteen hours a day. I was blown away. Sixteen hours a day! My God. Even though I knew I had the initial advantage of the highest-quality brain, these boys studied so much, they must have pulled several lengths ahead of me in the intelligence horse race. I just couldn't compete with sixteen hours a day. This was an immense relief. A whole new day. I started watching Gilligan and Ginger and all the rest with impunity.

In the years that followed, I became increasingly less impressed with my own intelligence. My perceived place on the bell curve drifted farther and farther to the left. I went from being, in my mind, much smarter than my dad to a little smarter, to just as smart, and then, finally — if I had to guess when, it'd be somewhere in my freshman or sophomore year at college — less smart than my dad, the author of those imposing twenty-four books.

In retrospect, the revelation about my intelligence — the one inspired by the studious Hasidic boys — wasn't exactly the product of flawless logic. There's not a perfect correlation between hours of reading and intelligence. Perhaps there's very little correlation at all. Of course, I do realize I'm committing the same fallacy right now, twenty-three years later. Deep down, I know that reading the encyclopedia and jamming my brain full of facts won't necessarily allow me to reclaim my title as the smartest person alive. I know my quest is a bit of a lark. I know it's got a whiff — or maybe more than a whiff — of the absurd.

And just in case I didn't know, I'm constantly being told this by friends and family. My aunt Marti, who lives in Berkeley and is always ready to voice her skepticism, whether it's about our phallocentric government or our reliance on oppressive Western medicine, confronted me in a phone call the other day.

"Now, why are you reading the encyclopedia again?"

"I'm trying to become the smartest man in the world."

"And how are you defining intelligence? Just the amount of information you have?"

"Yup."

"Well, that's not very intelligent."

"Well, I haven't gotten to the letter I."

It's an easy response, but there's something to it. I'm not so deluded that I think I'll gain one IQ point for every thousand pages. I don't honestly think that the folks from the MacArthur genius grant will be kicking down my door. But I also believe that there is some link between knowledge and intelligence. Maybe knowledge is the fuel and intelligence is the car? Maybe facts are the flying buttresses and intelligence is the cathedral? I don't know the exact relation. But I'm sure the Britannica, somewhere in those 44 million words, will help me figure it out.

augury

You can predict the future based on dice (cleromancy), dots on paper (geomancy), fire and smoke (pyromancy), entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy), animal livers (hepatoscopy), or shoulder blades of animals (scapulimancy). They had me up until the crazy shoulder blades part.

Aztec

The A's have been lousy with Aztecs. They popped up under all sorts of headings, including American Peoples, Arts of Native and Alcohol and Drug Consumption (they called magic mushrooms "God's flesh"). And here they are again, under plain old Aztec. Thanks to the Britannica, I now know the Aztecs prophesied the destruction of the earth followed by an age when humans become monkeys. Hey, that's the plot of Planet of the Apes! Damn you, Hollywood! You stole the idea from the Aztecs. Damn you to hell!

I polish off the monkey-fixated Aztecs, and just like that, I'm done with the A's. It's been two weeks, and I am now one twenty-sixth of my way to the summit. I have absorbed 3.8 percent of all the knowledge in the world. I slam my Britannica shut and do a little touchdown dance. Yes! I am the alpha male.

And yet, do I feel smarter? Have I proved my skeptical aunt Marti wrong yet? Well, I do know a lot more information, but in a way, I'm feeling more insecure than ever. I'm worried I'm not intelligent enough to process all my data into some coherent conclusion or worldview. I'm worried I'm not focusing on the right things. Take Aristotle. Here's one of the great philosophers of all time. I should be drinking in his theories on morality and epistemology. Instead, I'm fascinated by Aristotle's obscure maxim about marriage: that men should be thirty-seven and women should be eighteen when they take their vows. Aristotle came up with that theory because — now here's an odd coincidence — when he was thirty-seven he married an eighteen-year-old woman. I like that he rationalized his dirty-old-man behavior with a grand philosophical statement. There are a lot of Aristotelians in Hollywood, I chuckle to myself. So that's the profound conclusion I draw from the essay on Aristotle. That he likes young ladies.

Maybe by the end of the Bs I'll be smart enough to concentrate on the Big Picture.

Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 126 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 126 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2007

    This book is AWESOME!

    If you are a non-intellectual person who cannot find humor in day to day activities, then this book isn't for you. If you are totally awesome, smart and like to laugh and learn info at the same time, you should definitely read this book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2010

    Great read!

    A journey through the author's attempt to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. This book is at time hilarious, touching, and chock full of useless information with the author's humorous take on it. It's a laugh out loud type of book that is extremely difficult to put book. I would highly recommend this book to anyone that love witty observations with a of the twisted! truly a great read!!!!

    I just started reading another of Mr. Jocobs books and so far it's another laugh out loud work.

    A great book by a great author!!!!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 8, 2010

    A Very Humorous - and Philosophical - Memoir !

    A.J.Jacobs' The Know-It-All was one of the best books I read in 2009. In it Jacobs tells the story of his (ultiimately successful) attempt to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. However, the better story is how he is able to keep his job, his fiance, and his social life, as his goal becomes almost all-consuming. Additionally, Jacobs pauses along the way to ask himself (and the reader) what knowledge is, what is its value, and what role reading plays in its acquisition. I recommend the book highly!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 5, 2009

    This book is a riot!

    The main character challenged himself to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He reports throughout his book on those items in the EB (in alphabetical order) that intrigued him, enlightened him, made him laugh, changed his thinking, baffled him and so on. And he did this intertwined with the events of his job, his marriage, his family (including his very competitive and smart-aleck brother-in-law), his childhood memories, friends and social occasions, etc. He nearly drove people in his life crazy by throwing out tidbits from the EB in all types of daily conversations--including not too few attempts at one-upsmanship. And throughout the entire book, he is witty and funny and tells the most hysterical story about taking on a challenge that almost totally controls your life for its time. I laughed out loud on airplanes and at the beach and pool while reading this book on vacation. And I learned a lot about things I knew little about. I was completely enthralled. Highly educational and FUN!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 2, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Sometimes, knowing that we don't know it all is far more valuable.

    You'll likely find this book in the humor section of your local store, but it's unfair to pigeonhole it like that when it is so very much more than just a funny book. True, it is funny, and will definitely make you laugh out loud, but it is also inspiring, intriguing, and at many times wonderfully touching. A.J. Jacobs, in spending a year reading nothing but the encyclopedia, teaches us that the most important information that we have to learn we can't find in a book. He shows us that while factual knowledge is valuable, it is far less important than the people in our lives and the love we show them. Give this book a chance, and you'll find that it's so much more than just a story of a guy stroking his intellectual ego, it's an inspirational and moving memoir that is sure to land among your favorite reads.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    lots of bite sized information...

    The Know-It-All is interesting, entertaining and funny. It's filled with tidbits of useful and not-so-useful information from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Some highlights for me are when A.J. interviews Alex Trebek from Jeopardy and when he gets to go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Incidentally, A.J. couldn't be a participant on Jeopardy because he interviewed Alex Trebek at Trebek's home. Every few pages or so I would read something out of the Know-It-All and say to myself "wow! I didn't know that!" This is quite an enlightening book about knowledge and one man's quest to obtain it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2008

    I loved this book!

    I listened to this while driving to and from work, and I couldn't wait to get back to my car to keep 'reading' it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2007

    What a hoot

    Despite the occasional self-reflective silliness on his belief, as a child, that he was the smartest kid in the world, AJ Jacobs' romp through the Encyclopedia Brittanica is wry and hilarious. Structuring the book around his observations on EB entries, Jacobs displays a killer sense of humor, great ability to describe his quirky family and occasional 'real intelligence' on what matters most in life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2012

    weird

    Weird and stupid

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2012

    Love

    Funny and you even learn a little!!

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  • Posted May 13, 2012

    The Know-It-All is not what you expect, however, after reading t

    The Know-It-All is not what you expect, however, after reading the introduction or preface, you’re automatically hooked. Of course as we all know many don’t read the preface, but even the actual first chapter, which by the way are set up alphabetically, are intriguing.
    Jacob’s sets up a skeptical challenge, a man reading an encyclopedia set, aiming to be the world’s smartest man, well hasn’t he heard of Stephen Hawking. However, the title did include the adjective humble, which give leeway to the author. He offers much insight in such a way where he is also able to incorporate this task into his everyday life. For example, ‘you must use it or else you’ll lose it.’ AJ slowly but surely is able to use his new found information into his everyday life.
    The book also includes understatements, his family, his wife, occupation, and surprisingly humor. That’s correct, he makes the book interesting to read, it’s not just a book of facts, it doesn’t just tell his story, it actually makes the information appealing. Actually, you walk away feeling smarter and somewhat motivated to learn and appreciate our surroundings.
    One example of appreciation is the CAPS key. The author explains how typewriters came a long way in order to allow a capitalization key to be invented for current technology. He includes adventures, such as meeting an extremely intelligent man, whom is quite humble, and surprisingly not as rich as AJ expected.
    If you’re a fan of gaining new knowledge, learning bits and pieces of random information, then this book is for you. In addition, not only will you learn about facts from the encyclopedia, but the book also features moral lessons, that may help you in your life or in certain situations. Overall, the book is recommended and personally given five out of five stars.

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  • Posted August 1, 2011

    A must read

    If you ever felt alone for being a nerd, and too-smart-for-my-friends but still managed to enjoy yourself for being above average, then you MUST read this book.

    It is lough-out-loud funny and amazingly fast paced.

    You won't want to put it down!

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  • Posted May 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    How to read an encyclopedia

    When I was a kid I owned an encyclopedia that my grandpa had given us. My family owned many other reference works as well, and a little nerd that I was I had spent many hours reading and browsing those thick books that contained more knowledge than I could ever hope to absorb. There was something really appealing about the idea that all of the knowledge can be systematized and presented in a coherent, all-encompassing whole. And yet, the sheer size of those thick volumes made me wonder if I will ever be able to read it all. Apparently, there are a few brave souls out there who had stopped wondering and decided to undertake the task of reading the entire encyclopedia, and not just any old encyclopedia. Alan Jacobs, the author of this book, decided at the ripe old age of thirty five to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, the gold standard of encyclopedias. This was a monumental task by any measure. Thirty three thousand pages, spread across thirty or so big hard-bound volumes, is probably more text than most of us will absorb in our lifetimes. He chronicles his adventure in this book, interspersing mostly entertaining and curious bits of information from Britannica with personal stories and anecdotes. He recounts meeting Alex Trebek (and mistaking him for a gardener), his (mis)adventure on "Millionaire," and many very personal tales about his very accomplished family. It is precisely through these vignettes that we are able to truly relate to his adventure with Britannica. Jacobs makes it seem that almost anyone could do this, just wake up one morning and read the whole encyclopedia. His writing style is very fluid and entertaining, and he is very good at endearingly deprecating himself. He makes vivid the very human side of knowledge, even when it is at its driest.

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  • Posted May 29, 2010

    Fascinating Read, But Very Poor CDs

    You will learn so many interesting things you never knew before. The author uses a lot of humor and weaves in stories from his own life which makes this a really interesting book. However, a major problem is one of the discs has lots of static on it - at times it prevents one from hearing the material clearly, or at all; at other times it's just irritating. That disc also skips quite a bit even though there are no scratches or other damage on it. That's why I've given this only 3 stars. But over all, this is a good read.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Pretty funny in spots, but otherwise a snoozer.

    Having read and enjoyed Jacobs' "The Year of Living Biblically", I picked this book off the bargain deals rack with some enthusiasm. My thought process went something like, "I would be bored senseless if I tried to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica straight through, so how is someone going to do that AND write a book about it without putting me to sleep?" Unfortunately, it did just that. It has its shining moments, particularly Jacobs' interactions with his family, but the majority of the entries are simply "clever" anecdotes to said entry's definition. Honestly, if I wanted to pick up some fun facts, I'd prefer to watch Jeopardy or hit up sporcle.com for a few minutes.

    In the end, if you see this one on the bargain rack for a fraction of the cover price and need something to kill a few hours, then I would recommend it. Otherwise, meh.

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  • Posted October 26, 2009

    Great Read

    It's the Cliff Notes to the Brittanica, but way more entertaining. A fun read that has you parroting all sorts of fun and perhaps irrelevant facts. Every chapter a new and interesting set of facts and commentary. Read this book and you won't be sorry..and you'll be smarter too.

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  • Posted September 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not my kind of book

    This book is well written and interesting if you have ever been interested in reading about someone who has read the entire encyclopedia. I however have not been or have been interested in something like that. This book was our book club pick and felt like a chore to read. There are some interesting facts that are shared but I would not recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2009

    Taking a Trip With the Know It All

    My niece and I listened to The Know It All as we drove to and from Florida. It was a great book for the ride. We were albe to stop and start it without losing track of the sverall story.

    The book brought back my own memories of the Encyclopedia Britanica. As I grew up we had the large white-gold edged volumes and I did every school report with them -- from 6th grade to 12th... I wish I still had our set. There was something amazing about those volumes. AJ Jacobs perfectly captures that feeling as he shares his experiences in reading the entire set. The book is a combination of information gleaned from the pages of the Britanica and experiences from his life. The mix works well. So well that I would like to know how things are going with him now! Enjoy.

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  • Posted August 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Hilarious Educational Read

    AJ Jacobs didn't disappoint! Reading the encyclopedia in full is a slightly odd and boring undertaking. But Jacobs turns his year-long project into a hilarious novel. He shares his favorite entries and stories about interjecting his new found knowledge into everyday conversations. I laughed out loud through the entire book. My family can't wait to borrow it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2009

    Refreshing Non-Fic that Deserves the Read

    A.J. Jacobs takes a refreshing view into a daunting task- reading his way through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. In addition to providing bite size and easily digestible pieces of knowledge, Jacobs adds humor and a touching view of his life. The Know It All has a witty and slightly sarcastic narrative which makes the book an easy read. It is also broken up not only into letters, but also sections for different entries. Jacobs' connections to his own life, such as his struggle to become a father, to his difficulties as being seen as an intellectual nerd adding in seemingly useless knowledge to every conversation make this a memorable work. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and often found myself laughing out loud and also touched by Jacobs' relentless dedication to his task. I would recommend The Know It All for anyone who is looking for an entertaining change of pace from the drier non-fictions of today.

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