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

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

by A. J. Jacobs

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743250627
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/04/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 186,429
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

A.J. Jacobs is the author of Thanks a Thousand, It’s All Relative, Drop Dead Healthy, and the New York Times bestsellers The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and My Life as an Experiment. He is a contributor to NPR, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly. He lives in New York City with his wife and kids. Visit him at AJJacobs.com and follow him on Twitter @ajjacobs.

Hometown:

New York, NY

Date of Birth:

March 20, 1968

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Education:

Brown University

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

What People are Saying About This

P.J. O'Rourke

The Know-It-All is a terrific book. It's a lot shorter than the encyclopedia, and funnier, and you'll remember more of it. Plus, if it falls off the shelf onto your head, you'll live.
New York Times bestselling author of Eat The Rich

Jon Stewart

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.
Host of The Daily Show

Mary Roach

I fell in love with this book on page one and I have laughed out loud on every page since. With his hilarious Britannica-fed insights on life, A.J. Jacobs uncovers the profound by way of the trivial. The Know-It-All is endlessly entertaining. Genius, pure.
New York Times bestselling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Jonathan Safran Foer

The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs's quixotic, totally endearing quest.
New York Times bestselling author of Everything Is Illuminated

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Know-It-All 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 199 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!!!!
BoiseBookMan More than 1 year ago
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!
JorgeM7 More than 1 year ago
The Know it All is an amazing book about the author, A.J Jacobs, objective of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from start to finish. This may not seem like something a regular person would do for fun, but A.J Jacobs takes this objective head on and starts reading. The memoir talks about his full experience while reading the Encyclopedia, despite the little support he gets from his friends, and the time it consumes from his wife, he still goes for it. This book isn’t like many books I have read. Most books that I have read do not catch my attention, but The Know it All caught my attention. It might be all the new and interesting facts it contains or the way he simplifies and talks about the Encyclopedia. All I know is that I enjoyed reading this book. It’s an easy read with many interesting and possibly useless facts, unless you want to annoy people by telling them all these irrelevant facts. I recommend that you go out and buy this book and start reading it, because you may find this book very intriguing.
Atthebeach More than 1 year ago
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!
AJG More than 1 year ago
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.
songcatchers More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
sharlene_w on LibraryThing 10 months ago
New York writer sets to work on reading his way through the Encyclopaedica Britannica--book by book and then tries to impress his family and associates with his new-found knowledge one letter at a time. Hysterically funny--thoroughly enjoyed! I listened to this in the car; my teenagers usually ask if they can stop my audiobook and listen to the radio, but they loved this. They would hop in the car and catch a segment somewhere in progress; when we arrived home they would beg to stay in the car and listen to more. I wonder if the reason why we enjoyed it so much is because we are all so familiar with that type of character.
MrBobble on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I highly recommend this book. Besides learning some trivia/information without having to read all 30+ volumes of the encyclopedia, AJ shares his wisdom about life that he gathered through his quest from A to Z. The book has interesting information, funny sidebars, and brings up some good questions. The alternate is to order a set of Brittanica yourself and start reading.
Alliebadger on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Jacobs makes the encyclopedia fun. I thoroughly enjoyed his quest from a-ak to zywiek and felt I was making the journey along the way with him (when someone asked how far he was and he said he was in the C's, I couldn't help but think "Me too!"). His sense of humor and his self-referential tendencies give you a sense of fun and excitement as he reads, tries to find his place in the intelligence world, and prepares for the coming of his first child. A great read.
readingfiend on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I liked this book because I have a head for (sometimes) useful information and would pull an encyclopedia off the shelve when I was younger to read bits and pieces. Like a previous book of his, The Year of Living Biblically, he writes with humor and honesty.
-Eva- on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Pretty witty way to write your memoirs. Not a straight recount of his life (since no-one would read that), but a mix of facts and family quirks, and some good laughs. Really, Jacobs' family sounds more like fiction anyways. So, what did I learn from Jacobs' read? Some facts I did not previously know:- David Livingston died of hemorrhoids (you can die of hemorrhoids???)- Pythagoras founded a religious brotherhood who, among other things, were forbidden to touch beans (beans? What's the evil in beans??)- Marcel Proust's madeleine cookie was in real life a rusk biscuit, not a madeleine at all (OK, this fact might only be interesting to you fellow foodie nerds)- The Berserkers went into battle naked (hmm, not quite sure this is true, but it makes for good conversation)- Luxembourg has the highest alcohol consumption per capita (I really had a few other countries as candidates for this "honor")- The most eastern state of the US is Alaska, since a couple of the Aleutian Islands cross the 180th meridian (this one at least could be used to win some sort of bet - like the fact that Denmark is, by area, the largest of the Nordic countries)- The longest one-syllable word in the English language is "screech" (not sure what use this knowledge is - but I'm a wordoholic, so I'll squeeze it in somewhere!)- When the Bastille was stormed it had been largely unused for years and held only 7 prisoners (talk about a small scale operation that mushroomed!)- Benito Mussolini had a Jewish mistress (is this the very definition of hypocrisy?)
masyukun on LibraryThing 10 months ago
What starts as a fun read continues on ... and on ... and on. What we get is basically whatever-comes-into-my-head journaling of his grand feat. There are a lot of interesting tidbits shared, but also the surprising use of random obscenity and adult themes.
pleshmann on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The author tell his adventures in readying the whole encyclopedia Brittanica. His goal is to become the smartest person on earth. This quest in itself has some humor in it. Also, its full of tib bits from the Brittanica itself. Easy to read and fun.
kaelirenee on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Try and learn everything in the world, and you might learn something more about yourself...Jacobs manages to do something that most of us couldn't even begin to start on-reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. And even more amazingly, he made the experiance interesting. You get a good look at his nerotic nature, his relationship with friends and family, and struggles with his wife. He ties in the lessons he's learned from the minuta in the encyclopedias to his own life. Good for a light read. It even had me thinking, gee why don't I try this. And then I came to my senses.
srice07 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Listen to the audio version (good for long drives) if you can!
twobitme on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I finished my second book of the summer over the weekend, A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. I had heard about this book a while back, but only recently picked it up thanks to Borders' 3-for-2 deal (Where I also picked up Lamb and In Cold Blood)The basic premise in this comedic memoir focuses on A.J. Jacobs, a writer for magazines such as Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, fearing he's both getting dumber AND losing real knowledge for pop culture knowledge, orders the entire A-Z volume of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and plans to read it from cover to cover. He's convinced that this, THIS, will make him smarter than anyone else he knows.Of course, that theory is constantly, and hysterically proven false. He can't stop bumping into people who are smarter than him, whether it be his brother-in-law, MENSA members, or editors for the encyclopedia itself. What makes it even funnier, is that you're constantly happy to see him get knocked down a peg, because his ego seems to grow with each page he reads. He'll interject facts into conversations just to prove how smart he is. So, he succeeded in become the know-it-all, since most people nodded politely before continuing the previous conversation. His wife gets so annoyed with him that she starts charging him a dollar for every useless fact he divulges.Each chapter is dedicated to a letter in the encyclopedia, except for XYZ which he gives a meager 10 or so pages. But, while he does share the occasional fact he picks up (Nyx is the primordial goddess of the night! Coriander is the English word for cilantro!), a large portion of the book sees him veering off to tell us what's going on his life, memories, and other adventures he has. The Brittanica glides from starring role to co-star depending on the story being told, but it's always there, even if it's in the background.The entire novel reaches its "climax" when he gets a shot at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? where he believes he should easily earn that one million dollars. Does he? I won't tell you here. Ask the audience, if you must know.With people getting more and more agitated with his sudden mutation into Cliff Claven, it isn't until the very last few pages that he actually gains wisdom from his experience, which is usually far more important than wisdom.The book is decent, but not great. And that's possibly because I've never much been a fan of know-it-alls. I tend to tune out or walk away when I deal with one in real life. Don't they realize they're not endearing themselves to anyone, just annoying them? The book was slow going for me, especially after reading Lamb which was such a pleasantly fun read. While I would never recommend someone rush out to buy this, if you're looking for something different as a rental, go for it.
TanyaTomato on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Funny and fact filled. AJ decides to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. It is a story of him while doing it not just rote information. He is entertaining and it's a good book.
brendajanefrank on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Arnold Jacobs, Jr. chronicles his quest to be the ¿Smartest Person in the World¿ by reading every word of all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with a smattering of autobiographical information to spice it up. For instance, we learn that Arnold Jacobs, Sr., author of 24 legal books, is the holder of the world¿s records for the most footnotes in a legal article, with 4,824 footnotes in one published article. Arnold Jr., who goes by ¿A.J.,¿ also has literary talent, being an editor for Esquire magazine.A.J.¿s quest to be the ¿Smartest Person in the World¿ included becoming a member of the elite organization, Mensa (although A.J. was accepted on the strength of his old SAT scores, having failed the actual Mensa test). This entitled him to receive the Mensa Bulletin, which has announcements for Mensa¿s special interest groups, like M-Prisoned, for Mensans who are incarcerated. A.J. particularly enjoyed finding typos in the Mensa Bulletin, which gave him a ¿special immature thrill.¿The Encyclopaedia project allowed A.J. to interject new knowledge into daily conversation. For example, he and Julie, his wife, visited friends for a summer barbecue and some quodlibet (free-ranging conversation on a topic of choice, as in ¿Louis IX allowed his courtiers to engage in quodlibet after meals¿). Friends and family of A.J. did not find this practice endearing. In fact, Julie started fining A.J. for every spontaneous fact that was not directly relevant, such as, ¿Did you know that René Descartes has a fetish for women with crossed eyes?¿A.J. does point out some very significant historical facts unfamiliar to many people, including the Taiping Rebellion and the Tunguska event. The Taiping Rebellion occurred in south and central China from 1850 to 1865. The import of this rebellion is that it resulted in about 20 million military and civilian deaths! In comparison, our own bloody Civil War took less than 700,000 lives. The Tunguska event was a massive aerial explosion in central Siberia in 1908 that flattened more than 80 million trees over approximately 830 sq. miles. The energy of the explosion was equivalent to that of 10-15 megatons of TNT. Although the cause of the blast is still unclear, it was likely the result of either a large meteoroid or comet fragment exploding 3-6 miles above the earth.I can¿t say that I felt saddened when A.J. finished reading the last entry of the last volume, ¿Zywiec,¿ as I did when I read the last paragraph of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," but the Encyclopaedia project was interesting, educational, and, sometimes, laugh-out-loud funny. I also remain solidly in the observer status of this quest, with not even a hint of desire to read the entire Britannica, or any other encyclopedia.
Sean191 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Great book with laugh-out-loud moments. Highly recommended.
ssperson on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This was a really fun and funny book about Jacobs' trial reading the EB.
reannon on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I enjoyed reading Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically so much that I got this book, and I'm glad I did. Jacobs is an honest and amused viewer of his own life and character. He is a bit obsessive-compulsive, and that, really, makes possible what he does in these two books. In The Year of Living Biblically, he spent a year following all the rules set out in the Bible. In this earlier book, he decides to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z. He's honest in saying that at one point in his childhood he believed himself the smartest boy in the world, and that one reason for reading the EB was to recapture that feeling. In the book he talks about his quest, discusses the history of Britannica and encyclopedias in general. He talks about many of the interesting facts he discovers and various pursuits he undertakes to prove his intelligence, including joining Mensa, interviewing a scientist about intelligence, being a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, etc. It makes for a fun book, and he gets rather profound about the relationships of knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom.
jtho on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I really enjoyed this book. AJ sets out to read the entire encyclopedia, and in the process we learn a lot about his life, and about everything. The book is broken down into alphabetical chapters, and AJ shares the most interesting points from each letter of the book. In addition, certain words start off as a summary of that topic, but then go off on a tangent about his own life. Through these tangents, we learn about his job, marriage, and family. I found the balance between interesting facts and personal life about right, and enjoyed the facts that AJ pulled out, as well as how he tied them together (people who died the same way, obsessions with cross-eyed people, etc.). A good read!