Title: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
Author: A.J. Jacobs
Release Date: September 21, 2004
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
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 Encyclopedia 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.
I’ve heard a lot of great things about A.J Jacobs’ books, though I’d only heard of The Year of Living Biblically for a long time. However, when I heard about The Know-It-All, I immediately knew I wanted to read it first. The idea of someone reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica seemed crazy, yet incredibly appealing. I knew I was in for a treat when I opened this book.
I absolutely loved the way The Know-It-All was written. Instead of writing it in pure memoir form, Jacobs organized the book like an encyclopedia. There is one chapter for each volume of the encyclopedia he read, and the chapters are organized into different anecdotes and stories that relate to words from that letter. For example, in the “B” chapter, he has a section called “Brutus.” Here is his discussion of Brutus:
I was familiar with Brutus, the one featured in Shakespeare’s classic line “Et tu, Brute.” But what I didn’t know was that there were two Brutuses who took part in Caesar’s assassination, Brutus Albinus and Brutus Marcus. But only one Brutus — Marcus — gets all the headlines. That poor sap Brutus Albinus — also a protégé of Caesar’s — needed a better publicist. “Et tu, Brute. Et tu, Brute, too?” I can’t be certain, but the forgotten Brutus seems to have been the more powerful one at the time. After the assassination, this Brutus led an army against Antony; he lost, and was killed by a Gallic chieftain on Antony’s orders. Ignored by history or killed by a Frenchman — I’m not sure which is sadder.
The style of this book makes it incredibly easy to read. You can read as much or as little as you want – it’s a great book to pick up if you want to read some non-fiction that isn’t really dense and difficult to read!
The best part of The Know-It-All is A.J. Jacobs’ sense of humor. He is absolutely hilarious – he had me laughing out loud multiple times through the course of the book. Additionally, I loved how he injected personal anecdotes into this novel. He switched between commenting on the encyclopedia entries to discussing how reading the encyclopedia was affecting his personal and social life quite often. Reading just one or the other might get tedious, but by mixing it up, Jacobs keeps the reader engaged and interested in this book.
The Know-It-All was a thoroughly entertaining book that I really enjoyed. I definitely recommend this book, especially if you are trying to read more non-fiction. The style of this novel makes it a light read, yet it is full of substance, interesting facts, and a great sense of humor you won’t want to miss!