The Know It All – Review

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

Age: Adult

A.J. Jacobs set out on a mission, a direct and simple, however tedious and time-consuming. His mission was to read the entire 11th Edition of the 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica from volume A to volume Z. The book I hold in my hands is in turn a summary of the EB as well as a mini memoir and look into Jacob’s life during the course of his quest. The books is laid out in A to Z format, starting with a-ak and ending with Zywiec, filled with stories of his present life; his struggles to have a child with his wife Julie, his endless competition with his dad, brother in law Eric and basically the world of Mensans, to match wits and skills, his meeting with Alex Trebek as well as his audition and segment on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He also dates his book with rants and commentary on President Bush and the soon to be war in Iraq, which many of today’s readers will probably just skim through.

I found that Jacob’s stories really took the book to a new level. I would have found it arrogant and boring otherwise. Jacob’s is a smart man, surrounded by smart people. This is something he makes sure to tell us with nearly every entry in the book, particularly concerning his brother in law Eric. Jacob’s has a sarcastic wit, which shines through in some of his entry summaries. I found myself laughing outloud and sharing interesting facts with anyone who would listen to me. These are some of my favorites.

Cassanova The famous 18th-century lothario ended his life as a librarian. Librarians could use that to sex up their image.

Divorce The easiest divorce around: Pueblo Indian women leave their husband’s moccasins on the doorstep and — that’s all — they’re divorced. Simple as that. No lawyers, no fault, no socks, just shoes.

Kama An Indian angel who shoots love-producing flower arrows. His bow is of sugarcane, his bowstring a row of bees. I have to say, Kama, with his fancy bow and arrow makes our Cupid look kind of second-rate in comparison. Cupid just flies around in a diaper shooting regular  old love arrows. It is odd though that two cultures have these love archers. Does this say something profound about the human mind? Maybe about violence and love? The man Britannica raises these questions in my mind by doesn’t answer them.

Riot You only need three rambunctious people to legally qualify as a riot. That’s all. So Julie, our kid and I could hold our very own riot.

Having read this title, then jumping straight into The Man Who Loved Books Too Much put the value of books and education in an odd perspective for me. Both men want to showcase books to elevate their social status, John Gilkey with rare books and Jacobs with the entire set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Gilkey equated success and personal value with the number of books one owns. Jacobs’, a man of higher financial and social standing, placed more value on the education garnered from books, as opposed to the mere collection of books in his home.Its a very subtle nuance between the two men, but it definitely reflects the culture of reading and its influence on the culture of defining success and wealth.

Some of the entries are as short as one sentences, other span multiple pages. Although you would be tempted to skip to certain letters to read summaries on certain words, I would suggest reading the book from start to finish because that is how Jacob’s designed his narrative. Reading this book did spark some ideas of me reading through an encyclopedia. But I gave up on that option once I picked up the A volume from the library. Its a thick volume with much too tiny font and thin pages. I do admire Jacob’s ability to read through all 28+ volumes in such a short span of time, although I didn’t see how it really worked to his benefit since he started the book as a successful and well-to-do journalist for Maxim and Entertainment Weekly. It did highlight something that was drilled into my head during my Library Sciences classes in college. Knowledge and literacy leads to successful careers and advancement in life. The people that educate themselves are those that were raised in an already intellectual atmosphere and know the value of education. In a sense, its the rich getting richer while the poor remain poor all because no one explained the value of literacy and determination of improving one’s intellect.

The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
by A.J. Jacobs
Simon & Schuster, 2004
ISBN 0743250605
370 pages


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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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