‘The Know-It-All’ quests to learn it all

Everyone likes a good mountain. Climbing one and then writing about it makes pretty good non-fiction, too. Author and self-professed smart guy, A.J. Jacobs, needed a harrowing task for his next book—so he set himself a mountain.

But Jacobs’ tectonic terror was of a different variety than most. In fact, the four-foot-two-inch pile of books known as the Encyclopaedia Britannica seems pretty puny. That is, until you realize Jacobs plans to climb it word by word, all 44 million of them. That’s right, this New York Times best seller features one man, one encyclopedia, and one harrowing task.

I thought a book about a guy reading an entire encyclopedia would be as dry as its subject matter. How wrong I was. Every entry in Jacobs’ hilarious book, “The Know-It-All”, informs and amuses, proving just how scintillating those dry volumes can be.

Cover art © 2004 Simon & Schuster

Cover art © 2004 Simon & Schuster

Jacob’s informal voice is an asset in making his task accessible to readers. He masterfully condenses a ridiculous amount of information into entertaining, bite-sized blurbs. For a text all about reading, the book is light and perfect for the erudite weekend-reader. “The Know-It-All” reads like the attention-deficit version of its encyclopedic counterpart. Bold headings wear short articles like fact-filled jewelry. The book consists of alphabetized anecdotes, organized to take you through Jacobs’ journey of learning. For example, under “Fillmore, Millard” our intrepid author writes, “The thirteenth president was born in a log cabin. Why doesn’t poor Millard ever get press for this? Lincoln hogs all the log cabin spotlight.”

Jacob’s unique brand of informing also endears the reader to him. Rather than separate his personal and literary lives, Jacobs throws the reader into all his battles, not just the great Britannica climb. I read about living in his father’s intellectual shadow, and what spurred him to ingest man’s collective history.

I joined him, rallying against the world’s smart alecks, when he promised to use his new-found intelligence for education, not condescension. And when infertility posed a real threat Jacob’s marriage, I realized that knowledge and the ability to change something are two very different things. Jacobs learns, every man must live with this knowledge, no matter how intelligent.

The stories behind these personal mountains lend the book a sensitive, emotional core, which tempers its hardy intellectualism. The book is fibrous with facts, yes, but the real learning comes when Jacobs puts down the pages and dives into the real world.

So even if you’re not interested in the thirteenth president or the world’s deepest lake, I certainly suggest taking a break from your personal climb and joining A.J. Jacobs on his “humble quest to become the smartest person in the world.”

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