‘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.”

Comments

Comments are closed.

Recent Off the Shelf Articles

‘Generation Dead’ revives a dying genre

Nov. 13, 2013

I’ve noticed over the years that zombie movies and books are all the same. Luckily, even with the same cliché lines, typical zombie behavior, and an easy-to-guess plot, I have yet to become bored with them.


Vampire stories still have bite

Sep. 19, 2012

Vampire stories, it seems, are a clichéd concept that are over-used and boring – not to mention predictable. I try to avoid some vampire books for a fear that I will fall into another story about a sparkling vampire, a love-struck girl, and some mythical creature that is in love with her.


Life’s worth living ‘Among the Lutherans’

Feb. 22, 2012

Despite its title, Garrison Keillor’s “Life among the Lutherans” is not about religion (either as a screed or preaching) but rather the ways of the Lutherans and their world in the fictional little town of Lake Wobegon, whether it be the trials of Pastor Inqvist, the amusement of the dysfunctional marriage of Clint and Irene Bunsen, or even the funny songs about just being Lutheran. When comparing Lutherans with Episcopalians, one song goes “Henry VIII would marry a woman, And then her head would drop. J. S. Bach had [23] kids, ‘Cause his organ had no stop!”


‘Lover’s dictionary’: redefines relationships

Feb. 1, 2012

Boy wins girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back. As Hollywood continues to prove, there are only so many ways to tell a love story. David Levithan mixes things up in his 2011 book “The Lover’s Dictionary,” which is actually clever if you can forgive him for the cheesy title.


‘God, No!’ says yes to life’s lessons

Nov. 30, 2011

Battles between reason and religion often leave little room for unity or even humor, which can leave some very hurtful scars to believers and frustration from non-believers. And then there’s Penn Jillette, the boisterous half of the magic duo “Penn & Teller,” and his new book “God, No!  Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.”