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The Know It All – Book Review

The full title should give you a good idea of the mood of this book: The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest To Become The Smartest Person In The World. Author A.J. Jacobs (also the editor of Esquire magazine) spent a year reading all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Broken down into page counts per day, it’s a staggering workload: over 40 million words read that year.

And it’s not as if he didn’t have other things going on. Those other things provide the running story of the book: his experiences at work, he and his wife’s struggles with infertility and then conception, home life, and more.

Interspersed with those plotlines are entries from the Britannica that Jacobs found amusing, terrifying, confusing, or just plain bizarre (there is a story about an attractive woman on trial in ancient Greece that made me laugh all day). We get to read the entry, and then read Jacob’s take on it. This is a good thing–he is extremely likable and a good writer.

Other than the fascinating facts, the most interesting parts of the book for me just concerned the sheer amount of reading he had committed to–there were days when he didn’t want to read, days when he could not meet his word count, and best of all, days when he ran into section of the encyclopedia that were mind-numbingly boring.

I am an experimenter and am usually in the middle of a project where I have bitten off more than I can chew, and that was a big part of this story’s appeal for me. But I don’t experiment like Jacobs, who has since gone on to write The Year of Living Biblically, in which he tries to live the teachings (all of them) of the Bible as literally as possible. Next he wrote The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment, which features experiments in outsourcing, cross-dressing, and more.

It’s all funny stuff, and it works for me because I can tell how much Jacobs enjoys what he does. Or at least that’s how it feels.

Recommended for fans of trivia, memoirs, humor, and if there’s anyone on earth who actually wonders what goes on behind the scenes at Esquire, there’s some of that as well. It’s not adventure on the scale of Jules Verne Books, but it’s still pretty great.


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  • Pauline October 18, 2010, 8:38 pm

    Josh, we are in our 70s and laughed ourselves silly at A.J.Jacobs Know-It-All. His enthusiasm at this huge goal and his ability to stick to it are impressive. This is one we will re-read next year. Thanks for your review.