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Think You Know It All?

December 29, 2009

If you’re looking for some light reading I highly recommend A.J Jacobs’  The Know-it-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World. Jacobs is a writer for Esquire by day and attempting to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year by night. The book is smartly laid out like a reference book, using topics in alphabetical order to categorize the facts and stories to move the narrative along. Thanks to Jacobs’ day job, this book about a quest for knowledge is surprisingly funny and lighthearted.

He manages to intertwine things he has learned from the books with classic bits of memoir near seamlessly. He uses his journey through the encyclopedia as jumping-off points to tell stories from his life both presently and from his childhood, when he believed he was the smartest kid in the world and endlessly competed with his brilliant father (who holds the record for most footnotes in a book on law) about smarts. Nowadays, he tries to use his reading for more practical purposes, like competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, going back to elementary school and a particularly funny run-in with joining Mensa. But his new knowledge also proves to be destructive as he finds he can’t help but interject new factoids into everyday conversation, driving his wife (who sounds awesome) crazy and starting unnecessary (and often annoying) rivalries with everyone from his smartypants brother-in-law to his eleven-year-old nephew.

Sometimes the connections between Britannica entries and real-life events seems a bit trite and forced, usually resulting in an excuse for him to rant about his inability to get pregnant with his wife, but more often than not it’s really quite entertaining how he relates what he’s learned to his life (think about Slumdog Millionaire only with a lot less tragedy).

And even if you don’t find Jacobs’ life especially fascinating, in the meantime you’re getting a crash course in the Britannica! This might not sound all that enticing to a lot of people but, trust me, there is some pretty crazy stuff in those 33,000 pages and Jacobs presents you with the highlights. He spares you the details of the entry of, say, plate tectonics but did you know that Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed girls?  Or that Pythagoras formed a cult where one of the rules was that the members weren’t allowed to touch beans? How about that participating in an unregulated conversation is called quodilibet? See? There’s fun stuff here. It almost makes me want to read the Britannica myself until I remember that I’m reading a book that keeps telling me how terrible it would be. Anyway, The Know-it-All is a thoroughly enjoyable quick read that I feel should be brought out of obscurity.

On a related note, this is the second book in a few months where I’ve read about someone picking a quirky task to complete within a year (the other being Julie and Julia) and it’s gotten me feeling quite unaccomplished. The New Year is quickly approaching and I’m thinking of maybe figuring out something to do myself, preferably something entertaining enough to then write a book about it that gets turned into a movie and gets me really rich. Thoughts?

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