The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World is A.J. Jacobs first lifestyle experiment — a quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. In terms of plot, that’s really about it.
At first, I didn’t really like The Know-It-All. I thought it took a long time to get going, and I thought the point of Jacobs quest to read Britannica didn’t really manifest itself in the first few pages, which made getting into it a struggle. The first part of the book seems to drag along without purpose. Happily, I was rewarded by my reading persistence because the book picked up near the middle and end, and the point of the story became much more clear.
Action-wise, Jacobs goes on a lot of funny little quests during his experiment reading Britannica. He joins Mensa, practices with a college debate team, and competes on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Along the way Jacobs’ wife Julie is a character I really grabbed on to for her feistiness and understanding for her husband. Theme-wise, the book becomes a meditation on the differences between knowledge and intelligence, and Jacobs reflects on the meaning of acquiring knowledge in the first place. Throughout the book he tries to come up with some message of Britannica, and by the end he is able to succinctly and eloquently reflect the knowledge he’s gained. It took a long, long time to get to, but the way the book comes together in the end made the long read worth it for me.
Jacobs is the same author of The Year of Living Biblically, which I reviewed last month. If I had to suggest The Year of Living Biblically or The Know-It-All, I’d say go with The Year of Living Biblically. I think the meditations on religion and the role of religion in public life are more pertinent to discussions today, and the book moves along much more quickly. However, if you have time for both or prefer thinking about knowledge than religion, The Know-It-All is a good read as well.
I’m going to end with a quote from the section about school where Jacobs decides to return to his elementary school for a day to see if he sees it any differently than he did when he fancied himself the smartest kid in the world. After a less than successful day at school, Jacobs reflects:
I realize — way too late, as it turns out — how fun school could have been. As confided as I was of my intellectual abilities, I still spent most of my time worrying. I worried about grades, my appearance, the effects of that nefarious carbon monoxide. I neglected to realize that I was spending five days a week learning amazing things. That was my job. Learning. I guess I should stop looking at the Britannica as a self-imposed homework assignment and just embrace the joy of learning. Relax. Remember, A.J., this is your life passing you by!
I feel like that is something to remember in the moments grad school feels like it’s going to be just a little to much. I could be in the real world right now; instead, I get to be a student for just that much longer. How great is that?
Links to Enjoy:
- A.J. Jacobs notes on The Know-It-All
- New York Times Sunday book review of The Know-It-All and Jacobs response to the extremely snarky NYT review — a mini literary feud!
- “My Outsourced Life” — an Esquire article where Jacobs experiments with the effects of outsourcing on her everyday life
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!