Excerpt from The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Know-It-All

One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

By A. J. Jacobs

The Know-It-All
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Sep 2004,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2005,
    400 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


"Actually, I think that appeared in The New Yorker," I say.

"No, it was Esquire."

"No, I'm pretty sure it's The New Yorker."

"It wasn't The New Yorker," says Mark. Then he wavers: "Well, maybe it was The Progressive. But it certainly wasn't The New Yorker."

I scurry back to my office and look up Baldwin on the Internet. Yup. "The Fire Next Time" appeared in The New Yorker. I e-mail Mark the news, concluding my note with some helpful advice: "Also, if you have any questions for Bavarian cream pie or beavers, just let me know."

So I had done it. I had made my first correction, and I corrected a brilliant man, to boot. I felt great. Well, actually I felt like kind of a dick. But also great.

 

bell

Back to the books. The world's largest bell was built in 1733 in Moscow, and weighed in at more than four hundred thousand pounds. It never rang -- it was broken by fire before it could be struck. What a sad little story. All that work, all that planning, all those expectations -- then nothing. Now it just sits there in Russia, a big metallic symbol of failure. I have a moment of silence for the silent bell.

 

Bentham, Jeremy

The British ethical philosopher -- who advocated the greatest good for the greatest number of people -- died in 1834. "After Bentham's death, in accordance with his directions, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then reconstructed, supplied with a wax head to replace the original (which had been mummified), dressed in Bentham's own clothes, and set upright in a glass-fronted case. Both this effigy and the head are preserved in University College, London." Not sure how that contributes to the greater good of mankind. The greater creepiness, yes.

 

Berserkers

Savage Norse soldiers from the middle ages who, it is said, went into battle naked. Hence "going berserk." So to truly go berserk, you should take off your pants. Noted.

 

Beuys, Joseph

A German avant-garde performance artist whose most famous piece was entitled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. For the piece, "Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe soled with felt and one with iron, and walked through an art gallery for about two hours, quietly explaining the art therein to a dead hare he carried."

Huh. And for this he gets himself written up in the encyclopedia. Maybe I'm a philistine, but I don't see the brilliance of this. If he explained pictures to a dead hamster or a dead iguana -- yes, that would be ingenious. But a dead hare? Eh. Feels lazy.

 

birth control

The condom, according to legend, was invented by a British physician named Dr. Condom, who was alarmed by Charles II's growing flock of illegitimate offspring. That's the legend, anyway. The sober Britannica instead endorses the theory that the condom is named for the Latin word condus, which means a receptacle. The condom, the pill, the IUD, the vasectomy -- they all get their proper due in this section. But I prefer the creativity of the earlier birth control techniques, which ranged from the delicious (using honey as a spermicide) to the aerobic (jumping backward seven times after coitus).

Those are good to know. Very relevant. I tell Julie not to jump backward seven times after sex and to keep honey safely above her belt. We can't afford any mishaps. For the past year, Julie and I have been trying to have a baby. We're getting a bit desperate. It doesn't help that all of Julie's friends are breeding like the female octopus, which lays and cares for 150,000 eggs. They're frighteningly fertile, her friends. They seem to get pregnant if they brush up against their husbands in the hallway. Which means there's a growing platoon of diaper-wearing creatures stomping through our lives, and an accompanying fleet of fold-up strollers and car seats. Meanwhile, Julie and I have nothing. Zilch. It's infuriating.

From The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.  Pages 7-30 of the hardcover edition.  Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Gemini
    Gemini
    by Carol Cassella
    How good is Gemini, Carol Cassella's book about a Seattle intensive care physician who becomes ...
  • Book Jacket: The Goldfinch
    The Goldfinch
    by Donna Tartt
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

    Her canvas is vast. To frame a story about art, love and ...
  • Book Jacket: Toms River
    Toms River
    by Dan Fagin
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction

    In Toms River, investigative journalist Dan Fagin ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Who Said...

The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

P Your O C

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.