Summary and book reviews of The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs

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


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

33,000 pages
44 million words
10 billion years of history
1 obsessed man


Part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), The Know-It-All chronicles NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs's hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z.

To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education, A.J. Jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His wife, Julie, tells him it's a waste of time, his friends believe he is losing his mind, and his father, a brilliant attorney who had once attempted the same feat and quit somewhere around Borneo, is encouraging but, shall we say, unconvinced.

With self-deprecating wit and a disarming frankness, The Know-It-All recounts the unexpected and comically disruptive effects Operation Encyclopedia has on every part of Jacobs's life -- from his newly minted marriage to his complicated relationship with his father and the rest of his charmingly eccentric New York family to his day job as an editor at Esquire. Jacobs's project tests the outer limits of his stamina and forces him to explore the real meaning of intelligence as he endeavors to join Mensa, win a spot on Jeopardy!, and absorb 33,000 pages of learning. On his journey he stumbles upon some of the strangest, funniest, and most profound facts about every topic under the sun, all while battling fatigue, ridicule, and the paralyzing fear that attends his first real-life responsibility -- the impending birth of his first child.

The Know-It-All is an ingenious, mightily entertaining memoir of one man's intellect, neuroses, and obsessions and a soul-searching, ultimately touching struggle between the all-consuming quest for factual knowledge and the undeniable gift of hard-won wisdom.

Chapter One: A



That's the first word in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "A-ak." Followed by this write-up: "Ancient East Asian music. See gagaku."

That's the entire article. Four words and then: "See gagaku."

What a tease! Right at the start, the crafty Britannica has presented me with a dilemma. Should I flip ahead to volume 6 and find out what's up with this gagaku, or should I stick with the plan, and move on to the second word in the AA section? I decide to plow ahead with the AAs. Why ruin the suspense? If anyone brings up "a-ak" in conversation, I'll just bluff. I'll say, "Oh, I love gagaku!" or, "Did you hear that Madonna's going to record an a-ak track on her next CD?"

 

a cappella

A lovely surprise. I know exactly what this is -- an ex-girlfriend of mine belonged to an a cappella group in college. They sang songs from Def Leppard and called it Rockapella. One for two. Not bad.

 

Aachen

The next few entries ...

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!

Reviews

BookBrowse

This is the perfect book to dip into, so don't relegate it to the book shelf ; keep it in the bathroom, by the bed, in the car, or wherever you're likely to find yourself with a few spare minutes.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (449 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

...one of the book's strongest parts is its laugh-out-loud humor. Jacobs's ability to juxtapose his quirky, sardonic wit with oddball trivia make this one of the season's most unusual books. 

Kirkus Reviews

It is all enormous fun, educational even, and let's hope that Esquire gets a cut of the deservedly juicy royalties, since Jacobs appears to have read much of the encyclopedia on the job. Doubtlessly more enjoyable than reading the EB itself, with lots of arcane nuggets readers can casually drop on the unsuspecting like sacks of flour from a great height. 

Author Blurb Jon Stewart, Host of The Daily Show
A hilarious book and quite an impressive achievement. I've always said, why doesn't someone put out a less complete version of the encyclopedia? Well done, A.J.

Author Blurb P.J. O'Rourke, author of Eat The Rich
The Know-It-All is a terrific book. It's a lot shorter than the encyclopedia, and funnier, and you'll remember more of it. Plus, if it falls off the shelf onto your head, you'll live.

Author Blurb Jonathan Safran Foer
The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs's quixotic, totally endearing quest.

Author Blurb Mary Roach, author of Stiff The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
I fell in love with this book on page one and I have laughed out loud on every page since. With his hilarious Britannica-fed insights on life, A.J. Jacobs uncovers the profound by way of the trivial. The Know-It-All is endlessly entertaining. Genius, pure.

Reader Reviews
jiwon

i find this book very interesting to read. it's not ordinary novels or stories that we are all fameliar with, the short stories about his life are extremely funny.

CHAD MULLINS

While I found this book interesting and the concept worthy of my attention; the spelling errors were distracting. I may have committed some grammatical errors in this review, but I am not a professional writer. My point is that a book by a writer ...   Read More

Sarah

I really loved this book! I think it has to be the best light read I've come across in a long time, if not ever. Every time I picked it up, it put a smile on my face. I even started reading only a couple of pages at a time, because I didn't want ...   Read More

Christy

This is really one of the best books I've read in a long time! It really is laugh-out loud funny but oh, so educational. It's the "good parts" version of the Encylopedia Britannica with witty real-life commentary thrown in.

Write your own review!

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!

Beyond the Book

If your shelf space allows it, I encourage you to buy yourself a set of encyclopedias. However, I'm not thinking of the modern Britannica (because you can save a lot of trees and money by buying the electronic version of the entire 32 volumes for less than $70 at http://britannica.com) but an older encyclopedia.  We've had many happy hours with our 10 volume Chambers Encyclopedia (1892) that we bought for the equivalent of about $75 in England almost twenty years ago.  Not only is it fairly useful for referencing history before the 19th century but it also provides a fascinating snapshot of how the late 19th century educated classes saw their world.  Our favorite entry is an explanation of why powered ...

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!

Readalikes

Readalikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Know-It-All, try these:

  • A Word A Day jacket

    A Word A Day

    by Anu Garg

    Published Feb 2013

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    Written by the founder of the wildly popular A Word A Day web site (www.wordsmith.org), this collection of unusual, obscure, and exotic English words will delight writers, scholars, crossword puzzlers, and word buffs of every ilk.

  • An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England jacket

    An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

    by Brock Clarke

    Published Feb 2013

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    As a teenager, Sam Pulsifer's accidentally torches an American landmark, and killed two people in the blaze. After ten years in prison, he thinks he has put his past behind him - but when the homes of Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even a replica of Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, go up in ...

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member


Search Readalikes again
How we choose readalikes
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
    •  
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    The Stranger on the Train
    by Abbie Taylor
    The opening chapter of Abbie Taylor's debut novel, The Stranger on the Train, took me right back to ...
  • Book Jacket
    Night Film
    by Marisha Pessl
    One of the central tenets of Hinduism states that the world as we know it is just an illusion –...
  • Book Jacket: Complicit
    Complicit
    by Stephanie Kuehn
    When seventeen year-old Jamie Henry receives word that his older sister Cate, is being released from...

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

Tomlinson Hill
by Chris Tomlinson

Published Jul. 2014

Join the discussion!

  1.  150The City:
    Dean Koontz

All Discussions

Who Said...

When all think alike, no one thinks very much

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

Word Play

Solve this clue:

O O T F P, Into T F

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.