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

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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 by A. J. Jacobs
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2005, 400 pages

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And it's not for want of effort. We follow her ovulations like a day trader follows the Nasdaq. She takes her temperature every morning, she makes charts and notes and annotations. Spreadsheets are involved. Still, bubkes. The Britannica points out that despite the widespread myth, women don't need orgasms to conceive. Which is a very good thing for us, because at this point, our sex life has become about as erotic as artificial respiration (which, by the way, should be given at a rate of twelve breaths per minute).

I suppose the world isn't screaming out for another child. Each week, the Britannica says, 1.4 million more people are born into this world than leave it. But I can't help it -- I really want one of those little drooling, burping eight-pound creatures. I didn't expect to want a kid this badly, but I do. I yearn to be a dad.

Not that I'm ready. I'm pretty sure I'm way too self-absorbed and immature -- and ignorant. When I was growing up, my father knew the answers to all the Frequently Asked Children's Questions: How far down does dirt go? Why don't the Chinese fall off the earth? Why do the leaves change color? He knew how things worked -- why the fridge was cold, how the water got to our sink. I've forgotten all that knowledge. Maybe I'll feel better at Z.

 

bobsledding

The name comes from the early -- and probably mistaken -- belief that if the sledders bobbed their heads back and forth, it would increase the speed. Okay, ready for the sports bar.

 

book

The United Nations defines a book as a text that is at least forty-nine pages long. By that definition, the Britannica equals 673 books. Unsettling.

 

Braille, Louis

Just as unsettling: the number of prodigies in the Britannica. Braille developed his writing system for the blind at age fifteen. Bentham -- the one who later had himself mummified -- was studying Latin at the age of four. (When I was four, I was studying the effects of shoving bananas up my nose.) At age five, Aleksandr Blok was writing memorable Russian poetry. If I had known about these whiz kids back when I thought I was the smartest boy in the world, I wonder if I would have seen them as compadres, or if it would have snapped me out of my dream.

 

brain

Here, the ovoid tangle of neurons that, I hope, will be encoding every mountain range and vice president and 15th-century Icelandic bishop. The Britannica's brain-related highlights so far: the Greeks believed that it produced mucus, which gives new meaning to blowing your brains out. Also, if I ever take up boxing, I should do the old bare-knuckle style, which ironically causes less devastation to the neurons. (Bare-knuckle boxers rarely hit on the head for fear of breaking their hands.) With my mortal fear of brain damage, this is important information.

 

brandy

This liquor was allegedly invented when a Dutch shipmaster concentrated wine, planning to add water to it when he arrived on shore. He never got a chance. Everyone started dipping into the concentrate. Impatience has its advantages.

 

broccoli

Julie and I arrive at my parents' apartment for the holiday gift exchange. It's sort of Hanukkah-related, but since we're not so religious, we throw a nod to New Year's for good measure.

Mom greets us at the door.

"Happy Holidays!" she says, giving us each a kiss on the cheek. "And Happy 2003."

"Actually, technically, it's probably 'Happy 2007,' " I say.

"Really?" says Mom. "Why is that?"

"Well, because scientists believe Jesus was actually born between 4 and 6 B.C."

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

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