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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
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2005, 400 pages

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Book Summary

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.

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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 (293 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.

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.

Robyn

Hysterically funny and still educational; intellectual and yet deeply pragmatic; capable of citing both Real World and Renoir without seeming to favor one over the other. I enjoyed everything about the book. Great for people who like, as A.J. would...   Read More

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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 ...

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