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The Know-It-All

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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 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 endeavours 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 paralysing 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 struggle between the all-consuming quest for factual knowledge and the undeniable gift of hard-won wisdom.

388 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2004

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A.J. Jacobs

33 books1,805 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,548 reviews
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,690 followers
June 24, 2019
I bought this book about 15 years ago in an airport bookstore. My thought was that I need a little something to read for the flight. Well, the flight didn’t last 15 years, so you can tell I am pretty good at procrastinating before reading my book purchases. But, procrastinating in this case had at least one interesting side effect. I’ll get to that in a bit . . .

As a trivia buff, I enjoyed this book and the adventures of the author trying to cram as much knowledge into his brain as possible by reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I hope I don’t sound like an old fogey right now, but I figure that some of you young whipper-snappers might wonder what an encyclopedia is. Well, it was basically a multi-volume paper format of Wikipedia – and I am not even sure if they publish them anymore because of the internet! I need to check my library next time I go to see what their most recent version is.

Along with being an educational adventure, the cynical and self-degrading humor of the author kept me entertained along the way. However, I will say that after a while, I do think the novelty wore off a bit. I can imagine that many readers might give up part way through saying “okay, I get it!” Hopefully if you give it a shot, this will not be you. But be ready to start checking how many pages are left around the Ps.

The interesting side effect of waiting 15 years after this was published to read it is to see in what ways it has already become dated and, in some cases, ironic. He talks about the Gulf War as it is in its early stages and America is freshly in post-9/11 shock and that makes its way into the writing throughout. Also, he takes the opportunity to make fun of Donald Trump and his family a few times . . . and I kept thinking . . . if the author only knew!

If you like humor and trivia, give it a try. If you don’t like trivia, I don’t think there is enough humor in it to keep you entertained. But, the idea is unique and that may be enough to interest you in seeing it through to the end.
Profile Image for Amanda.
54 reviews10 followers
June 10, 2008
This book chronicles snarky rich kid (he is actually 35) A.J. Jacob's quest to read The Encyclopedia Brittanica from A-Z, in an attempt to become "the smartest person in the world". Jacobs breaks the book into alphabetical chapters and free-associates on the entries that he finds interesting. This book was by no means dull, but it was interesting in the way that flipping through the encyclopedia or the dictionary yourself is interesting-- as you scan the pages you find weird little tidbits that catch your fancy. So as a list of weird little tidbits, this book is amusing, but it sort of reinforces the foolishness of Jacob's enterprise. If this 369 page book represents all you think merits reflection in the massive, massive Britannica, what is the point of doing this? And the half-assed summation saying that you learned about the connections between things is not a particularly jarring revelation. The text felt padded with Jacob's incessant witticisms and unrelenting attempts to distance himself from his incredibly priviliged background by painting himself as a shallow regular guy with a nerd streak. I also got the feeling that some editor somewhere told Jacob's that he needed some sort of personal content to help the reader relate to him, so that he found ways to work details of his difficulty getting his wife pregnant into almost every letter. All of the interjections about his personal life felt forced and superficial. All of the characters seemed one-dimensional and irritating. I just didn't care about Jacobs or his life. He seemed like an over-priviliged hipster douchebag who got a book deal because he has good connections.
Profile Image for Meredith Holley.
Author 2 books2,199 followers
June 19, 2011
This was a little more like actually reading the Encyclopedia Britannica than I was really prepared for. I think it took me longer to read this book than it took Jacobs to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, too. So, I’m not sure what that says about my reading stamina. It took Jacobs something like a year to read the encyclopedia? I think it took me two years to read this book. Although I don’t really get how it’s possible that it took him a year because I feel like way more than half of the book was about Jacobs and his wife trying to get pregnant, but then she was seven months pregnant when the book was over. Maybe he just read a lot more during the first half of the year. Or maybe it took him more than a year. I can’t go back and check. Anyway, writing a review of this book is pretty meta because the book itself is basically a goodreads.com review of the encyclopedia. Ambitious. So this is a review of a review of the encyclopedia.

I am terrible at retaining factual knowledge long term, and I’d have to say I probably kind of avoid learning trivial facts – dates, names, places. I guess, using the word “trivial” is wrong because it sounds like they are less important than other facts, but what I mean is that systems and theories make more sense to me, and I’m not good with factual data. It’s probably because of that that Jacob’s Year of Living Biblically was more entertaining to me. Know-It-All is basically about whether there is value in knowing a lot of facts, where Biblically is about the value of religion. Both have this OCD intensity, combined with a charming humility. It’s very disarming, but at the same time disconcerting in some way. Obviously, he cares enough about these projects to follow through with them, but at the same time, most of the books are about him being self-conscious about the fact that he’s doing the projects, but he’s also proud enough of them to publish books about them. I guess it’s good that he recognizes the projects are unusual.

Jacobs writes the kind of review here that not everybody likes – it’s filled with personal anecdotes about how the encyclopedia affected him and what he was doing when reading sections of it. I find that interesting, but it is not for everyone. There is also a lot of trivia in here that relates to random legal facts and stories that I learned this past year in school – like the three-mile rule and the Bird in Space story. That was cool. I guess, again, Biblically made more sense to me because I’ve spent a lot of time considering the value of religion and of interpretations of spiritual texts, where I’ve always been pretty comfortable with my cursory decision that reading an entire encyclopedia is of no interest to me. That’s just a personal preference, and you could feel the opposite.

Anyway, I have a crush on A.J. Jacobs. He’s charming and smart, but still has some perspective. His wife is probably a saint, and she seems pretty charming, too. Maybe I have a little crush on their whole family. That adds a little sparkle to my read of his stories.
Profile Image for Edward.
116 reviews4 followers
March 29, 2008
I saw this dude in person talking about his newer book ("The Year of Living Bibically"): he seemed quirky, intelligent, curious, funny, and overall quite interesting. In time I saw that he used the same one-liners in every medium available and he was kind of obnoxious, but this was before that. He cast quite a spell on me and I knew I wanted to buy one of his books then. He had just talked about "The Year", it was newer, and honestly it just seemed a lot more interesting than a book about reading the encyclopedia. However, "The Year" was only available in hardcover, this was in paperback. There's a great example of cheap-stupid-Polish-man-logic:
1. I want book X, I don't want book Y.
2. Book X is expensive, book Y is cheap.
Therefore, 3. I buy book Y.

Still I liked it: it made me appreciate knowledge for its own sake a little more and I tried intentially to remember a lot of this stuff (making mental notes as I went and quizzing myself every once in a while, to less than optimal effect). I list some highlights (to contine to try to remember this stuff):

A.
- "assualt" is the ATTEMPT to apply force, "battery" is the actual application
B.
- Bacon, Francis died for knowledge
C.
- "claque" is canned laughter
- lightning goes up (under "climate")
D.
- the Darwins did a lot of things
- Descartes liked cross-eyed women
- Dyer, John: "A little rule, a little sway/A sunbeam in a winter's day/Is all the proud and mighty have/Between the cradle and the grave".
E.
- "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all" (from "Ecclesiates").
- there are not dates between Oct. 4 & Oct. 15, 1582 because that's when we switched to the Gregorian calender (under "Eggplant").
F.
- "This too shall pass" (ask me to explain this "Fable").
- "Riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky, I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and I knew I would never be so happy again" ("Ftzgerald, F. Scott").
- Alex Trebek: "I'm curious about everything--even things that don't interest me" (from "Frigate birds").
- in nautical law a country has jurisdiction over the first 3 miles from its coast because that's how far a cannon's range was then (IBID)
G.
- Lincoln's "Gettysburg address" was a 2-minute warm-up speech for a 2-hour speech by Edward Everett.
- Eric the Red called it "Greenland" so more people would join him there.
H.
- boring
I.
- boring, too
J.
- Jessie James was shot in the back while he was adjusting a picture in his home (I know this from the movie, too)
K.
- Kafka wanted most of work destroyed after his death
- Kiekegaard thougt his family was cursed after his dad cursed God
L.
- Elisha Gray almost beat Bell's patent for the telephone just like Langeley, Samuel almost beat the Wright Brothers.
- "capitonyms" are words in our Language that change their meaning based on whether their first letter is capitalized (like "Polish" and "herb"), "miranyms" are the words between antonyms ("flat" is the miranym of "convex" and "concave")
- Lucky Luciano helped the US Navy in WWII.
- the Lumiere brothers made the first movie.
M.
- there is a master kilogram
- Montaigne made up the word "essay" which meant "attempt" or "project of trial and error".
- the cuckoo is an agressive mimic.
- the blind man wants to know what the color scarlet is like so he interviews a lot of people, thinks about it a lot, and finally announces "Scarlett is like the sound of a trumpet" (from John Locke).
Nothing.
O.
- Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the solar system (on Mars).
P.
- Thomas Paine died poor, drunk, and his skeleton was lost en route to England.
- passenger pigeons became extinct in Sept. 1, 1914.
- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the USA (July 4th, 1826).
- people find time shorter as they age because they notice long-accustumed changes less often
- "But we are born of risen apes, not fallen angels... and so "we are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses" (Robert Andrey).
Q.
- a "Qa" is a Babylonian liquid measurement.
R.
- Walter Reed discovered that yellow fever was spread by misquitoes
- scholarship in Judiasm is an "ethical good", hell is "Gehenna"
- a gedankenexperiment is a thought experiment
S.
- Chief Justice Salmon Chase is on the front of the $10,000 bill
T.
- some think the IQ test measures analytic intelligence at the expense of creative and practical intelligence, crystallized at the expense of fluid intelligence
- the Tungusta event was an aerial explosion that flattened 500 acres of forest in Russia, 1908.
-Mark Twain submitted the first type-written manuscript (I do remember this)
U.
- Descartes walks into a bar, bartender asks, Yo, Descartes, do want a beer?" to which he replies "I think not" and disappears (I told this to 2 old philosophy professors in an email; they didn't think it was too funny [one actually pointed out how the joke made a mistake about Descartes cogito]).
- dalmations and humans are the only mammals to produce uric acid
V.
- vending machines were installed so workers didn't need a full break for food
- the opposition is the team that the harlem globetrotters beat all the time
- "axillism" is sex with the armpit
W.
-Nagasaki was bombed after the plane was unable to bomb Kokura
- the white house was originally called the president's palace
-the life expectency in ancient Rome was 29 years
XYZ.
- "All great truths start out as blasphemies" (GB Shaw).
- Zywiec is the last word in the encyclopedia bertannica, and it is a small town in south-central Poland.

I have come full circle.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,092 reviews135 followers
August 16, 2011
What a thoroughly enjoyable book!

When Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs sets out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, you can guess you're going to get lots of interesting trivia tidbits from the world's leading compendium of knowledge.

But what makes the book far more rewarding is that A.J. Jacobs is flat out funny. And after suffering through all the authors who attempt to write humor and do it badly, it is so good to be able to say that. I found myself laughing out loud every couple of pages.

Just a few tidbits:

At one point (under the word "tutelage"), Jacobs goes to visit a writing class, which has "about a dozen students who want to shed their real jobs and join the lucrative field of writing, where you can earn lots of money if your name happens to include both the words 'Stephen' and 'King.'"

Or, the entry for "heroin"

"Heroin was first developed by the Bayer Company. That'll whisk your headache away faster than a couple of dozen aspirin. Take two syringefuls and call me in the morning. Or late afternoon."

Or, under "Ghandi," after the Britannica tells him that Ghandi had a rebellious streak as an adolescent, even eating (gasp) meat, Jacobs writes:

"Gandhi -- that little thug! I wonder if other parents in Porbandar told their kids, 'For the last time, I don't want you hanging around with that bad seed Mohandas!' this gives me Movie Idea Number Three: 'Young Ghandi,' with Frankie Muniz as the cigarette-sucking, burger-eating pickpocket who eventually accepts his fate as the most saintly man alive."

Along the way, we learn about Jacobs' hypochondria, his attempts with wife Julie to have a baby, his parents and other relatives, and go along with him as he joins a Mensa outing, competes on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, interviews Alex Trebek and does other smartest man in the world activities.

Most of the book is a fascinating funny romp through the world of facts, but in the end, it also is heartwarming, and you actually care about what happens to A.J. and Julie and the other people in his life.

And you learn such great trivia as the fact that only human beings and Dalmatians produce uric acid in their pee.
Profile Image for Jan.
Author 4 books13 followers
August 15, 2007
first of all, since when is "i spent a year ________ing" a trendy model for a book? seems like they're all over the place now, but i don't remember seeing quite the plethora before. my friend beth spent a year following the advice of self-help gurus; a.j. jacobs read the entire encyclopedia brittanica. and then there's that me & julia cooking lady; karaoke nation; the dishwasher book; self-made man (the gal who posed as a dude); early bird (the guy who spent a year at a retirement community in boca raton); kingsolver's latest on how she ate organic; jacobs' forthcoming book, in which he apparently spends a year trying to adhere to the rules of the bible. oy! and that's just off the top of my head! what ever happened to being hired by harper's to write a 10,000 word article about your week aboard a cruise ship?

anyway, i liked jacobs' book a lot. are there flaws? yes, there are flaws. but, as i learned from the book, there are flaws even in the venerable e.b. (a couple of typos; the fudged fact that robert frost graduated from harvard). he's a little self-consciously nerdy (how many times can he stutter out irrelevant facts in inappropriate social situations and leave the listeners nonplussed?), and i cared so not at all about his struggle to have a baby (i guess i'm hard-hearted, but in my mind upper-middle class fertility issues don't qualify as plot). the biggest problem i had, though, was his occasional astonishing shallowness. here's (some of) his entry on sylvia plath:
"what is it with writers and suicide?.... i find the whole phenomenon a bit baffling. as far as jobs go, writers have a pretty sweet deal. you make your own hours, the dress code is remarkably lax. you rarely strain your back, you don't have your phone calls recorded for training purposes, and you don't have to intentionally lose to clients at golf. and the ladies like you.... these writers need to buck up and suck up and keep the nooses off their damn necks."
hmmm. reducing plath and lowell and hemingway to a cheeky esquire-esque sidebar kinda proved how much he didn't learn from his year after all. plus, it kinda made my blood boil. just buck up, you tortured geniuses!
i absorbed some great facts along the way, though: lightning strikes up; descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women; the couple in american gothic are the painter's sister and his dentist; in roman times, a mime show often included live sex acts and actual executions.
p.s. i have a set of world books staring at me from the shelf right now. do i smell a publishing contract?
(p.p.s. i just noticed there's something out there called a know-it-all calendar. ick!)
Profile Image for Louis.
194 reviews22 followers
October 18, 2008
I loved this book.Reminds me of when I was a child and would read the encyclopedia because there was nothing else in the house.Extremely funny, one of the only books to actually make me laugh out loud no matter where I was.
209 reviews41 followers
September 7, 2019
This book is hilarious!!

Author A.J. Jacobs decides to read the encyclopedia because he thinks he's getting dumber as time goes on, and this will fix it. There are bits of encyclopedia knowledge, A-Z, throughout the book, interspersed with AJ's jouney to become a member of Mensa, get a spot on Jeopardy, compete on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, and figure out how you really measure intelligence.

A.J.'s father and his brother in law are both smart, educated, and informed. He's hoping that this enormous info dump into his head will let him hold his own against them, as well as against any geniuses or experts he comes across.

He freely illustrates all the times he tries to give people the benefit of all his new knowledge, and all he times he just annoys the heck out of everyone. As a lover of facts and trivia, this repeatedly made me laugh out loud. The book is chockfull of interesting tidbits of knowledge, which I loved, presented in a hysterically funny way. It is also a heartwarming read. Very much a feel good book—one that I tend to reread periodically.

Highly recommend to anyone who loves a book that makes them laugh, or anyone like me who loves useless trivia!
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,092 followers
Want to read
May 23, 2018
This book was given to me as a gift on two separate occasions, which I think is says a lot about my behavior...
Profile Image for fleurette.
1,304 reviews107 followers
November 25, 2019
This book turned out to be much more interesting than I expected. And much more fun.

A.J. Jacobs decided to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. It took him over a year. This book is something like his diary. But in fact it is something more. We have curiosities here that A.J. found in the Encyclopedia. We have description of current events in the life of A.J. and his wife - like trying for a baby and social events. Events from the childhood of A.J. and his relationship with other family members. Finally, we have here A.J.'s impressions of meetings with remarkably intelligent people and those a little less brilliant who make up a certain complicated picture and an attempt to answer the question of what intelligence and wisdom are.

In all this, AJ is brutally honest with himself and his family. He admits his rivalry with his father and brother-in-law. He admits to his own desire to impress others. But he describes other people with no less brutality. The only people I think he takes pity of are his mother and his wife. Huh, there's something Freudian about it, isn't it? AJ is much harsher towards other men.

The book has a very interesting composition. Instead of chapters there are consecutive letters of the alphabet. And each entry begins with a word found in the encyclopedia and most often with some information about it. Entries are usually short. Which makes the book easy and quick to read. It can also be put down at almost any time without much of a fuss. The descriptions of the events of A.J.'s life are usually connected to the encyclopedia entry. This makes the book really remarkable.

What I didn't expect the most is humor, that I would laugh so much reading this book. The book is written in a light, playful language and full of funny comments and comparisons.

I know that A.J. has written a few more books in a similar style. After reading this, I want to read his other books.
Profile Image for Anne.
797 reviews30 followers
March 2, 2008
This is the first book by the author who wrote The Year of Living Biblically, which I read last month. In this one, Jacobs decides to become the smartest person in the world by reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica from beginning to end. Jacobs has a separate chapter for every letter, and within the chapter he divides the sections out by subjects within that letter - highlighting important facts for us, and throwing in stories about how this quest is affecting his personal life - mostly making him an incredibly annoying conversant during dinner parties. This way of arranging the book became tedious to me after about letter C. I found the basic premise interesting, but I would have preferred more of a 30,000 foot perspective. There's a reason I would never read the Encyclopedia Brittanica - there's no way I could retain any of the facts. This book felt the same way - Jacobs was so intent on showing that he had read each encyclopedia entry that he filled his book with too many forgetable facts causing me to lose his overall purpose. Too many trees and not enough forest. I've had the same problem with both of Jacobs's books, but he is certainly clever and I do look forward to seeing what he puts his mind to next.
Profile Image for Jay Daze.
581 reviews18 followers
April 4, 2010
An annoying book about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica that I was compelled to finish. Humour is subjective and I found Jacobs' nebbish, hypochondriac, regular Jewish guy persona to be pretty fake and forced (as well as pretty old, Woody Allen did it much better). (He's an Esquire editor, roomed with a Kennedy in college, goes on fab vacations, all while trying to portray himself as a bumbling oaf. If he had just fessed up to being an elitist with some intellectual pretensions I would have found the book way more enjoyable.) For human interest he shoe-horned in a rather pat telling of he and his wife trying to get pregnant. It is okay that Jacobs didn't really want to share his and his wife's private life, but it is painfully obvious he was being jokey to cover the real thing.

Yet I was compelled to finish the book. I loved how it was organized, going from Chapter A to Chapter XYZ. Jacobs comes up with interesting factoids. I wish he'd just relaxed and let himself appear a little more intellectually engaged.

If I'll take away anything from Jacobs' quest to read the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is this: Ebbinghaus.

-------------

My counter-recommendation:

Vanishing Point by David Markson. Fiction that stretches the definition of fiction - composed of index card length bits, much of which are quotes or facts about writers and visual artists, the other part the slow deterioration of a mind. Compulsively readable in a very happy way. Markson gets the order and the juxtapositions right. Poetic collage. I keep picking this book up and re-reading it.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,331 reviews451 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
July 16, 2014
I decided to clear my rating. I didn't find it particularly amusing, but it didn't repulse me or anything. The thing is, a lot of us bookish kids back in days of yore did find ourselves at some point sitting down and reading encyclopedias. So, as far as I'm concerned, Jacobs is way late to the game.
Profile Image for Bryce.
1,213 reviews32 followers
June 1, 2010
What started out as a clever and funny tale of an epic chore -- reading the entirety of the Encyclopedia Britannica in one year -- quickly devolved into a study of one of the most annoying people I can imagine.

I read Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible last year and found it fairly enjoyable. Enjoyable enough to pick up his first book. Jacob came across as slightly neurotic but basically curious and endearing in Living Biblically. In The Know-It-All, he presents himself as insufferable; he alternates between mind-blowing egotism and aggrandizement and whiny self-loathing. A subplot of the story is about how Jacobs and his wife are trying to conceive a child during the year of his big project... frankly, I can't understand how she can stand being in the same room with Jacobs long enough for procreation to occur.

Interspersed throughout the book were some facts selected from the Britannica. And those, of course, were very intriguing. But they were not worth the pages and pages of Jacobs' personality I had to sift through to get at them.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
471 reviews65 followers
February 18, 2022
Books like this always get my attention. Language, etymology, and historical trivia sound like just the things to get me to invest a few hours, so it was inevitable that I would read this book by A.J. Jacobs when I saw it at my library. It is not a terrible book, and there are some interesting nuggets from Britannica, but there is no real substance to it, and no reason to spend time reading it.

An interesting book could be written about Encyclopedia Britannica, and in fact it probably exists but I have not found it. Tracking the Weltanschauung of Britain as manifested by Britannica through its various editions from 1768 to the present would hold up a mirror to the evolving views of Britain and its place in the world. The selection of topics and the editorial focus applied to them would illuminate the advance of knowledge, provide historical context, and document the rise and fall of imperial ambitions. That would be something that sounds interesting.

Instead we get trivia and pointless digressions into the author’s personal life, which feel like padding to increase the page count. Jacobs has his moments, but he is not as funny as he thinks he is, and his relentless lightheartedness adds to the insubstantial feeling of the book.

The is no reason to read an encyclopedia, other than the opportunity it presents to get a book proposal accepted. I found myself wondering if the experience had added depth and nuance to Jacobs’ understanding of the world, and then realized that if it did, since the book would have been written after he had gained whatever insights the experience taught him, he must have been even more insufferable before he began it. His flippant style does not evoke much appreciation of history’s great people and events.

His final conclusions, that reading the encyclopedia provided him with context to appreciate the interconnectedness of knowledge was for me a huge, “Well, duh!” moment. What else is an encyclopedia for, unless it is intended as just another reference book to look up names and dates. For anyone tempted to read this book I would recommend instead spending a few hours randomly browsing Wikipedia articles. You might learn something.
Profile Image for Caroline.
39 reviews3 followers
July 12, 2007
Definitely food for you brain, but upon purchasing this book I wasn't aware the chapters of the book went from "A-Z" each chapter containing his favorite words/definitions, mixed in with narrative of his life. I liked the author, but sometimes he could really get on my nerves..if i heard one more mention of visiting his parents in "East Hampton" and countless mentions of being an "upper middle class New Yorker" writing on his "white Macintosh lap book", or his complaining about how he couldn't get his wife pregnant, I was going to scream...but hey this book had its moments. Funny parts include his visit to the Mensa convention and the "characters" he encountered there; his brief stint on "Who wants to be a Millionaire." Just like the author, I too can now dazzle people with my facts about how opossums have 13 nipples, oysters can change their sex according to the current water temperature, or how the Bayer company was the developer of heroin. Awesome!
Profile Image for Julia.
271 reviews
July 1, 2015
I could have done without reading this book. I thought it was cleverly compiled, but realistically, who wants to read a book with a listing of definitions? The only parts that made me want to keep reading were AJ's adventure on Millionaire and his journey to having a child. A novel concept, but not worth the 300+ pages of reading.
Profile Image for Maggie.
515 reviews11 followers
August 9, 2016
Prepare for a rant, cuz you're getting one.

I. HATED. THIS. BOOK. And with good reasons.

I listened to it on tape (read by the author), so I got a front-row seat to the cadence and weight that the writer wanted his words to carry. And it only made me hate him more.

In A.J. Jacobs' journey through the Encyclopedia Britannica, the rage it inspired did not come about all at once; it grew slowly and continuously. The more we got to know the author and his self-imposed "life experiment", the more my impatient rage grew. But A-C, we were fine! We were grooving! Jacobs is lighthearted, self-deprecating, charming even! By the time we got to the L section, things had shifted. That promising, groovy start had stuttered, his charm was fading, and I realized after Jacobs made the same skim-milk, empty-calorie observation about "life" for the fourth time, this odyssey was going to be much harder to stomach than I had realized. His half-assed jokes clutter the story, and his sheltered, rich-boy, POV make his "epiphanies" about "how we all should really live our lives" so, SO hard to swallow. By the time we got to R and S, I was very ready for the book to be done. Like, REALLY ready. Like, the final 8 letters of the alphabet were a masochistic hate read.

If I had to pin point two faults of the book (or at least the most offensive ones), it would be these:

1. The author is simply not interesting enough to carry this story. Jacobs weaves a year of his own life and relationships into the journey, so that when he reads a passage about "jazz" or "Napoleon", he connects it anecdotally to his family or things happening at work.

The problem is that Jacobs' life lacks the actual substance to make this technique interesting, compelling, inspirational, insightful or appealing to anyone outside of his immediate tribe. Despite traveling to Europe (for a friend's destination wedding), despite getting pregnant after a long struggle with infertility, and despite working at an exciting New York magazine, this man's personal life and plot arc read closer to a self-indulgent, narcissistic diary entry than an actual story. Pardon my "political correctness," but Jacobs seems like a snarky, self-satisfied whiny white guy that got to write a book because he knew people in the right places. This is the male version of "Eat, Pray, Love" minus the spiritual growth.

I cannot tell you how many times this author reminded me of Larry from "Orange is the New Black" -- not special himself, but writing about the colorful, shining people around him in an effort to reflect their own light.

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You spoiled, boring little man, I see you there, pretending you have a tough enough life to speak with authority on overcoming obstacles and believing in yourself. Dude, wake up to your own privilege! You are an editor at Esquire. You were granted a private meeting with Alex Trebek, the writers of the E. Britannica, and you went on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The self-deprecation you apply to these facts reads as obliviousness (oh of course it was silly of you to go to the Crossword Puzzle championship, you made such a silly fool of yourself around these smart folks). Downplaying your own intelligence doesn't save you because I still see you and your oblivious privilege, the ease with which you refer to your 3-bedroom New York apartment, your Ivy-league degree that followed your elite private prep high school, your name-dropping of family members who teach at Yale, the fact that the biggest problem you face in your life is that you are a self-diagnosed hypochondriac...

I see you and you're the worst.

Of course you have time to BUY the entire E.B. and read it -- yours is a life of luxury that you seem snuggly and smuggly unaware. Don't try and teach us lessons from your self-imposed journey of hardship; anytime you start a sentence with, "It just goes to show you--" No. Stop it. Stop it. You're ranting and you sound like a Harvard asshole. Stop and talk to people who don't live in New York, who are not white, who did not have access to MENSA, who didn't even (GASP) go to COLLEGE! Talk to people different from you -- REALLY different. You might have seen that "Epicurean philosophy" means something different for you than it does for the rest of us. Your insulated perspective doesn't make you wrong or a bad person, but it does NOT make you an expert, either. You sound incredibly sheltered and naive and limited when you try and give us moral lessons from the EB, especially your sophomoric "recap" at the end which clearly shows you have learned little form reading the encyclopedia and grown even less in terms of your social awareness and place in the larger universe. The fact that you spent a year reading about mankind's history of war, injustice, economic inequality, poverty, dictators and starvation, and it never ONCE penetrated deeply enough to make you consider pausing on your 15-month quest to get pregnant and reflect, "Hey, the world is a tough place, maybe we could adopt a child! We have a very wealthy, secure home we could offer...maybe I personally can do something to better the world around me and change a life..."

No. Instead you decided to pick up a napkin at a restaurant. THAT is how the ethics of philosophy inspired this douche...he picked up a fucking napkin and congratulated himself for it. A LOT.



Jacobs, stop it. You're done.


2. The book was too long. The format and nature of the book roughly mirrors the structure of the encyclopedia itself (it follows letters and words alphabetically, skipping most but highlighting the most interesting). Some of the entries have a sentence or two of explanation, usually injected with a pop culture reference (Tom Cruise, Madonna, Marissa Tomei, and other celebrities that date the book painfully and narrowly to the early 2000s; a good editor would have evened this out to give it a better chance of being relevant ten years in the future). The book should have been a "toliet reader" (a book you could pick up and put down easily while on the toliet). This should have been light fluff, because the author certainly does not have the writing chops nor life experience to write a compelling non-fiction biography.

But it split the difference and tried to be a fluffy, compelling non-fiction biography. By trying to be both it was neither. It needed to be about 1/3 shorter. Where was the editor to clean up the clutter, tighten up the writing and punch up the exhausting jokes (most of which were just one draft away from being great)? Frankly, where was the editor to say, "You know, AJ, we don't really care THAT much about you and your dad's relationship, you've talked about it extensively already and it seems very healthy and sweet. The fact you keep comparing yourself to him is beginning to sound like you have something more deep-seeded and intangible going on here. We all feel insecure about our own intelligence, particularly around our parents, but you've made this point several times before and now it feels redundant and whiny."

All in all, this "Know-It-All" is a waste of time because he knows very little. SKIP THIS.
Profile Image for Sterlingcindysu.
1,299 reviews48 followers
October 6, 2019
I feel now as if I read the encyclopedia myself!

OK, so this guy read the entire Britannica Encyclopedia in about a year, 33000 pages. In comparison it takes me about two years to read that many. (In fact, I went back and added up ALL the pages I've read of books I've listed here on Goodreads, even going back to all those Little House on the Prairie books. And guess what? I've just barely scratched 300000 in all my years of being able to read. Let's say 52 years.)

So Jacobs teasingly says he wants to be the smartest man in the world. He certainly retains more than I would. I would remember the basics, for example the holes in Swiss cheese is made by gas...he know the exact gas and the real name of the cheese.

He also learns that injecting "fun facts" in conversation isn't really a good thing. Sometimes it's better to be dumb and happy. Knowledge is different than intellect, but as he points out they live in the same neighborhood.

As he talks to others, someone tells him that their mother put a volume in the bathroom for the kids to read. I was actually thinking that this would be a great "bathroom" book because it's a bit dry going chapter by chapter, letter by letter.

When I was growing up, we had a set. When I had kids, we did not. (But of course we had the internet and the CD available to the kids.) In case you want to know you can buy a new set of them for $1300 and of course, the bad news is old sets are worthless. In fact most libraries won't even take them for book sales.

Profile Image for  Sarah Lumos.
122 reviews112 followers
August 4, 2018
Usually when I finish a book, I feel a sense of profound euphoria. I just went on an adventure with the author and peered into their inner world - at least that is how I feel after reading a good book. However, after reading “The-Know-It-All” instead of being enlightened, I felt accomplished because this book tested my reading stamina unlike any other.

“The-Know-It-All” intrigued me due to my own pursuits of scholarship and learning. I feel fascinated by knowledge and the positive impact it can have on our lives. Like Jacobs, I was once a studious person, but since taking a break from academia, my brain has become crazy out of shape; even focusing on something for 5-minutes became a challenge. But by re-enrolling myself in school, I have been able to re-train my brain. I am still trying to enhance my pre-frontal cortex's six-pack of reasoning, but since re-starting my academic journey, I have noticed massive improvements in my cognitive abilities.

I also wanted to read this book because of my growing interest in neuroscience, in particular, with neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change itself. I was hoping that by the end of this book, I would be able to witness a transformation in Jacobs, and I did. Jacobs attempts to read the entire encyclopaedia might have seemed frivolous to those around him, but by ploughing through the Britannica’s 33,000 pages, this was his attempt to increase his crystallized intelligence - an ambitious enterprise to say the least.

Jacobs writing style was engaging, humorous, and creative. Albeit this book had its flaws, I thought the author’s efforts to improve himself were commendable. While this book has an insane amount of random information, it is also partly a memoir. In it Jacobs recounts his struggles with fertility, insecurities about his own intelligence, and complicated love affair with knowledge.

I think intelligence is a slippery and sometimes undefinable slope. Most standard IQ tests measure your ability to think analytically, but do not take into account other forms of intelligence. In Jacobs’ case, he was able to gain an appreciation for learning. His new database enabled him to draw on a multitude of examples when trying to learn new information.

Despite not being any expert, in my opinion, that is a form of intelligence. Being smart goes hand in hand with an openness to new experiences. You should accept all that the world wants to teach you. Even though as Jacob states, the knowledge in the world is like an ocean and after reading the Britannica, it humbled him to understand how little of that ocean he knows. And although I found his self-actualization journey admirable, I did not enjoy this book because it was too much like the encyclopaedia.

I know. I know. I should have expected it. But I thought this book was going to be a memoir and not just a witty recantation of the Britannica. Just like the encyclopaedia, there were parts that stuck out to me and other facts that I had to speed read through. Unfortunately, this book was full of trivial information and learning obscure facts has never been my strength. But I liked the parts of this book that focused on Jacob. I thought he was relatable and as a student, I saw him as practically a martyr who was sacrificing his sleep, eyes and sanity for the pursuit of knowledge.

Will I read this book again? Probably not. I mean, it was pretty much a retelling of the entire encyclopaedia. However, I do want to read more of Jacobs work because I enjoyed his writing style, and his witty sense of humor does align with my own. I want to read his book, “The Year of Living Biblically” , which I think might be more applicable to my life. Overall, this book was okay. It did not blow me away, but I do feel like I finished a full circle of learning.
Profile Image for Michael.
836 reviews614 followers
December 14, 2015
A.J. Jacobs has noticed an ever widening gap left from graduating from an Ivy League education. His solution, to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, from A to Z. Follow A.J. as he works his way through all 32 volumes, that’s 33 thousand pages and 44 million words. His wife thinks it’s a waste of time, his friends believe he has lost his mind, but follow this unconventional task in this memoir.

I have read an A.J. Jacobs memoir before; I read “Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” and found it really entertaining. This task sounded really interesting, I’m interested in the things people do to increase their pretentious levels. I’m not sure I will ever take up a task like reading the Encyclopaedia, especially with easy to access to Wikipedia.

Knowledge has interested me, and the way to obtain more knowledge is fascinating. The full title of this book is The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World; A.J. Jacobs documents the journey in this hilarious memoir. Not only do you get little snippets of facts that he found interesting but you get a look at his life. I really enjoyed the social impact reading the Encyclopaedia had; you watch his pretentious levels rise but you also watch his social skills fall. Obviously people don’t like being corrected, or want to hear weird related facts but I can’t help thinking that I would do the same thing as well.

A.J. Jacobs is quite a character and reading about the ways he tries to put his newfound knowledge into practise was really interesting. From going to a chess club, a crossword tournament and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Jacobs tries all sorts of ways to practise often with hilarious effects. Why take the test to join Mensa if you are already in Mensa; why not? Although A.J. Jacobs was entertaining, I really found his dad so much more interesting; he was fascinating.

I love books about books and humorous memoirs about learning, so this was right up my alley. A.J. Jacobs got the balance between trivia and real life. Following Jacobs and his wife as they try to get pregnant and I felt relief when they finally conceived. I’m curious if there are more entertaining memoirs like this worth reading, maybe a year reading classics or just novels, something similar. I think I need to read more books like this.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2013/...
Profile Image for Rick.
185 reviews617 followers
January 1, 2015
As much as I enjoyed A.J. Jacobs' newest book, The Year of Living Biblically, I think that it doesn't hold a candle to the book that preceded it: The Know-It-All. After reading these two books, along with a handful of his articles for Esquire (he's the magazine's Editor at Large), I've developed such an appreciation for the man that I am currently debating ordering one of his older works, The Two Kings: Jesus and Elvis, which analyzes the eerie similarities between the two figures. That I'm even considering ordering such a bizarre book stands as the ultimate testament to Jacobs' charm and wit.

As you may recall, in The Year of Living Biblically Jacobs set out to live an entire year of his life in as strict accordance with the Bible as he could. As devoted as this may seem, two years earlier he did something just as impressive (or crazy, depending on how you look at it): he spent nearly a year reading, from A to Z, the entire 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Consider that the Britannica contains 33,000 pages comprised of 44 millions words, and you'll realize that this is no moderate undertaking. For Jacobs, this was getting up at five o'clock and reading for five hours before starting work...every single day for nearly a year. Jacobs describes his journey as "one man's quest to become the smartest person in the world," which, if you're of the camp that believes the pure accumulation of facts makes one smart, then Jacobs may not have been altogether ridiculous for making this statement (at the time of his reading, there was only one other person in the world--according to official Britannica spokespeople--who was also reading the whole edition from A to Z, a Chinese man who in fact was reading at a much slower pace). And as Jacobs was reading, he was also writing a memoir of the experience.

I know what you're thinking: how is this a book? The structure is somewhat similar to the Britannica itself, in that it is organized from A to Z with Jacobs discussing entries from the encyclopedia that he finds particularly interesting or noteworthy. Speckled throughout, however, is a wonderful narrative of a year in the man's life. Through his quest for knowledge he establishes a bond with his father that he had long since lost, competes on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, tries in earnest to impregnate his seemingly barren wife, and, almost accidentally, writes an interesting essay on the nature of intelligence. It's all much more compelling that one might expect, so much so that the rights to the book have been bought in hopes that it will become a film.

What the book is, though, is perhaps the most well written bathroom book of all time. I mean this in the most complimentary way possible. Its entry style allows for quick, short reading. It's a book that can be read multiple times over, purely for the wealth of information that is crammed into it. If you're in the mood for an interesting, probably quirky fact you can use to titillate at a cocktail party, just pick this book up, flip to a random page and you're good to go. I'll open to a few random pages, just as an example.

Philo Farnsworth, creator of the television, broadcast the first TV image in 1927: a dollar sign. He couldn't have come up with a more appropriate image for his invention. As Jacobs quips, "Somehow, deep down, Farnsworth knew that Lisa Kudrow would earn $1 million per episode for singing songs about her smelly cat."

Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the graham cracker, was a health nut in his day who preached the virtues of hard mattresses, cold showers, and homemade bread. This last one actually caused him to be attacked by rioting bakers.

The three largest social units in the history of the world are, in order: desert locusts, pigeons, and the modern day Chinese. Seriously.

John Stewart said it best when he had Jacobs on The Daily Show. He said "The Know-It-All is 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."
Profile Image for Dahlia.
243 reviews206 followers
December 18, 2013
I can no longer force myself to read this. I started reading it in August and have only gotten 46% of the way through. It clearly isn't happening, and there is absolutely no reason to continue. I'm really disappointed, because out of all of his books, this is the one that appealed to me the most. Also, I read The Year of Living Biblically by him and really enjoyed it. The problem with this is that it really does read like a condensed version of the Britannica. I expected it to be more interesting and less dry, but in my opinion, it's really not. The main side story of his personal life is how him and his wife can't get pregnant, which is depressing and definitely does not help to lighten the mood of all the factoids vomited all over the pages.

*SPOILER ALERT*-At least since I had read The Year of Living Biblically, I already knew that they do have a baby at some point. However, I think this might have actually detracted from that storyline for me. In other words, the "interesting" side story was also boring, because I already knew what was going to happen

He tries to entertain to with his wit, which worked so well in TYOLB, and simply doesn't work in this one. It may be due to the fact that I am already familiar with his sense of humor, but I felt like he was trying way too hard to be funny, and failed to do so 9 times out of 10. I know this is harsh, but it's my honest opinion. I doubt I will read anything else by him. I am not willing to put myself through this again.
Profile Image for Embee.
26 reviews21 followers
January 16, 2009
I purchased this book as a birthday present for my husband. I mean, look at the title... It has his name on it! (Sorry hon, you know I mean well.) While reading the book my husband would share with me funny little tid-bits and upon completion, told me he thought I'd really enjoy it... Why? Because I'm a 'Know it All' too? No, that can't possibly be true!

Anyway, this book is Great Fun! I know it sounds like the story of a guy recounting his foray into reading the entire library of Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z would be a veritable yawn fest, but this guy is FUNNY! Plus you learn little bits & pieces of Britannica trivia along the way without having to wade through all the exceedingly boring stuff... It's a win-win!
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,440 reviews29.4k followers
Read
July 25, 2011
I picked this up in the airport the other day and devoured it on a flight to California. What a great book! While I've never even thought of reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z (or even one volume), as profound trivia fanatic I can totally identify with A.J. Jacobs' quest to make himself smarter. This book is part trivia lover's dream, part philosophical musing on one's insecurities as you get older and wonder about your place in the world. Jacobs is a terrifically self-deprecating writer, funny and even a little bit touching. I'd highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in a whole bunch of interesting facts about things you've never thought about before.
Profile Image for C-shaw.
852 reviews59 followers
February 3, 2016
Ha! I read a review of this and added it to my wishlist, then found a copy on my own library shelves.
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Wonderful book containing lots of interesting facts. I will read it again some day. The writer is a likeable guy who performed the amazing feat of reading the entire _Encyclopedia Britannica_ in print in about a year's time!
Profile Image for Caleb Batchelor.
99 reviews9 followers
July 30, 2021
I think Leah is glad that my spontaneous laughter while reading this book is over, but I’m sad. I enjoyed this one.
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