Saturday, August 23, 2008

79. The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World - A.J. Jacobs

The Know-It-All chronicles the author's self-imposed struggle to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all 33000 pages, every entry from A-ak to Zywiec, in the hopes that at the end he'll become the smartest person in the world. Ok, maybe not the smartest person in the world but smarter than he was when he started. For an entire year, Jacobs has to constantly defend his idea to family, friends, co-workers, geeks, freaks, experts, religious leaders, and ... himself while trying to absorb, process and hopefully retain some of what he's reading. Interspersed with funny anecdotes about his personal life and his desire to prove just how smart he's becoming, Jacobs provides the reader with a condensed, Cliff-Notes version of the encyclopaedia brimming with some of what he felt were it's more interesting and offbeat bits of information. As he describes it, the Britannica has "[s]ex, violence, MTV pacing". He keeps running totals of decapitations, famous men who've married their (often much younger) cousins, and a list of what he feels are the best and worst jobs out there. Along the way he has a few setbacks such as when he's able to join MENSA on a technicality, his next to last showing in a crossworld puzzle championship, or the day he spent at his old elementary school only to realize that 10 year olds seem to be smarter than he is.

Interesting, entertaining, informative, funny? Yes. Humble? Not exactly. Jacobs' quest (and the book documenting his year long reading blitz) is not, as the title claims, to become the smartest person in the world. That's a secondary goal, almost an afterthought. The real purpose behind the challenge seems to be his need to one-up his over-achieving father (who also attempted to read the encyclopaedia but gave up after the first few letters), to finally stump his overbearing brother-in-law who really does seem to know it all at times, and to have quantitative proof that he is, in fact, smart/intelligent.

If you can get past Jacobs' need to constantly reassure himself and stroke his own intellectual ego, The Know-It-All is a hilarious read. It's also divided up into chapters according to the letters of the alphabet making it easy to read. My only other complaint is that the insight into his personal life often makes him come across as an annoying ass. I have a feeling that if I had to spend more than 5 minutes with him in real life...one of us wouldn't survive the encounter. He is also, at times, highly insulting. Under the heading for dragonly: "It can eat its own weight in thirty mnutes. Just like Roger Ebert." Under the heading of Suez Canal: "Jessica (Simpson)'s got a brain the size of a midget moth (wingspan three millimeters)." Oh, and he spelled Wayne Gretzky with an "s". I guess he missed the Britannica's entry on hockey.

Jacobs is also the author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I'm looking forward to picking up a copy to see if it's as entertaining (overall) as The Know-It-All was. Thankfully I'm already prepared to disregard his overuse of the word "humble" in the title...

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