THE KNOW-IT-ALL by A.J. Jacobs
Kirkus Star


One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
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Esquire editor Jacobs (The Two Kings, not reviewed) squares off against all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and returns to his corner in comic triumph.

“In the years since graduating college, I began a long, slow slide into dumbness,” he writes of the intellectual swan dive he hoped to reverse by tackling all 33,000-pages worth of the EB. Jacobs moved through it like a combine, harvesting a great swath of general knowledge—all general knowledge: “If my goal is to know everything, I can’t discriminate, even against obscure Teutonic landmarks.” The bite-sized entries suited a man “who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines.” Yet the task required attention, like removing a splinter, he ruefully notes. Then again, the task is lightened here (often humorously and certainly ad infinitum) by Jacobs’s ability to self-reference a good number of the choice selections he presents, from atrophy to chess, rock tripe to year. He takes pleasing swipes at the EB’s deadpan seriousness: there will be no Tom Cruise entry, and in the 2002 edition’s grudging acknowledgement of Madonna’s existence, “you could tell the editors wrote the entry while wearing one of those sterile full-body suits people use when containing an Ebola outbreak.” Of course, Jacobs couldn’t help but try to insinuate his latest strange fact into everyday conversations, which typically ground them to an abrupt halt, and he tenders ways in which you, too, can gain an entry: get beheaded, for instance, or become a botanist, win a Nobel Prize, become a liturgical vestment. 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.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-5060-5
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2004


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