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The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
 
 
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The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World [Bargain Price] [Paperback]

A. J. Jacobs
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (342 customer reviews)


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Imagine, the original Berserkers were "savage Norse soldiers" of the Middle Ages who went into battle stark naked! Or consider the Etruscan habit of writing in "boustrophedon style." Intrigued? Well, either hunker down with your own Encyclopædia Britannica, or buy Esquire editor Jacobs's memoir of the year he spent reading all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition—that's 33,000 pages with some 44 million words. Jacobs set out on this delightfully eccentric endeavor attempting to become the "smartest person in the world," although he agrees smart doesn't mean wise. Apart from the sheer pleasure of scaling a major intellectual mountain, Jacobs figured reading the encyclopedia from beginning to end would fill some gaps in his formal education and greatly increase his "quirkiness factor." Reading alphabetically through whole topics he never knew existed meant he'd accumulate huge quantities of trivia to insert into conversations with unsuspecting victims. As his wife shunned him and cocktail party guests edged away, Jacobs started testing his knowledge in a hilarious series of humiliating adventures: hobnobbing at Mensa meetings, shuffling off to chess houses, trying out for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, visiting his old prep school, even competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Indeed, 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School - When Jacobs, a pop-culture junkie and magazine editor, got a bee in his bonnet to read the entire abridged set of the Encyclopedia Britannica to stave off the decline of his recalled knowledge, his wife, family, and coworkers looked on with disbelief, amusement, and annoyance. They thought he'd give up on his quest, but fortunately he did not, for his recap manages to impart the joys of learning, along with a lot of laughs. The alphabetical arrangement of his book allows Jacobs to share highlights, many of which show his fixation on the morbid, the insane, and the grotesque in history. Cortés had syphilis. Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women. Throughout, the author digresses with anecdotes about such things as his trip to a Mensa meeting, his visit with Alex Trebek, and (mainly) his wife's attempts to get pregnant. While the pregnancy woes probably won't hold the same resonance with teens as with adults, they are all short, and soon there is another funny or gross item. As Jacobs wraps up, he leaves readers with the sense of satisfaction and wistfulness that often occurs when finishing a particularly satisfying book, only multiplied by the magnitude of what he has accomplished. This is a love note to human knowledge and the joys of obtaining it. - Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

We’re in looking glass territory here, as many reviewers spent as much time on New York Times Book Review Queenan’s hack-job as they did on Esquire editor Jacobs’s book. Reviews of reviews are always awkward, especially when they flock to the defense of a book as harmless as Jacobs’s. Maybe Know-It-All isn’t an intellectual treatise; but, then again, it isn’t meant to be. Its pop culture-obsessed author clearly is out for some fun, often at his own expense. The alphabetical structure and wisecracking prose only underscore the playfulness of The Know-It-All, even if it gets certain factoids wrong. Which begs the question: what side of the "A" volume did Queenan wake up on? One must assume the backside.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

This clever book stems from the author's herculean effort to read every volume of the majestic Encyclopaedia Britannica, that erudite guide to all knowledge in the brief century before the Internet became the fountainhead of all truth, objective and subjective. Jacobs turns his quest for intellectual enlightenment into alphabetically ordered, humorous ruminations on all persons and events of his life, subverting Mortimer Adler's ecumenical achievement into nothing more than an organizing principle for A. J. Jacobs' autobiography. Most entries are short, but some run to several pages of witty recollection of his family or an encounter with a favorite high-school teacher. Jacobs' cultural references will be familiar to anyone with common knowledge of current television and music celebrities. Plenty of good fun pours out of this prose, but Jacobs' Britannica-incited quest to become the smartest person in the world assumes that command of data is the mark of education rather than any sharply honed critical faculties. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"* '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.' P.J. O'Rourke * 'A jape of a book...with Jacobs...coming across as a slightly younger and Jewish Bill Bryson. Some of his quips are worthy even of Woody Allen... Hilarious' Guardian * 'For those who enjoy learning about some of the stranger facts about the world in which we live and who appreciate having a guide of some charm, The Know-It-All will be something of a treat.' Sunday Times * 'The Know-It-All is one of the most informative humorous books and one of the funniest collections of information that I have seen in a long time. (Note to publishers: that's the sentence you can put on the back of the next edition if you like).' Daily Express" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Inside Flap

"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." --Jon Stewart, Host of The Daily Show

"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." --Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

GEOFFREY CANTOR made his Broadway debut in the tony Award winning Sideman. He has appeared on numerous television shows, including Ed, The Street, and Law & Order. He is most recognized for his numerous television commercials.


A.J. JACOBS is a senior editor at Esquiremagazine and the author of The Two Kings: Jesus and Elvis, America Off-Line, and Fractured Fairy Tales. Since his local grocery store did not carry the type of mint cake chosen by Tenzing Norgay to celebrate his successful ascent of Mount Everest, Jacobs celebrated the completion of his feat with some Ring Dings. He lives in New York City with his wife.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One: A

a-ak

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 destroy my average. I don't recognize the names of any Chinese generals or Buddhist compendiums. And I've never heard of Aachen, the German city that's home to Schwertbad-Quelle, the hottest sulfur spring in the country. I try to memorize the information. If my goal is to know everything, I can't discriminate, even against obscure Teutonic landmarks.

Aaron

I move on to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Seems he was sort of the Frank Stallone of ancient Judaism. The loser brother, the one Mom didn't talk about too much. "Oh, Aaron? He's doing okay. Still finding his way. But back to Moses. Did you hear about the Red Sea?"

This is good stuff. I'm Jewish, but I never got any religious training, never got a bar mitzvah. I know most of my Jewish lore from Charlton Heston movies, and I wouldn't call myself observant, though I do have a light lunch on Yom Kippur. So the Britannica will be my savior, my belated Hebrew school.

Abbott, Bud, and Costello, Lou

After a bunch of Persian rulers named Abbas, I get to these two familiar faces. But any sense of relief fades when I learn about their sketchy past. Turns out that the famed partnership began when Costello's regular straight man fell ill during a gig at the Empire Theater in New York, and Abbott -- who was working the theater's box office -- offered to substitute. It went so well, Abbott became Costello's permanent partner. This is not a heartwarming story; it's a cautionary tale. I'm never calling in sick again. I don't want to come back after a twenty-four-hour flu and find Robbie from the mail room volunteered to be the senior editor. It's a tough world.

ABO blood group

Stomach cancer is 20 percent more common in people with type A blood than those with type B or type O. That's me, type A. This is even more disturbing than the tale of the backstabbing Costello. Clearly, I have to be prepared to learn some things I don't like.

Absalom

Absalom, a biblical hero, has the oddest death so far in the encyclopedia. During a battle in the forest, Absalom got his flowing hair caught in the branches of an oak tree, which allowed his enemy, Joab, to catch him and slay him. This, I figure, is exactly why the army requires crew cuts.

Acoemeti

A group of monks who provided nonstop choral singing in the 5th century. They did it with a relay system -- every few hours, a fresh monk would replace the exhausted monk. I love this image, though I am glad I wasn't their neighbor. We're talking twenty-four-hour entertainment long before MTV went on the air. Quite possibly before Mick Jagger was born.

Addled Brain Syndrome

Okay, I made that up. There's no such thing as addled brain syndrome. But I'm definitely suffering from something. As I vacuum up this information hour after hour, I find myself so overwhelmed that I have to take frequent breaks to walk around the office. Walk it off, as my gym teachers used to say. You only sprained that brain. It's not a fracture. Walk it off, son.

The reading is much, much harder than I expected. But at the same time, in some ways, it's strangely easier. In some ways, it's the perfect book for someone like me, who grew up with Peter Gabriel videos, who has the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines. Each essay is a bite-sized nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman's lurking right around the corner (by the way, the mythical Snowman's footprints are actually produced by running bears). Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities.

The changes are so abrupt and relentless, you can't help but get mental whiplash. You go from depressing to uplifting, from tiny to cosmic, from ancient to modern. There's no segue, no local news anchor to tell you, "And now, on the lighter side." Just a little white space, and boom, you've switched from theology to worm behavior. But I don't mind. Bring on the whiplash -- the odder the juxtapositions, the better. That's the way reality is -- a bizarre, jumbled-up Cobb salad. I love seeing the prophet Abraham rub elbows with Karl Abraham, a German shrink who theorized about the anal expulsive and phallic stages.

Oh yes, that's another thing. Sex. This came as a pleasant surprise to me. The Britannica may not be Cinemax, but it's got its fair share of randiness. I've learned, for instance, that Eskimos swap wives. Plus, the Achagua men have three to four spouses and flowers in the Acanthaceae family are bisexual. Yowza! That's some racy stuff. Hot. Hotter than the Schwertbad-Quelle sulfur spring. I expected the Britannica to be prudish, but it seems quite happy to acknowledge the seamy world below the belt.

And speaking of titillating R-rated material, my God -- the violence! It's extraordinary how blood-soaked our history is. One Persian politician was strangled by servants, another suffocated in a steam bath. Or consider poor Peter Abelard, an 11th-century Christian theologian who, judging from his miniature portrait, looks a bit like Steve Buscemi. Abelard came up with some interesting ideas -- namely that deeds don't matter, only intentions; in other words, the road to heaven is paved with good intentions. But how can I give much deep thought to that idea when the entry also discusses Abelard's love affair with his student Heloise, which ended rather badly: Abelard suffered castration at the order of Heloise's outraged uncle. Sweet Jesus! I'm guessing Heloise didn't get asked on a whole lot of dates after that one.

Sex, violence, MTV pacing -- all this makes my quest much more palatable. But I don't mean to give the wrong idea. As I said, it's hard. Excruciatingly hard. First, the vastness of it. I knew there was an ocean of information out there. But I didn't really comprehend what I was up against until I started trying to drink that ocean cup by cup. I'll be reading about Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and I'll get a list of the seven different ethnicities that comprise that city: Gallas, Gurages, Hareris, Tigres, Walamos, Somalis, and Dorses. Should I even try to memorize those? Six ethnicities I could handle, but seven? That's daunting.

The Britannica is not a book you can skim. This is a book you have to hunch over and pay full attention to, like needlepoint or splinter removal. It hurts my poor little head. Until now, I didn't realize quite how out of shape my brain had become. It's just not accustomed to this kind of thinking. I feel like I'm making it run a triathlon in ninety-degree heat when it's used to sitting in a hammock drinking mojitos. The math and science parts of my brain have gone particularly flabby since college. At most, I have to calculate the number of subway rides I have remaining on my little electronic Metrocard. That rarely requires quadratic equations. At my job, the toughest science I've encountered was the time I had to edit a few sentences about Botox for men. So when I read about acid-base reactions with conjugate bases and nonaqueous solvents, I'm mystified. I generally read this type of stuff again and again and just hope it'll sink in. It's the same strategy that American tourists in Europe employ when confronted with a non-English-speaking store owner. Umbrella. Um-brella! Um-BREL-la! Say it often and loud enough, and it'll click. But I forge on.

Alcott, Bronson

The father of novelist Louisa May Alcott was famous in his own right. A radical reformer full of unorthodox ideas, he opened several schools for children. The schools had a particularly unusual discipline system: teachers received punishment at the hands of the offending pupil. The idea was that this would instill a sense of shame in the mind of the errant child. Now, this is a brilliant concept. I have a long list of teachers I wish I could have spanked, among them my fifth-grade instructor, Ms. Barker, who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale, which earned us a humiliating $1.53.

Alger, Horatio

I knew he was the 19th-century author of the famous rags-to-riches novels. I didn't know he turned to writing after being kicked out of a Massachusetts church for allegations of sexual misconduct with local boys. I told you -- the Britannica can be a gossip rag.

amethyst

One of my biggest challenges is figuring out how to shoehorn my newfound knowledge into conversations. Naturally, I want to show off, but I can't just start reeling off facts or I'll be as annoying as an Acarina, a type of mite that, incidentally, copulates by transferring little packets of sperm called spermatophores.

And since I've read only entries in the very early As, my new topics of expertise don't come up that often. You'd be surprised at how many days can go by without one of my friends mentioning aardvarks, much less aardwolves -- an African carnivore that the Britannica generously describes as "harmless and shy."

But today I had my first successful reference. Well, I don't know if it was actually successful. Okay, it was spectacularly unsuccessful. A total failu... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From AudioFile

The vehicle for the author's quest is the entire Encyclopedia Britannica--this is the story of how he plows through all 33,000 entries contained therein. Along the way, we glean a great deal about a great deal of things and by the end have learned far more about the author than about the topics in the EB. Narrator Geoffrey Cantor is really in an impossible position because he has to translate Jacobs's amusing anecdotes without slipping into obnoxiousness. He succeeds, for the most part, but, overall, his tone is too smart-alecky, as opposed to funny. Also, he tends to read too fast at times and has a tendency to swallow words and letters. R.I.G. © AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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