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The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 21, 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 365 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.

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 Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (September 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743250605
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743250603
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (365 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #236,824 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jessica Lux on July 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book came highly recommended, but I was skeptical. Nerdy pointless trivia? Becoming the "smartest person in the world" by reading Brittanica? I was even skeptical about the format--an alphabetical tour through the encyclopedia, with starting entries on a-ak, a capella, Aachen, Aaron, etc. Fortunately, Jacobs is a very talented narrator, and he had me hooked in the first few pages. His method of detailing the journey from A to Z was very effective.

This isn't random repeated trivia, it's a very good memoir. We learn about Jacobs's career at Esquire, his relationship with his wife, their on-going fertility troubles, his playfully combative relationship with his brother-in-law, and his relationship with his dad and how dad shaped Jacobs as a person. All of this is intertwined with his journey through Brittanica, and I learned a lot on the way. Jacobs also spices up his quest for knowledge by taking a speed reading class, joining Mensa and attending a gathering, meeting Alex Trebek, and trying out for Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, among other things.

There is, of course, the requisite Brittanica trivia, but Jacobs weaves it all into a cohesive narrative. He points out how many people died of syphillus, the overshadowed siblings of famous people like Charles Darwin, the many occurences of cross-eyed people and those who had fetishes for them, the "good parts" and racy pictures in the Brittanica, and so on. I also learned about ths historical biases of the encyclopedia and how the machine that is the Brittanica works.

This book has mass appeal. I know I'll be loaning it out to my family, because Jacobs tells a story most anyone can relate to. I was sad when I got to the Z's and I had to part with this talented narrator.
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Format: Hardcover
AJ Jacobs may not have realized his book could be seen as redemptive, or life-affirming, but to me The Know-It-All is both. I purchased this book one week after losing my dearest friend, at far too young an age, to colon cancer. At the time I was grasping at straws in a mad attempt to find something that could distract me from my grief. Nothing else was working, frankly, and I was mired in unhappiness. I'd read a review of Jacobs' book a few weeks before, and the premise sounded intriguing. When I saw it hit the bookstore shelves I decided I'd give it a try. Imagine my surprise when I found myself riveted, and able to lose myself (and thus for a time forget my sorrow) completely. Then I found myself laughing at the self-deprecating humor, and before I knew it I began to feel a certain sense of inspiration and consolation in the whole sweep of human history, despite the occasional human foibles pointed out so perceptively by Jacobs. I'll never forget that this book, and this author, helped me through one of the darkest times in my life. This book may not be such a savior to everyone, but I can't see how anyone could read it and not be charmed and instructed. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I saw this book at the bookstore and after glancing through it, I knew I had to take it home. What a funny, fuuny book. Oh....... and very informative. I can't imagine anyone actually trying to read the whole encyclopedia, from A to Z. How boring, how daunting, how strange. But oh, how glad I am this author took on this task. Funny, funny book. I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count, and I kept wanting to share the entries as I was reading them, not just for the extra laughs, but for the really interesting tidbits the author chose to tell. Since I was alone in the house most of the time I was reading, and couldn't share anything I was reading, I went to Amazon and ordered a couple of copies for other people. I shouldn't be the only one to enjoy this book. Read this book and give one as a gift to someone you know. Well worth it.
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Format: Hardcover
AJ Jacobs wants to be a know-it-all, and sets out to re-educate himself by devouring 33,000 pages of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Keep in mind, these are big pages, with small type fonts. What was his motivation? Jacobs claims "by age 35 I had become embarrassingly ignorant." Don't we all feel that way, honestly? I tried reading the encyclodpaedia from A-Z once. I got to Aardvark and put it down to read Stephen King's "Shining." Now the Internet is around to serve our reference and research needs, so I haven't looked at an encyclopaedia for about 15 years. I'm not even sure I can spell encyclopaedia.

The book itself presents tidbits of information from A-Z, with commentary and anecdotes throughout. For example, in an early chapter, Jacobs writes "I know that Adam, of Bible fame, lived longer than the combined ages of the correspondents of 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II."

Jacobs is hilarious and may have missed his calling as a comedian. Can you imagine the effort it would take to read from A-Z in this encyclopaedia? He probably would have been better served to read the Great Classics collection instead.
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Format: Paperback
Although it's nice to learn select factoids from the Encyclopædia Britannica, the best part of the book is A.J. Jacobs' moments of know-it-allness. He drives his (trying to conceive - a cute side story) wife, family members, friends and acquaintances crazy, foisting his facts on them at opportune and inopportune times. His wife eventually starts fining him for factoid infractions. In addition to reading every word of every volume of the encyclopedia, he supplements his knowledge by getting involved with Mensa, interviewing know-it-alls like Alex Trebek, and participating in some of the activities required to publishing the volumes at the Britannica plant. The humor is laugh out loud funny at times, but you can have too much of a good thing. And even taking into account the book's silly slant, some may take issue with the commentating on some of the facts, notably (p 225) about Isaac Newton, of whom he writes, "...Newton was a complete nut job, the angriest and nastiest scientist in history," and "He also hated the German philospher Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz." For one thing, GWL was also a mathematician, and for another, the dislike was mutual and involved a dispute over which of the two was the legitimate inventor of calculus (Newton was first but didn't publish his findings, Leibniz invented it later, independently, and published). In general, the book is filled with lots of great trivia and is written in an easy to read, funny format. For more moments of laugh out loud humor, read Me Talk Pretty Some Day by David Sedaris. Great books on words: Author Unknown: Tales of a Literary Detective by Don Foster, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, and Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.
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