Many of us who grew up in homes with the World Book Encyclopedia or even the more weighty Encyclopaedia Britannica have had fleeting thoughts of reading the whole set. In any sane person, those thoughts are very fleeting.
However, A. J. Jacobs, a New Yorker and an editor at Esquire magazine, did exactly that. He decided to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, in part to outdo his father, who tried it once and gave up. He had two other goals: (1) to become the smartest person in the world and (2) to write a book about his experience.
The product was The Know-it-All, subtitled “One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.” It is the chronicle of Jacobs’ decision to undertake the project and how it progressed. He weaves in a lot of information (from Britannica of course) on a vast array of topics, anecdotes about his personal life, and some ancillary adventures of a “know-it-all.” Interestingly, Jacobs organizes his narrative alphabetically-the order in which he read the entire 32 volumes and 33,000 pages of the printed and leatherette bound encyclopedia. Those pages contained 44 million words.
Although an unusual mixture of elements, The Know-it-All is thoroughly entertaining. I would not have thought that mixing up the saga of thirty-something infertility woes with semi-random facts about rocks, kings, poetry, and sundry stories of a neurotic childhood would prove to be a winning formula. Nevertheless, it is. His family members and friends are very exposed in this book, for better or worse, and his wife Julie is practically the co-star. It’s all written in a genial vein and probably did not lead to many lawsuits. (If it did, his family is amply supplied with lawyers to file those suits.)
The recurring, underlying theme of Jacobs’ narrative is his desire to be as smart as his brilliant father, who is a prolific and scholarly New York lawyer who completed degrees in engineering and business as well. Jacobs also discloses that when he was a child he thought for a while that he was the smartest boy in the world. Soon enough he learned otherwise. However, he continued to value intellectual gifts and accomplishments highly. After graduating from Brown University, A. J. pursued a career in journalism, initially at the non-weighty Entertainment Weekly, and then at Esquire. He says these positions did nothing to enhance his intellectual growth and may even have “dumbed down” his view of the world.
Thus he undertakes the intellectual stimulation of the Britannica project and, along the way, tests his newly expanded knowledge at Mensa meetings, with Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, and on the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show. He also takes a quickie course in speed reading and in memory. He visits his own high school (prep school) and observes how much he used to know. He regales his friends and associates with facts until his wife starts to fine him one dollar every time he offers up an irrelevant fact. He even visits the editorial staff of the Britannica in Chicago. (The original home of the EB was Edinburgh, Scotland, one of my favorite places on Earth.)
Eventually Jacobs and his wife are expecting and Jacobs makes it to the Z’s in the Encyclopaedia, about a year after he began. He knows that there is no “plot” to the story, which is brutally alphabetical, but the final entry-Zywiec, a town of 32,000 in south-central Poland known for its breweries-is amazingly anticlimactic. Nonetheless, he waxes philosophical about the net effect of all that information on his world view:
“I finally have faith that Homo sapiens-that bipedal mammal of the Chordata phylum with 1350 cubic centimeters of cranial capacity, a secondary palate, and a hundred thousand hairs per scalp-is a pretty good species. Yes, we have the capability to do horrible things…. But in the big sweep…we’ve redeemed ourselves with our accomplishments.” (p. 361)
He closes out the book by noting that now is the best time to be alive and he is excited to bring his future son into this era. Although that sounds a little pat and little sappy, it is credible. In the course of the book, Jacobs has revealed himself to be a little cynical, an empty half of the glass kind of guy, an introvert who is neurotic about germs and lot of other things. But he is nonetheless proud to be part of the human race that came up with “the Trevi Fountain, Scrabble in Braille, Dr. DeBakey’s artificial heart, and the touchtone phone.” (p. 361)
For anyone who likes to learn, has fantasies of winning at Trivial Pursuit, or enjoys perusing random articles in the World Book, this book is a must-read. It manages to be funny, poignant, and informative-a rare combination.
One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
By A. J. Jacobs
New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks
ISBN-10: 0-7432-5062-1 (paperback)
The book is available in hard cover, paperback, audiobook, and Kindle versions from amazon.com here. The version for Nook on the Barnes and Noble website is here.