A.J. Jacobs knew stuff. A lot of stuff. Especialy stuff about popculture, thanks to the reporting that he did for magazines like Entertainment Weekly. But he wanted to know more. So he decided to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.
Now, I’m a fan of encyclopedias. It’s not unusual for me to get sidetracked when I’m looking something up, only to forget what I was originally searching. But I admit to steering clear of the Britannica. It’s got tiny print and thin pages and is very, very thorough. So I was particularly taken with the idea of someone devoting the time it would take to read the whole thing.
Jacobs arranges the book with alphabetical chapters and gives us highlights of what he’s read. An ongoing theme through the book is his fear that he won’t retain any of what he has learned. I can sympathize with that; with all the fascinating tidbits of information he includes in his book, the only one that stuck with me was that Rene Descartes liked cross-eyed women. Not exactly the sort of information that will make me a dynamo on a trivia team.
Ultimately, though, The Know-It-All isn’t about knowing it all, but knowing all about yourself. During this year-long journey through the encyclopedia, Jacobs also explores, among other things, his relationship with his father, his desire to be a father himself, and a quest to define what “smart” really means. Jacobs is a funny man and I delight in his curiosity. But what I truly loved about the book and about Jacobs, is that after a monumental achievement like reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, the next thing he’s looking forward to is having dinner with his wife. Jacobs juxtaposes grand achievements and dismal failures, both contemporary and historical, and concludes that these are not necessarily the things from which great lives are made.