Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs

Book Jacket

Part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), The Know-It-All chronicles NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs' hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.

To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education, A.J. Jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  His wife, Julie, tells him it's a waste of time, his friends believe he is losing his mind, and his father, a brilliant attorney who had once attempted the same feat and quite somewhere around Borneo, is encouraging but, shall we say, unconvinced.

With self-deprecating wit and a disarming frankness, The Know-It-All recounts the unexpected and comically disruptive effects Operation Encyclopedia has on every part of Jacobs' life--from his newly minted marriage to his complicated relationship with his father and the rest of his charmingly eccentric New York family to his day job as an editor at Esquire.  Jacobs' project tests the outer limits of his stamina and forces him to explore the real meaning of intelligence as he endeavors to join Mensa, win a spot on Jeopardy!, and absorb 33,000 pages of learning.  On his journey he stumbles upon some of the strangest, funniest, and most profound facts about every topic under the sun, all while battling fatigue, ridicule, and the paralyzing fear that attends his first real-life responsibility--the impending birth of his first child.

The Know-It-All is an ingenious, mightily entertaining memoir of one man's intellect, neuroses, and obsessions and a soul-searching, ultimately touching struggle between the all-consuming quest for factual knowledge and the undeniable gift of hard-won wisdom.


I'm officially a fan of Jacobs, and will read any books he writes on unusual life goals (see also my review of The Year of Living Biblically).  He is embarrassingly honest about his pride and his flaws, and he wrote a book about reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Anyone who can make that a page-turner is obviously a great writer.

I loved the setup, going alphabetically through the topics he read, sometimes offering bits of trivia, sometimes using a term to delve into his personal life.  I was impressed that his life lined up so neatly with his project--struggling to get pregnant with his wife, struggling to figure out his relationship with his father--both of these issues continually crop up throughout his journey, and by the end both relationships are a little better because of the project.

Reading the entire Encyclopedia is impressive, but it's even more amazing how Jacobs draws timeless wisdom from the random facts he learns.  A non-fiction funny, wise, interesting book about one guy's weird goal?  I'm so glad I read it.

Five out of five school field trips.

Release Date:  September 2004
Reading Level: Grade 9+
Where In Dunlap Public Library's Collection: Not currently part of Dunlap's collection.

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