THE KNOW-IT-ALL by A.J. Jacobs Will Make You Smarter


Sometimes you wonder what people think of you when they give you certain gifts.  Last Christmas, I received a paperback book called THE KNOW-IT-ALL by A.J. Jacobs.  It was originally published in 2004, but I had never heard of it.  At first glance of the title, I pondered whether the giver of said book was trying to tell me something.  I deplore Know-It-Alls.  Is there anything more annoying than someone who believes that have reached the limits of knowledge and wisdom?   There are, in fact, no such things as Know-It-Alls.  Only people who think they are.  So when I sat down and unwrapped THE KNOW-IT-ALL, it stung a little.   Was this my friend’s subtle way of holding a mirror up to me, gazing at my own reflection as if it was, as Norman Mailer once wrote, “a stranger’s art”?  Was I obnoxiously a Know-It-All, but paradoxically, didn’t know it?  But then I looked at the little card that accompanied the book and it read simply: “You’re the curious type.  You might like this book.  Merry Christmas”.     

Curiosity is how it usually starts.  It happened back in March of 1626, north of London.  Francis Bacon, the 17th Century intellectual who was known as a philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, and author, was riding along in his horse and carriage when curiosity struck him.  Out of the blue, Bacon decided he needed to know whether snow can delay putrefaction.  He abruptly asked his driver to stop the carriage near the market, hopped out to buy a chicken, and stuffed it with snow.  Unfortunately, this caused him to be seized with an uncontrollable chill, which brought on bronchitis, and he soon died after at the Earle of Arundel's house.   

Francis Bacon

A.J. Jacobs considers this a noble anecdote because he believes Bacon's fate parallels his own journey in writing THE KNOW-IT-ALL.   The book documents Jacobs' seemingly impossible and tedious quest to read all thirty-two volumes of THE ENCYLOPADEDIA BRITANNICA.   Minus the death part, Jacobs, like Bacon, had made sacrifices in his quest for knowledge.  He was on the verge of losing half of his friends because he isolated himself to read, annoyed his wife with this new strange obsession, and pretty much stopped absorbing other forms of media.  To pop culture junkies, the name A.J. Jacobs may be a familiar one.  He was a writer for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine and had interviewed everyone from N’Sync to Jennifer Aniston.  During his stint at EW, he crammed his cranium with popular culture jetsam, which in his words, pushed out anything profound and began his long slide into dumbness.  He ended up talking confidently about the doughnut eating Homer, but forgot everything about the blind guy who wrote long poems.  He stopped reading everything except tabloid gossip columns and is a bit ashamed to admit to owning a “well-thumbed copy of Marilu Henner’s autobiography.”  Jacobs was once a guy with an expensive college education (Brown) and took D.H. Lawrence novels on vacation, but quickly became someone whose mental capacity was used to name off all of Britney Spears albums in chronological order.  It was his job at ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that inspired him to take on this mission of tackling all the BRITANNICAS.   THE KNOW-IT-ALL is his journey in finding the former, smarter A.J. Jacobs.

The book is structured like an encyclopedia, from topics ranging from A – Z.  Each topic, starting the book off with “a-ak” (ancient East Asian music) and ending with Zywiec (a town in South-Central Poland known for the 16th Century sculpture THE DORMANT VIRGIN), also parallels Jacobs reading of all thirty-two volumes. Each entry became anecdotal to Jacobs’ life.  In some ways, not only is THE KNOW-IT-ALL a fact-filled read bursting with trivia and information, but also a semi-autobiography.  For instance, in the entry of “Coffee” (which was discovered, according to legend, when a goatherd noticed his flock acting strangely after eating the beans), Jacobs admits to needing more of it as he had majorly bungled an editing job at ESQUIRE magazine where he had to clean-up an article by a super-model giving advice to men.  He had botched the editing job so much that when the piece was published, the model was hit with a barrage of angry emails and letters from the Bulgarian community offended by a particular line he had added but forgot to get the model to approve first.  Jacobs then goes on to humorously compare the situation to another Britannica entry, “James Challis”, the British astronomer who is famous in history for his failure to discover the planet Neptune.   


Upon first impression, you would think THE KNOW-IT-ALL, subtitled ONE MAN’S HUMBLE QUEST TO BECOME THE SMARTEST PERSON, would be a dry and heady read.  But Jacobs’ honest and vulnerable style charms us along his quixotic journey to absorb all 33,000 pages of the encyclopedia set.  What could have easily come off as a pompous gimmick, ends up being an endearing and inspiring act of genius.  THE KNOW-IT-ALL won’t make you a Know-It-All, but if you retain even just 10% of it, it’ll make you smarter.   


Mike Le is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles.  He is also the creator of the webcomic DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR PARKING.

You can follow Mike Le on Twitter @DFTVYP.

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