Published Online: December 27, 2004
Published in Print: January 1, 2005, as BOOKS
Book Review

Book Review: The Know-It-All

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The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster, 386 pages, $25)

A few years ago, Jacobs, a senior editor at Esquire magazine, decided to read all 44 million words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Why he decided to do so isn’t exactly clear, but the premise, from an educational standpoint, is intriguing. One imagines that after he finished, Jacobs would have something profound to say about the attempt to survey, in truncated form, all of history, science, math, and literature—as teachers, on a smaller scale, are sometimes required to do.

But it quickly becomes clear that Jacobs’ task is more like a prolonged publicity stunt, as befits someone who once was an editor at Entertainment Weekly. It also permits him to toss off lots of semi-cute lines, like “Reading the Britannica is like channel surfing on a very highbrow cable system, one with no shortage of shows about Sumerian cities.”

Although Jacobs reads from “a-ak” to “Zywiec,” he seems to have learned little in between, despite claims to the contrary. He realizes, for instance, that a lot of bad people have done very bad things over the course of history and that memory is far from reliable. (He quickly begins to forget facts and figures shortly after he’s read about them.) Jacobs, we learn, went to a fancy prep school in Manhattan and then to college at Brown University. This information leads me to a question many readers may likely ask: What was he doing instead of going to class?

—David Ruenzel

Vol. 16, Issue 04, Page 41

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