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The Know-It-All

DownloadedFile“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates

A.J. Jacobs, in his book, The Know-it-All makes it his quest to figure out how much he doesn’t know by filling his head with the 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He documented his journey through the 11 ½ months, through the 44 million words, across the country meeting various people each with a special connection to wisdom and knowledge. Starting with a-ak and reading until he reaches zywiec, Jacobs writes his commentary/narrative/pesher on the entries. The pages of his book are filled with his attempts to insert his wealth of information soaked up from the EB into his daily life…with hilarious consequences.

The most intriguing aspect of this book for me was the people who were tangential to his quest. His wife, for example, deserves our respect and some kind of reimbursement. It was her who listened to him read to their zygote, worried about him interacting with other people (70), put up with a different (and usually obscure) fertility god in their bedroom during their quest to get pregnant (152) [a quest that ran concurrent to his and was well documented in this book], was bombarded during daily life by his new knowledge (like how people kiss) (171), and had to begin introducing herself as an “encyclopedia widow.” (184) Julie, who would enact her revenge in the Year of Living Biblically, put up with cards on flowers that read: “These flowers are bisexual, but I am straight, and I love you.” (185) She put up with his sarcastic ideas (202), his use of an ancient dance (St Vitus’s dance from the 12th century) during a wedding dance (237), and his constant information sharing. She finally began to fine him a dollar for every worthless piece of information he spouted out (241). She makes me thankful for the women who have to put up with sometimes immature and excitable men and their quests (no matter how pointless they seem)! Thank you Tricia for your sacrifices for me.

Every few pages we are introduced to another character that makes his journey a little more interesting. There is his brother-in-law, Eric, champion of family games of Trivial Pursuit, pretentious corrector of facts, and Harvard grad, who missed his chance to become legendary after failing to help Jacobs, as his lifeline, on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. (355) Then there is Jacob’s father, who has authored multiple books about law, began to read the Encyclopedia through when Jacobs was young only to stop midway through, and lover of a good practical joke. Though most of his jokes are above most people’s heads it doesn’t get in the way of his passion. Though their relationship seems a little awkward, it all comes together as Jacob’s writes an entry for the encyclopedia about his father at the end (tear!) [364].   Then there are the chess guys (40), his phone book reading Mother-in-law (269), the editors of the Encyclopedia (336), liberal Aunt Marti from Berkley (345), and his overly intellectual 11 year old cousin who threatens Jacob’s with his intelligence (176).

This book was a treat to read. A.J.’s writing style makes every paragraph and page enjoyable. As he is recounting his journey, there is a certain amount of embarrassment and shame that I felt being as though I have never accomplished a feat of that magnitude, nor have I even attempted anything like that. I found his task to be inspiring. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone!


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