Major victory this week, guys. A book I’ve had on my shelf for no less than five years finally got read. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you buy books like I do—a ratio somewhere along the lines of three new acquisitions for every one completion—it’s nice to reassure myself that even though I may not get to that memoir I just had to buy until say, 2016, at least it will get read. Someday.
On to the disappointing news: A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All wasn’t exactly worth the wait. Which is to say that, shockingly, a book documenting one man’s mission to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica isn’t quite as riveting as you might think.
I have to admit, the concept intrigued me. Jacobs is (or at least was at the time of the book) an editor at Esquire, where he primarily focuses on pop culture news and the latest celebrity gossip. His goal with the Britannic: fill his brain with slightly more intellectual fare, and/or know everything there is to know and/or become the smartest person in the world. You know, the usual.
The problem with following someone’s journey to read 33,000 pages of arguably the world’s most trusted reference books, is that it’s not a hugely interesting journey. I’m sure Jacobs learned all kinds of fascinating things over the course of the year it took him to finish—indeed, he shares many of those factoids, with both the reader and with his wife, about whom he writes at length and whose tolerance of this particular endeavor I applaud. But not everything Jacobs reads is interesting, and so The Know-It-All follows the same trajectory as the Britannica itself: occasionally fascinating, occasionally boring and a little bit all over the place.
For his part, Jacobs tries his best to humanize the Britannica by pairing his learned factoids with the rest of his everyday life: discussing the entry on names while he and his wife pick out a moniker for their future child, sharing American history tidbits during a July 4 celebration, finding solace in an entry on the Holland Tunnel, which is decidedly less dangerous than he thought.
Nor does Jacobs solely document a year spent sitting on a couch reading. Whilst reading the Britannica, he also travels to Britannica headquarters, joins Mensa, interviews the founder of several high-IQ societies and is a contestant on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Yet somehow his anecdotes—undoubtedly an attempt to turn a rather isolating experience into something other people can appreciate—don’t quite manage to make his mission exciting. In fact, one of the central themes in Jacobs’ writing is how infrequently other people—his wife included—appreciate incessant sharing of interesting yet generally irrelevant facts.
Jacobs has written other books with similarly gimmicky themes: His first was an analysis of the similarities between Jesus and Elvis. More recently, he penned The Year of Living Biblically, in which he tries to adhere to the literal words of the Bible as closely as possible. (I repeat, the dude’s wife must be a saint.) I can’t say I’m not still mildly intrigued by Jacobs’ ideas; I’m just no longer sure he can pull off translating those personal adventures into books, as opposed to say, a particularly witty blog.
One thing The Know-It-All does do quite well is convey the breadth of the world’s available knowledge, something I actually think Wikipedia minimizes by virtue of being so accessible. After all, there’s a difference between looking something up when you need to know it, and setting out to learn everything there is to know.
Indeed, whether or not I loved the final product, I still have tremendous respect for Jacobs’ mission, which I would have probably given up on by about the letter B. The Know-It-All is also an easy enough book to read. Because Jacobs essentially jots down anecdotes as he goes through different Britannica entries, there are plenty of stopping places. In fact, The Know-It-All might make an adequate, if somewhat ironic, bathroom book (so might the Britannica itself, for that matter).
Unfortunately, one of the challenges of nonfiction is to be as compelling in truth as fiction is in …fiction. It’s this hurdle that Jacobs, for me at least (after all, from 280 reviews on Amazon, The Know-It-All does have four out of five stars) doesn’t quite overcome. The book increased my appreciation for knowledge, which I suppose is in part what Jacobs hoped to accomplish, but it didn’t increase my appreciation for A.J. Jacobs, which is probably something an author of several books wants to hear. But hey, I’ve always been a big fan of Esquire.
TITLE: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
AUTHOR: A.J. Jacobs
PAGES: 369 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Two Kings: Jesus and Elvis, The Year of Living Biblically
SORTA LIKE: Nickel and Dimed meets Wikipedia
FIRST LINE: “I know the name of Turkey’s leading avant-garde publication.”