Book Review: The Know-It-All

The Know-It-All:  One Man’s Humble Quest To Become The Smartest Person In The World, by A.J. Jacobs

As a lonely and socially maladjusted child, I would find frequent enjoyment in reading encyclopedias, and from time to time I still do even now [1].  My fondness for such books did not endear me to my peers, who thought me decidedly an odd bird, as if they did not have enough reason to think me so.  The author of this book embarked on a quest to read the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica and wrote about it, and my feelings about this book and its author are highly mixed.  Let’s get some obvious issues out of the way first–the author is an extremely neurotic and agnostic New York Jew and his writing demonstrates him to be almost a self-caricature of his background, something I found immensely irritating but that some readers may find endearing.  Though I am by no means deficient in the area of my own neuroses, I thought the author’s approach to his quixotic quest to be off-putting.  This is the sort of book which requires a certain sympathy for the author and his emotional and mental state that I simply struggled to maintain.  It was like reading the script to an overlong director’s cut of a lesser Woody Allen film, and that is not the most enjoyable way for me to spend my time.

The book is organized in a fashion that is both chronological and topically, as the author takes the Encyclopedia Britannica in alphabetical order by volume, organizes the book in chapters under each letter of the alphabet, and proceeds to mix his discussions about the materials he reads about with discussions about his personal life and family background.  In this more than 350 page book we read way too much information about the author’s efforts to get his wife pregnant, his ambivalent relationship with his emotionally distant father, and his efforts to engage with fellow Mensans and earn plenty of money on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, as well as talk about his love of the encyclopedia with others.  The best parts of this book are the author’s generally warm portrayals of the people he meets and the material he reads, and the worst parts of the book are when the author writes about himself in true naval-gazing oversharing fashion.  Fortunately, there is enough of the best parts of this book to make the worst parts tolerable.

I found this book on a list of books that were recommended to recent graduates, and although it makes sense why someone would associate this book with the acquisition of knowledge, it makes why people think that many others would like to read this book.  This is the sort of book that is only funny if you like laughing at the bumbling author/narrator, and he is far too close a target to me for me to respond with ridicule.  Given the generally superficial and selective nature of encyclopedias, the futile nature of the author’s attempts are fairly obvious–he reads more than he can remember or understand, and what he reads is only a tiny amount of the knowledge that exists.  His attempt is thus entirely worthless, for even if he has chosen an ambitious task in reading the entire printed version of the EB, there is still a great deal of knowledge that he cannot even conceive of, much less acquire and retain.  Is that sort of dispiriting view of knowledge and intelligence as the mere possession of facts without the ability to do anything useful with them the sort of encouragement we wish to give young people?  That does not seem like something the smartest person in any room would want to do.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/04/22/book-review-angry-birds-star-wars-character-encyclopedia/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/03/21/today-in-history-on-march-15-2012-the-encyclopedia-britannica-went-out-of-print/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/27/a-walking-encyclopedia/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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