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The Know-It-All 149

SDurham writes "Americans love trivia. From the bookish facts of Jeopardy! to the daily dose of ESPN Sportscenter, trivia is as much a part of our pop culture as hot rods or baseball. Few sources contain as much fact (or trivia) as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs chronicles his attempt to read this collection of knowledge. At 33,000 pages, Jacobs' task is not one to be taken lightly. Jacobs manages not only to complete this challenge, but to weave an engaging account of his year-long obsession in Know-It-All." Read on for Durham's review.
The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
author A. J. Jacobs
pages 369
publisher Simon & Schuster
rating 7
reviewer SDurham
ISBN 0743250605
summary An account of a single-minded approach to mind expansion.

Jacobs is certainly suited to his task. A former editor at Entertainment Weekly and now a senior editor at Esquire, Jacobs' day-to-day work brings him into contact with a variety of American obsessions. After the first few chapters, however, it becomes clear that this is more than an account of consuming such a massive amount of information. The book is divided into chapters based on each section of the Britannica, and Jacobs' tale unfolds under headings that link his reflections to related Britannica entries. These reflections begin to reveal several themes that emerge throughout the book: Jacobs' struggle to match, or at least come to terms with, his father's accomplishments, the ongoing attempts of Jacobs and his wife to become parents, and the nature of intelligence and intelligent people.

Know-It-All reads easily, and Jacobs has a knack for humorous writing. Throughout the book Jacobs encounters a wide array of interesting, if not mildly eccentric, individuals. From Mensa members to the actual editors of the Britannica, Jacobs successfully humanizes many people normally viewed as stiff or uncharismatic. He tries to glean bits of wisdom as he goes, and these encounters best transmit Jacobs' message.

One recurring character in Jacobs' life often appears as his nemesis. Jacobs' brother-in-law Eric is described as a thoroughly knowledgeable Mr. Perfect, whose career -- from an Ivy League education to the U.S. Foreign Service to Wall Street -- constantly antagonizes Jacobs in some small way. With his newly acquired Britannica knowledge, Jacobs searches for ways to finally one-up Eric.

In one early encounter, he tries to apply what he has learned about aerodynamics in a tennis match against Eric. These encounters rarely end as Jacobs hopes, but they almost always provide humorous interludes between Jacobs' more serious discussions about the Britannica and its contents. This is not an overly serious book, however; Jacobs manages to infuse his humor into almost every entry in the book.

One theme within Know-It-All that is more serious in tone follows Jacobs and his wife's attempt to become parents. Even in this area of Jacobs' life he tries to apply his rapidly growing Britannica knowledge. Jacobs notices a plethora of fertility gods and goddesses as he reads through each volume, and the couple adopts a new one each week as a sponsor. Julie, Jacobs wife, describes herself as a 'Britannica widow' during Jacobs' project because of the hours he spends reading. It is in Julie that Know-It-All becomes a successful book. While readers may scoff at Jacobs' neglect of his wife (as he portrays it) during his project, the relationship between the two raises Know-It-All above a simple intellectual pursuit.

A surprising number of typographical errors are scattered through the book. Surprising, because Jacobs is an editor, and the book is clearly meant to appeal to an inquisitive, intelligent audience. These errors do little to detract from the overall experience of Know-It-All, however, and it is a solid, worthwhile read. For anyone who finds himself answering TV trivia questions in his head, or enjoys browsing through all sections of a bookstore, this book is a fun weekend read.

You can purchase The Know It All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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The Know-It-All

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  • But... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ariane 6 ( 248505 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:33PM (#11436827)
    Does it say "Don't Panic" in big, friendly letters on the cover?
    • Re:But... (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Yeah... I finished the Encylopedia Galactica in a year, only to discover that my knowledge was out of date because the universe by then had been replaced by something infinitely more complex and inscrutable. Apparently, some fool went and Figured It All Out.

      Someone is going to be introduced to the business end of my towel.
  • by CypherXero ( 798440 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:35PM (#11436848) Homepage
    I used to know it all, and then I hit my head on a SPARC system.
  • As an editor... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:36PM (#11436862)
    A surprising number of typographical errors are scattered through the book. Surprising, because Jacobs is an editor, and the book is clearly meant to appeal to an inquisitive, intelligent audience.
    As an editor, I'll point out that while I can, and do, readily spot the typographical errors of others, I often completely overlook my own.

    I've always attributed it to the fact that when I read my own writing, I'm more likely to simply remember what I meant as I go along than take in new information, whereas when I read the work of others I don't have what was meant already in my head.
    • Just out of curiosity do you have any particular techniques that you use to try and limit this? I also foudn I make many errors and then never catch them...probably as you suggest because when I re-read them I know what I wanted to say.

      • Re:As an editor... (Score:5, Informative)

        by iocat ( 572367 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @07:37PM (#11437407) Homepage Journal
        Read out loud (softly -- otherwise people will think you're a moron) and say every single word. As an editor, that's what I had to do when editing my own stuff. It's very slow, but you quickly realize just how many of your own errors you'd otherwise skip over.
      • Re:As an editor... (Score:3, Interesting)

        by forkazoo ( 138186 )
        When I am able, I try to read things backwards. My brain doesn't remember the flow of the words that way, and will examine each word individually, and I go, "wait, I don't remember using the word fiend on that page..." Everybody's brain works different, so some experimentation with how you read is the best way to find what works for you. foudn.
        • I'll second this. Everyone in my elementary school was required to proofread anyone's work by reading backwords word by word. It works for me on my own work as well.
      • Just out of curiosity do you have any particular techniques that you use to try and limit this? I also foudn I make many errors and then never catch them...probably as you suggest because when I re-read them I know what I wanted to say.

        Best solution: get someone else to read it, preferably who hasn't seen it in an earlier form. Otherwise, wait at least a few days after writing it before checking it yourself. (Aside from errors, repetitiveness is the most common bug.) And for God's sake, use the spellcheck

    • Read it backwards... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by HaeMaker ( 221642 )
      I had this problem too. A friend of mine, who attended journalism school, advised me to proofread a paper backwards to find errors. That way, you do not get caught up in the flow of the writing, and miss the errors.
    • Re:As an editor... (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      a former roommate would use some mac program (simpletext?) to speak papers to him as a final method of proofreading.
    • Do you do all your writing in longhand? Otherwise, there's a "spell check" option in your word processor...using it generally eliminiates misspellings.

    • Prior to the advent of ubiquitous spell-checking, I found it effective to read my own work backwards in a search for typos.

      Even a sentence at a time, reading backwards would dissociate me from the content enough that I would catch things I missed having read it forward several times...
    • I'm not doubting your claim, but personally I've found that I'm somewhat likely to miss others' errors as my mind seems to do error correction in hardware (or something...).

      When I write, however, I rarely make mistakes that survive longer than a few seconds - I virtually always catch them immediately. Has anyone else noticed the same tendency?

      P.S. and slightly off topic: I used to be able to spell any word instantly, but am now sometimes confused just because I've seen the wrong spelling on the internet

    • That's a well known "problem".

      And why you should have proofreaders for your books. :-)
    • I'm no editor, but I do TA and mark undergrad papers, and I think you're spot on. I've handed in papers before that have had typos and ambiguous sentences in them, even after proofreading, but when I mark I catch everything. When you read your own stuff, you really are reconstructing it -- memory is doing half the work.

    • I often completely overlook my own.

      "Fresh eyes" is a concept used in process plant design which means that a similarly experienced and knowledgeable (but independant) designer will pick apart each feature and poke holes. Now, with 3D modelling and CAD we don't have to do this anymore since everything's perfect from the get go.
  • by gaber1187 ( 681071 ) * on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:38PM (#11436880)
    This guy is pretty funny actually. I saw him on cspan bookTV talking about his book... he is pretty nerdy sounding, but also pretty smart...

    I definitely don't think reading the encylopedia set makes you smart, but I think it does make you knowledgeable in history and art because those areas often are more related to memorizing facts rather than building upon one equation after another. As such most technical areas of the EB are pretty simplistic and often a little out of date...

  • what? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    So this guy reads books, and writes a book about it? Maybe I need to write a book about the hours I spend reading /.
  • Good guy (Score:3, Informative)

    by MSG ( 12810 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:43PM (#11436926)
    We bring authors to RealNetworks from time to time, and I had the chance to meet Mr. Jacobs a short while ago. He was running a few minutes late (he was supposed to talk at noon), and tried to excuse himself by explaining that they used to adjust hours according to the day so that an hour was shorter during shorter days of the year. That's a good anecdote, but I pointed out that noon would be at the same time anyway.

    We all had a laugh. I haven't read the book yet, but I may at some point. He's an interesting guy.
  • by Exluddite ( 851324 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:43PM (#11436929)
    "I'll take people with way too much time on their hands for 1000 please, Alex."
  • by hitchhacker ( 122525 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:43PM (#11436931) Homepage

    wikitrivia anyone?

  • a.k.a. "Anonymous Coward."
  • by grub ( 11606 ) <> on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:44PM (#11436942) Homepage Journal

    Does he know the identity of the guy? No? Then he doesn't know everything.
  • Question (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    This brings up an interesting question. Does Intelligence increase wisdom? or do they work independently from each other? I have met many people who were "Know it all" people, but lacked the wisdom to direct their knowledge or focus their minds.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Reading 33,000 pages in a year means 90.41 pages each day. This is hardly a monumental feat; I know several people who regularly read over a hundred pages per day.
    • yeah... but can you imagine reading 90.41 pages a day out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica? It'd be tough for me to do that anyways, even though I read well over that on most days.
    • But, I presume, he tried to remember all of the details from it. I doubt that these people whom you know could, after reading at that rate for 33,000 pages could tell you all of the things that happened in what they read.
    • Reading 33,000 pages in a year means 90.41 pages each day. This is hardly a monumental feat; I know several people who regularly read over a hundred pages per day.
      Yes, but there is not plot, unless it's: God did it.
      • When I was even much younger than you whelps, I decided to read 3 books a day - sometimes more. My total books read now exceed 20,000 - some folks say it has done nothing more than made me an extremely annoying person.

        But - I have also traveled widely, taken a few dozen odd jobs, spent eight years as an artist, twenty years in IT, and am a proud father. I enjoy helping people, and the vast knowledge available in books has helped me in this.

        Of course, sometimes I refer to myself as a "vast land mine of use
      • Yes, but there is not plot, unless it's:
        God did it.

        That'd be the Creationist Britannica. One page long, all you need to know!

        Evolution is just a silly atheists' theory, dinosaurs chased Adam & Eve out of Eden, and vote for Bush because homosexuals are evil.

        See, I'm the smartest man in the bible belt already!

  • Similar Goal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pentrant ( 700080 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @06:47PM (#11436975)
    I've actually set out to do something similar, albeit with somewhat different methods. As a New Year's Resolution, I promised to read a book every month on a subject I knew little about, in addition to the normal sci-fi and computer science related reading I tend towards.

    For the month of January, I've nearly finished a commentated version of Sun Tzu's Art of War, and have found that it has helped me gain new insight into a few situations, insight that would never have occured to me prior to starting this project.

    Becoming the master of one trade/knowledge area is a great goal, but I've found enjoyment in just the little branching out I've done. Bravo to this guy for daring to reach out and learn new things... it certainly keeps life interesting!
    • My New Year's resolution was to read my quote book, "20,000 Quips & Quotes" by Even Esar. I've always been one to enjoy Harper's Index [] rather than read the daily news.
    • I tried doing this with the electronic version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was planning to do this over about 20 years. I got as far as "ac".

      More interesting at least for me is reading a range of books. Taking the list of 101 interesting books from, "The Readers Guide to Good Literature" seems to me to be a more interesting project.

    • Mine was to read the dictionary, but it was too wordy. Then I tried the phone book: Lots of characters, but not much of a plot.
  • Is he going to destroy the entire universe? Does anybody have a quantum bomb handy to send this guy into an alternate universe before he can carry out his evil giant brain plan?
  • I tried reading that book and returned it to the library owing dollars in late fines, having finished 1/5 of the story... I suppose it was entertaining. But, I'd rather read the Britannica. I'm sure it's like sports... Spectator vs. Participant. I don't like watching. Besides, Jacobs probably wouldn't read his book either.
  • Very nice review! I might just have to get this book (when I finish reading all the other books on my list :/).
  • When I was about six or seven my parents purchased a set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Seemed to be the thing to do back then for parents that wanted their kids to do well in school, and of course it looked real impressive on the bookshelves in the living room (like all my O'Reilly books over my desk at work). I decided that I was going to learn everything there was to know so I started to read the first volume with the goal of reading the entire encyclopedia (and the annual Book of the Year update!).
    • Really? Well-written Wikipedia articles captivate my attention, because there's a lot of interesting stuff out there.

      Did You Know that Robert Heinlein invented the waterbed []? He never built or patented it, but because of the descriptions he wrote in his books, an attempted patent on the design was turned down due to the existence of prior art [].

      Did You Know of the Boston Molasses Disaster []? A tank of molasses exploded, sending a Crushing Molasses Wave traveling at about thirty-five miles an hour, and peaking
  • If you did set out to read encyclopedia britannica, how much of the information could you actually retain. I'm sure 75% of the subjects discussed are boring to any one person. Especially in trying to read it in a year. You'd probably have to devote 4 or 5 hours a day to it.
  • I did this 20 years ago with a set of encyclopedias called "Our Wonderful World". Anybody remember those? It was about 2/3 the shelf length of EB, with entries in no particular order and plenty of pictures. Took me three years to read them, but they definitely made me a know-it-all. So, when I say I've forgotten more than most of you guys know, I'm serious.
  • by dmccarty ( 152630 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @07:19PM (#11437236)
    I got the book for a Christmas gift. It's a cute book from the parts that I've read, but I'll be taking it back for something a little more interesting.

    The book is actually an executive overview of the EB, and each snippet is interwoven with his experiences in that point of his life. Some parts are hilarious, but it's not much deeper than a casual read.

    FWIW, of course. YMMV.

  • Good book. . . (Score:4, Informative)

    by jhobbs ( 659809 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @07:21PM (#11437254)
    I read this book last fall. It is a good book with a humorous take on trivia and some dime store psychology about its possible relationship with intelligence.

    The book is also a very indepth analysis of the author's own personal neuroses.

    Actually, that is the reason I keep hiding the book from my partner. I also consider a eventful evening a trip from the sofa to the fridge. I certainly don't need to offer up any amunition to my partner.

    All in all, it is a take on information overload, and those people who belive that simply knowing a lot means they are intelligent.

  • This page lets you read Wikipedia pages in order []. With over 450,000 articles and over 150 million words, this is a monster! Even Slashdot []'s inside!
  • Wouldn't it be easier to build a computer intertwined with our brains directly linked to an all-knowing database? :)
  • Yeah, this bugs me (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Friday January 21, 2005 @07:32PM (#11437363)
    Sometimes people who meet me think I'm an asshole because I like to quote random facts. They think I'm trying to "show off" how smart I am.

    First of all, knowing a bunch of facts is not equivalent to being smart. Second of all, I am not doing it to impress you, I'm doing it because I like random facts and I want to share something with you that I enjoy. Every once in a while, I encounter somebody else who also knows a bunch of random stuff, and we end up having really fun conversations.

    People also seem to think it's magic. It isn't magic, it's about reading stuff. When I was little, when I was in the bathroom I would read the ingredient lists off the back of shampoo bottles. Did you know that most shampoos contain a compound called methylchloroisothiazolinone? I have no idea what it is, but I remember how to spell it :-)

    My mom bought me a periodic table placemat. I stared at that thing every morning while eating my cereal for two years. Now I know every chemical element by name, symbol, and atomic number. I'm no genius, I just stared at a placemat for hours.

    • I think I know what you mean, but I also know people who spout off random facts-- and sometimes it can annoy me to no end. Perhaps you do like sharing knowledge; just be sure that others enjoy HEARING random knowledge... Some of us enjoy being blissfully ingorant!
    • Methylchloroisothiazolinone (5-chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolinon-3-one) is a preservative with antibacterial and antifungal effects, it is effective against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, yeast and fungi.

      It is found in many water-based personal care products and cosmetics. It is also used in glue production, detergents, paints, fuels and other industrial processes. Methylchloroisothiazolinone is known by the registered tradename Kathon CG when used in combination with methylisothiazolinone.

      It ca
    • I do the same thing, though I'll admit to not knowing the long, sordid tale of methylthatthingy that you tell above. I learned the elements' symbols and names from this little quiz program that came in the games/ directory of my dad's old SCO server in his office. (I can't sing the Tom Lehrer song, though)

      I end up apologizing for slipping "big words" into conversation, though they're not really big, and I couldn't "give you a big word" off the top of my head, I only notice when people get on my case about
    • Do you also happen to be the author of this book? [] :P
  • I'm still working on reading every article in the English Wikipedia [], all 450,000 [] of them. When I'm done, I'll make sure to write a book and alert Slashdot, assuming it's still around a few centuries from now.
  • I thought maybe this book was about the typical Slashdot reader, or maybe Alex Trebeck, or perhaps Al Gore or John Kerry, people that claim themselves to be know-it-alls?
  • After reading part of the encyclopedia jacobs quiped, "the letter l really sucks"......
  • From the bookish facts of Jeopardy! to the daily dose of ESPN Sportscenter, trivia is as much a part of our pop culture as hot rods or baseball.

    Trivia is probably more prominant in our pop culture than baseball. As far as I know, Jeopardy has never gone on strike.

  • Americans love trivia. From the bookish facts of Jeopardy! to the daily dose of ESPN Sportscenter, trivia is as much a part of our pop culture as hot rods or baseball.

    The UK population is even more keen on trivia, sometimes with dramatic consequences, according to this BBC news report [].

    Try Nuggets [], our automatic SMS question answering service. Now free all across the UK (please do not use to cheat in pub quizzes).

  • Does he correct for all those errors [] in real-time too?
  • "Americans love trivia. From the bookish facts of Jeopardy! to the daily dose of ESPN Sportscenter, trivia is as much a part of our pop culture as hot rods or baseball."

    From the wannabe-clever dept. :
    Quiz shows are history. Now it's all reality tv, baby.

    From the bush-hating-rest-of-the-world dept. :
    How can a nation that knows so little claim to love trivia?

"I think trash is the most important manifestation of culture we have in my lifetime." - Johnny Legend