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.
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 bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.