Book Review: The Know it All, by A.J. Jacobs
And I’m back!
I’m running just a little late with this entry- been busy lately, not reading as much as I’d like. It also doesn’t help that I’ve decided to give National Write A Novel Month a go (again), only to realize a few days in that my concept is more difficult than I thought it would be, and the resulting work is pretty terrible, and so I’m falling behind and will probably give up (again).
But, at least as a break, I can write something– which means another book review! In this case, it’s A.J. Jacobs’ The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.
Spoiler alert, he doesn’t.
The premise to the book is pretty simple. In 2003, A.J. Jacobs (a journalist for Esquire Magazine) decided he was going to read the Encyclopedia Britannica. All of it. He then condensed his experience into a book. Each chapter covers a letter, where Jacobs rotates between sharing random facts, pithy observations, and occasional glimpses into his own life.
Those last bits are where the book runs into a snag. As on the one hand, he has some legitimately interesting vingettes now and again. Jacobs meets Alex Trebek. He visits the Encyclopedia Britannica’s HQ in Chicago. He even gets on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but only manages to take home a thousand bucks.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other tangents Jacobs goes on are far less interesting. His failure on Who Wants to be a Millionaire is a culmination of a running theme where Jacobs thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is. He reads the Britannica entry on chess, and then gets schooled at a tournament. The same thing happens when he enters a crossword puzzle tournament (which is a thing, I guess?). Jacobs even manages to get himself into MENSA based on his SAT scores from when he was a kid, which is a good thing, as he bombs the actual MENSA test.
These stories are awkward, grating, and cringeworthy- which is a shame, as I would’ve enjoyed seeing a more level journalistic peek into a lot of these obscure, niche subcultures. Instead, Jacobs just comes off as somewhat whiny and entitled when he keeps running into people who are smarter than he is (which is often). These segments aren’t about the Encyclopedia Brittanica, so much as how much of a neurotic weirdo Jacobs is. And the worst part is the utter lack of self awareness, either intentional or contrived, that pervades the whole book. As I read, I kept thinking, “nobody could be this much of a twat for real, could they?” Well, here’s a random video. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Honestly, Jacobs’ general tone makes me wonder just how authentic his writing voice is. Given how obnoxious this comes off on the page, I can’t quite envision an actual person sounding like this. The guy reads like a Larry David character. Heck, the book’s premise itself sounds like an episode of Seinfeld. “You know, the one where Kramer reads the entire encyclopedia.” Funnily enough, Jacobs at least manages to run into someone more grating than he is; he has a nephew who gives out ‘grammar citation’ tickets whenever people say things incorrectly. Saying this as a huge nerd myself, it’s enough to make you wonder if there are some people who deserve to get stuffed into a locker now and then.
There’s a surprising undercurrent of classism in this book, too. I really should’ve caught it from the start, where Jacobs mentions buying the entire hardback set of the 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica for $1400. Big hardback books are expensive. I get it. Later on, Jacobs mentions little things like his parents second house in the Hamptons, or going with his wife to a wedding in Italy, or the fact that his grandfather once owned a share in a racehorse. To put it simply, Jacobs (or at least his family) is freaking loaded. This, combined with his utter lack of anything resembling self awareness, distances Jacobs from the reader. He’s not an everyman trying to better himself through education, he’s just a snooty, spoiled brat who tries (and fails) to feel better than other people. To be fair, there’s a lot of literary precedent for educated fools- but it’s a lot more interesting when Il Dottore (a Commedia Del’Arte archetype- and I didn’t even need to read about that in an Encyclopedia to make the reference!) has other characters to bounce off of. Having one of these “learned idiots” prattle on for a few hundred pages is a lot less fun.
Ultimately, Jacobs’ quest to read the entirety of the Encyclopedia Brittanica gets him facts, but no understanding. Then again, I’m kind of in the same boat as he is- I went into The Know it All wanting to read some non fiction, to cram some useful, interesting tidbits into my brain. I was at least able to pull a few interesting little nuggets out, but I probably would’ve been better off just randomly clicking through wikipedia until I found something really interesting.