In his A Short History of Nearly Everything, the always affable Bill Bryson proved that you don’t need to be a fact geek to enjoy reading about facts. That book was an enjoyable romp from the past to the present and it was with that in mind that I picked up A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All (One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) from the library.
Jacobs is a senior editor of Esquire magazine, and through some kind of epiphany regarding the decline of his intellect as a result of working in mainstream journalism, he made it his mission to acquire all the knowledge in the world – or at least as much of it as is contained in the world’s most eminent publication, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Sadly, it’s bad news from there onwards. He goes through the encyclopedia, picking out random entries to comment on, occasionally interspersed with a running commentary about his experiences trying to apply his project to real life, such as joining Mensa and going on Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire. The jokes are sometimes quite funny, and I frequently found myself doing the same thing as the author, which is to bug my wife with the odd factoids that I got from reading during inopportune moments.
The endless deluge of facts though, however amusingly rendered, made the book a tedious read at times since not every single one of them tickled my fancy as it did the author’s. I like to think that I have a pretty broad sense of humour, but sometimes he tries a little bit too hard and ends up with a head-scratcher, e.g.
Mormons were the first settlers. Not sure Joseph Smith would approve fo today’s topless showgirls and liquor. Though he would like the volcano at the Mirage. Everybody likes the volcano.
Jacobs also manages to sneak in a good chunk of autobiography, particularly the recurring theme of him and his wife’s attempts at trying to conceive. The way in which he slots these into the rigid alphabetic order of the entries is sometimes deft, but more often ham fisted. “Paris” gets 6 lines, but “character writer” gets almost 4 pages, and Matthew Perry (no, not Chandler from Friends) gets 4.5 because he spends almost the entire entry talking about his attempt to get onto Millionaire.
Know-It-All wasn’t my first preference of Jacobs’s books. He did a follow-up book called The Year of Living Biblically (One man’s humble quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible), the premise of which I thought might be amusing, but this one just happened to be on the shelf when Jenny and I went there to pick up some DVDs. Given his lacklustre performance I’m slightly less keen to pick it up now.
Buy The Know-It-All, by A.J. Jacobs… or don’t, and get A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson instead.