Sick Of It All

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World is the title of a book by Esquire editor A. J. Jacobs, published in 2004.

It recounts his experience of reading the entire Encyclopædia Britannica; all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition, extending to over 33,000 pages with some 44 million words. He set out on this endeavour to become the "smartest person in the world". The book is organized alphabetically in encyclopedia format and recounts both interesting facts from the encyclopedia and the author's experiences. It is a light-hearted book, with the author combining his sarcastic wit with odd-ball trivia in everyday experiences.

Reviews

The satirist P.J. O'Rourke said of it: "The Know-It-All is a terrific book. It's a lot shorter than the encyclopedia, and funnier, and you'll remember more of it. Plus, if it falls off the shelf onto your head, you'll live."

In addition to the generally positive reviews, there was one particularly harsh review, published by Joe Queenan in The New York Times Book Review, in which Queenan attacks Jacobs. The review sparked a brief controversy, causing New York Times readers to write letters in defense of Jacobs and his book. Jacobs himself responded in a Times rebuttal (published February 13, 2005), pointing out that "the ridiculously hyperbolic subtitle might have been a tip-off" of the book's ironic tone that must have been missed by Queenan. Jacobs's response to Queenan's review — though expressing hurt feelings, bewilderment toward Queenan's outrage, and the opinion that Queenan had become journalism's version of a schoolyard bully — is written in a humorous tone just as the book itself is (See New York Times, February 13, 2005).

Similar feats

A.J. Jacobs was not the first to read the entire Britannica. The earliest recorded example was Fath Ali, who upon becoming the Shah of Persia in 1797, was given a gift of the 3rd edition of the Britannica. After reading all of its 18 volumes, the Shah extended his royal title to include "Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica". Roughly a century later, Amos Urban Shirk, an American businessman, read the entire 23-volume 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica over a period of four years. He then went on to read the entire 14th edition, spending on average three hours per night. Isaac Asimov, Dr. Michael DeBakey, Richard Feynman, C. S. Forester and George Bernard Shaw also read the entire Britannica.

For a fictional example, see The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a man is hired to copy out the Britannica by hand - for no other reason (at least apparently) than his red hair.

In 2008, Ammon Shea published his account of reading the complete Oxford English Dictionary.

Bibliography

References

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