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.
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).
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.