The Know-it-all: One Man’s Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs

Cathy BelbenGood Reads For Writers

Reviewed by Cathy Belben

Writer A.J. Jacobs discovers early in his wise and witty journey through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) that “the Britannica is not a book you can skim. This is a book that you have to pay full attention to, like needlepoint or splinter removal…The reading is much, much harder than I expected.”


What happens to someone when they read the EB in its entirety? Jacobs finds that random conversations trigger memories of his new (and sometimes trivial) knowledge; he makes some unexpected discoveries about himself, and he learns about the book—its history and construction, its errors, omissions, prejudices, and peculiarities. In a particularly funny section, he lists his deduction of how something gets an entry into the EB. Getting beheaded generally works, as do winning the Nobel prize, being the mistress of a monarch, and “becoming a liturgical vestment.”

Reading The Know-It-All is not just reading a book about a guy reading a bunch of books. It’s a trip through history, a reminder about just how much there is to know, learn, do, see, and appreciate about the world.

Cathy Belben lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she earned early fame for her award-winning fourth grade essay, “What the flag means to me” and later wrote bad rhyming poetry for the Whatcom Middle School Warrior Express. She recently survived a year in Hollywood writing for the show Veronica Mars. She’s returned to her normal life as a high school teacher and librarian, a triathlete, a weightlifter, a yogi, a dog’s mom, a cat’s slave, an artist, a napper, a nanny and an auntie. She’s thankful every day for everything.


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