Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: "The Know-It-All; One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World" by A.J. Jacobs

When I was in 5th and 6th grade and I would get bored after finishing my homework I'd page through the dictionary, I was desperate for something to do. (That would be until my teacher told me to stop. This was the same teacher that told me I should read less.Not one of my better teachers, truth be told).

If I got yelled at for reading the dictionary I can only imagine what would happen if I got caught reading the encyclopedia from A-Z like our author does. AJ Jacobs decides that he is slowly getting dumber, he feels his brain turning to mush. This might have something to do that he worked for an entertainment magazine that specialized in the pop culture phenomenon before leaving to work for Esquire.It doesn't help that almost everyone in his family is a genius. His dad is a well respected lawyer who has written more than 24 books, a sister who is a German professor at an Ivy League college, and a brother in law who knows almost-literally everything.

The book is split up into chapters by letter. Each one contains interesting words with their definitions,an interesting story, and a snarky remark.Throughout the chapters through the stories he weaves in his own life stories and experiences. This includes stories about he and his wife's struggle with infertility.(These stories are kind of what keeps him from kind of sounding like an obnoxious braggart and know it all.) Though that still does happen occasionally.

As he makes his way through the encyclopedia he decides he needs to go on Jeopardy! to put his knowledge to use. (He finds out that this isn't possible, because he interviewed Alec Trebek which means he's ineligible.) This makes him quite angry. His next option is Who Wants to Be a Millionare, with Meredith Viera. He gets on the show, but isn't quite as successful as he had hoped.

Here are my some of my favorite tidbits I learned:

-The Holland Tunnel in New York City is not names after the country. It's named after an engineer named Clifford Holland whose claim to fame is inventing a ventilation system that refreshes air in a tunnel every 90 seconds. Hooray for Clifford and his vents preventing brain damage.

- Bony fish have right or left oriented sex organs. Which means a right oriented boy fish can only mate with a left oriented girl fish (or vice versa, whatever). It's like Romeo and Juliet for fish!

-Ancient Egyptians used geese for guard animals.


-Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin was a French conjurer.(A certain Eric Weiss from Appleton Wisconsin loved him so much that he named himself after him: Harry Houdini.) In 1856, Robert Houdin was sent by the French government to Algeria to discredit mystical dervishes and to inspire loyalty to the French.

I was a little worried that this book would be boring, repetitive, or that the author was going to be pretentious and insufferable. It turned out not to be a problem.There are points where you roll your eyes at the author's ego but it's humorous. I liked how the chapters were short too, little bites of information without being overwhelming. I give the book 3 out of 5 stars. I learned a lot, it was funny and I'm thankful for all the smart people in the world.


  1. Thank you for the Harry Houdini tidbit! He hated mysticism and psychics so makes sense that he was inspired by Houdin. Glad he didn't take the Jean-Eugene part of his name...

  2. You're right, Houdin is definitely the best part of that long french name equation!

  3. This sounds like a really interesting, I didn't know the fish fact. After reading that fact I want to read the book.

    1. That's what I enjoyed most about the book, the weird little factoids!

  4. I read this one a few years back and I loved it! I'd really like to get to the rest of his books :D

    1. I thought it was a total hoot. This is the only book of his that I've read but I really should add some more to the ever growing TBR list...


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