The Know-It-All

Welcome to my Summer of Finishing Books. I’ve set myself a goal of finishing the skittyteen-million books I have half-read over the past few years, and what few I decide I simply can’t stomach, I’ll let myself actually say goodbye to, rather than carrying on the fiction that I’ll eventually get to them. (I’m looking at you, Chaos by James Gleick.)

tkiaSo it is fitting that I start my process of finishing reads by reviewing a book all about finishing a read. In this case, the read is the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. This was the goal of author A. J. Jacobs, a guy who seems to be the following:

  • A fountain of pop-culture knowledge
  • Kind of a know-it-all
  • Someone who has difficulty self-censoring
  • A guy with some daddy issues
  • A guy who looks forward to being the kind of father who doesn’t generate daddy issues

Fascinated and daunted by his father’s breadth of knowledge, Jacobs decides that the best way to surpass his dad is to read the granddaddy of all reference works, beginning to end. The book, thus, is a severely shortened travelogue of his journey through Britannica, as well as a memoir of how that journey informs his relationship with said father, his relationship with his also-desperate-to-be-a-parent wife, and his own quest for meaning.

This seems like dry stuff. Oh, no. It is hilarious. Listening in as Jacobs tries mightily to put his newly found esoteric knowledge to use is a treat, whether he is navigating the stultifying world of Mensa, or appearing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, or simply talking to people at a cocktail party. These detours take about half of the book. The rest is his just-this-side-of-snarky take on the tidbits he has mined from the tomes of knowledge.

I thoroughly enjoyed this journey, not least of which because I feel kind of like I’ve read the EB vicariously. Thanks for that, A. J.!


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