A.J. Jacobs: The Know-It-All (review)

tumblr_llfdx4MoQy1qg04ipo1_500-1Years ago, when I lived in a rented apartment, I wanted to get a pet. Dogs and cats were not allowed but to my surprise I discovered that rabbits were classified as fish and/or birds and were perfectly okay to have. So I got a rabbit (and two more – I love rabbits!). I’ve always found the ‘rabbits are fish’ classification strange but by reading this book, I’ve discovered there’s a precedence for this. Apparently, at some point in history monks were not allowed to eat meat on Fridays. What did they do? They decided that baby rabbits are really … wait for it… fish, of course, and therefore they could be eaten on Fridays. So apparently this way of thinking of rabbits as fish is nothing new. Interesting what you can learn from reading a book about a guy reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica.

As the blog name might suggest, I really like bunnies. So of course I also enjoyed what he wrote about the Fibonacci Sequence because Fibonacci figured out the sequence based on the reproduction of bunnies… Yes, I know. It’s a bit weird but interesting!

I was also fascinated by his attempts to get public recognition as the world’s smartest man by participating on Jeopardy or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He succeeds in getting on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? where he doesn’t do too good. But that’s part of the backstory of the book – what is true knowledge? What is wisdom? Is the endless collecting of facts truly knowledge? He doesn’t give a final answer to this but he does get many associations to what he’s read when he goes about his daily life and to me at least, that is a good thing because it gives your life more depth when you can connect it to the lives of other people, other cultures, natural science, philosophy etc.

Overall, this is an interesting book and I’m really fascinated by how he is able to write an interesting book based on reading the Encyclopedia. Even though what he finds fascinating, isn’t always what I would have found fascinating – he has more the mindset of a teenage boy than I do – it’s still amusing and I was very well entertained.

However, it did get a bit repetitive. Like the beauty patches from France was mentioned twice in the book – even with the same details. Where’s the editor? He also repeats himself from Drop Dead Healthy – or rather, it’s the other way around, since this book was published earlier. I just listened to Drop Dead Healthy first. It seems in some ways that A.J. doesn’t expect people to read more than one of his books since he uses the exact same details in his books. Also, I’m really not sure  if it’s correct to use Alexander the Great as an example of Roman warfare – as far as I know, Alexander was not Roman…

I listened to the audio version of this book. My first issue with it was that it wasn’t narrated by A.J. Jacobs himself and since I had just finished listening to Drop Dead Healthy which A.J. did narrate, this annoyed me. Especially since this is a biography/memoir. It feels weird when you know the voice of the author, and you have heard him talk about his family, to suddenly listen to another man talk about the same family – in the same way. However, when I got used to Geoffrey Cantor’s voice and narration, it worked okay for me.

But my biggest issue with the audio book was that between each letter of the Encyclopedia, they play a brief jazz tune, maybe 5 seconds. This is extremely annoying! What’s that about? I’m listening to a book – I don’t want to have it interrupted by music bits that have nothing to do with what I’m listening to. And especially not bad annoying music!

Reading this book makes me want to tackle a similar project of my own. But what? Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy in 11 volumes? Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? All novels by Joyce Carol Oates or Stephen King? Not sure which – I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

  • Title: The Know-It-All. One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
  • Author: A.J. Jacobs
  • Publisher: Simon and Schuster
  • Year: 2005
  • Pages: 389 pages
  • Length: 14 hrs 47 min
  • Narrated by: Geoffrey Cantor
  • Source: Own Collection (Audible)
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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12 thoughts on “A.J. Jacobs: The Know-It-All (review)

  1. I think I can attribute my love of this book to my strange obsession with trivia. It was really fun and engaging, and surprisingly… educating. Jacobs’s obsession with outdoing his brother-in-law is hilarious, and it’s kind of ironic how it kind of backfired in the end. The moral of the story – never let your show off relative be your lifeline on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

    I think reading the entire Stephen King is an admirable goal. I would love to do that someday.

  2. This book made me want to start a reading project to tackle too! But then I realized I’m just not that ambitious, lol. Imagine the interesting notes you could take while reading the entire Encyclopedia though!

  3. I liked Drop Dead Healthy on audio, too. I think I listened to My Life as an Experiment, too, or maybe I read that one in print. The Know-It-All was the first one I listened to, and I thought it was so funny. But it’s true that the first time you hear his shtick is maybe the funniest.

  4. I’m a big fan of Jacobs. I’ve read three of his books—The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Guinea Pig Diaries—and will be getting to Drop Dead Healthy sometime soon. Glad you enjoyed him!

    I always described The Know-It-All as the best bathroom reader I’ve ever seen 🙂 I love how you can read it in tiny little chunks, if you want, or blaze through it in a few sittings. It works as individual entries, but there’s also an interesting narrative woven through it. I thought it was brilliant.

    Weird about Alexander the Great, though. He was Macedonian, not Roman. The Roman’s greatly admired him, but that’s about it. I suppose it goes to show how hard it is to keep ALL those facts straight 🙂

    Sooooo, I love your idea about reading Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy. I’ve never heard about it until just now, and after researching it the books sound fantastic! I might steal this idea in 2014…

    • Yeah fact checking is always difficult. And I stand corrected. You’re right about Alexander the Great (but Jacobs is still wrong 😉 )
      Doesn’t Coppleston sound great? You’re welcome to use the idea – or maybe we could come up with some kind of way if doing it together? Not sure I’ll make it through them all in one year though…

      • A team effort may be necessary, to guilt me/energize me/encourage me while it’s going on haha.

        All in on year is pretty daunting, if only due to burnout. I don’t disagree with you there.

        I’m open to tackling them, though. Let me know if you have any ideas 🙂

      • A team effort is probably the way to go. I’ve been wanting to read it since 96-97, I own several of the volumes and still haven’t read more than a few chapters here and there. Not sure how to make it a group read though!

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