Reading The Know-It-All was one of the most enjoyable literary experiences I have had in the past two years for five reasons:
1. I found the concept riveting: Author A.J. Jacobs challenged himself to read the multi-volume Encyclopedia Britannica from start to finish. I found myself cheering him on, getting more involved in the story the further he got into the alphabet.
2. The author and I share some similarities, from having fathers with the same name, Arnold, to both thinking, at some point, we were smart and can become smarter through some educational project.
3. I am sucker for a well -done concept novel (See #1 above), and I like this book for the same reason I loved Word Freak, in which Stephen Fastis of the Wall Street Journal explored the world of competitive Scrabble by seeing how good he could get at that game. In that case I was reading the last part on a plane, and after it landed I did not want to get off since I first wanted to see how it all turned out. Now that’s dedication!
As with Word Freak, the author explores fascinating questions like where the blurry line is drawn between knowledge and trivia, information that is useful and that which is not, and considers the consequences if your hobby becomes an eccentricity. If you liked Word Freak or the documentary Word Wars, also about Scrabble, or Wordplay, about crossword puzzles, I think you will like this book.
4. The book had some of the most intriguing, supportive blurbs I have seen in recent months, most notably this gem from Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and America (The Book): "The Know-It-All is a hilarious book and quite an impressive achievement. I’ve always said, 'why doesn’t someone put out a less complete version of the encyclopedia?' Well done, A.J.”
5. The book has a great confessional quality to it, which reminds me a bit of the style of Toby Young, and not just because both have written for magazines. Both authors chronicle not only their adventures and their many instances of making an ass of themselves but also how it affects their family, friends and what others think of their deeds and misdeeds. Both also deal in their own way with the concept, later a fact, that they are going to become fathers and need to grow up.