'The Know-It-All' on What It Is to Be Smart

By Fine, Gary Alan | The Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

'The Know-It-All' on What It Is to Be Smart


Fine, Gary Alan, The Christian Science Monitor


What does it mean to be the smartest person alive? Comparing IQs is a dangerous game. Judging personal insight is fraught with subjective preferences.

So some, like A.J. Jacobs, worship at the shrine of facts. Mr. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, in his quest to recapture a youthful belief in his own intelligence, decided to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Few enterprises could be more quixotic and few less likely to lead to true wisdom.

What Jacobs has succeeded in doing, however, is to produce a book that is alternately eccentric, charming, annoying, amusing, frustrating, and misguided - sometimes all within the same paragraph.

"The Know-It-All" is a mix of several books, and some succeed better than others. Here is a work that is part a playful send-up of encyclopedia trivia, part personal diary, and part discussion of the importance of concrete knowledge in building intelligence. The book itself is structured on the model of the encyclopedia with numerous bite-size entries from A to Z ("a-ak," "Jackson, Reggie," "Zeus"), permitting saturated readers to pace themselves.

Jacobs, a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, knows a juicy factoid when he sees it. The book is larded with startling, believe- it-or-not claims that spark barroom conversations: Hollywood was founded by a prohibitionist; a pumpkin is actually a berry although a strawberry is not; and the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill" is a diatribe against British tax policy. The world is a startling place. Jacobs cannot resist the jokester's tendency to smother his facts with his own sarcasm, a self-indulgent choice that often kills the wit.

Beyond the march of freakish facts is a set of personal meditations. …

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