IT USED TO BE NICE TO sit next to A.J. Jacobs at a dinner party. He's funny, smart, polite and totally nonthreatening-looking. But ever since he read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica--which he did to write his hilarious book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster; 386 pages)--it is best to sit far, far away. His blurting of arcana has got so bad, his wife started fining him $1 for every irrelevant fact he crowbarred into conversation. "She was lenient," he told TIME. "I got away with $150. She could have gotten $1,000."
The book succeeds because, unlike in real life, Jacobs (an Esquire editor and NPR contributor) confines his written observations on Encyclopaedia Britannica articles to jottings the length of entries in Schott's Original Miscellany. (Among the facts he highlights: the Bayer company invented heroin; toward the end of his life, Nathaniel Hawthorne constantly scribbled "64" on scraps of paper; René Descartes liked cross-eyed chicks.) Instead, he uses his book, which is organized by Encyclopaedia Britannica entries, to do what he has done best as a magazine writer: stunt journalism. The entry on "Vital Fluid" leads to a story about getting on TV as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, though he wins only $1,000 because he'd already forgotten the E volume, where "Erythrocyte" was defined. "Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of" is an excuse to retell his story of pretending to be Shine actor Noah Taylor at the Oscars because they looked somewhat alike. It works surprisingly well until Jacobs tries to fool Shine star Geoffrey Rush.
What keeps the book from being no more than a series of alphabetically arranged humor columns is the leitmotif of becoming a man: Jacobs somehow turns the effort of reading 33,000 pages into the world's most passive Bildungsroman. The project, it seems, springs less from an urge to soak up information than from a desire to confront his Oedipus complex. His brilliant lawyer father, who is so competitive that he holds the record for most footnotes in a legal article, once attempted to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica but quit in the B's. But even more important to Jacobs' emotional maturation than one-upping his dad is dealing with the tension of failing, over and over, to get his wife pregnant. Although, really, you don't expect a guy who goes to the Britannica headquarters in Chicago to report two errors to have boys that swim really fast.
But it's the stunt of the book itself that allows the funny, touching memoir to be so stuffed with nutritious bits of trivia that you feel smart for reading it. Jacobs has done the time-consuming work of unearthing the most interesting parts of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Seriously, Descartes liked cross-eyed women.) "There were times during the 'Plate Tectonics' section I regretted starting it," he says. "But now I'm happy. At least I've accomplished something in my life." That, in the end, is what the book is about, and it has nothing to do with reading the Britannica.
--By Joel Stein