A Book for the Smart-Arse


Umer Rashid reads a book about a know-it-all, in the hope of maybe becoming a know-it-all

Do you know why the world’s largest bell never rang? Who remarked that Venice would be a great city if it were drained? May be you are intrigued about the Etruscan way of writing in ‘boustrophedon style’, or fancy the careers of ‘Abbot of Unreason’ and ‘Lord of Misrule’.


Whether you aim to ace a quiz competition, want to impress everyone with how smart you are, or are genuinely moved by your innate thirst for knowledge, you might be tempted to collect such gems of wisdom.

Being convinced that his job as Esquire editor was increasingly eroding his smarts, The Know-It-All sees AJ Jacobs embarks on reading all 32 volumes of the 2002 Encyclopaedia Britannica – all of 33,000 pages containing 44 million words. Withstanding the ridicule and discouragement from his friends and family, he takes classes in speed-reading and memory enhancement to absorb the sheer volume of information. He joins Mensa, participates in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and wins a place in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

During his year-long expedition of knowledge hunting, Jacobs comes across some of the most grotesque and surprising facts about almost everything under the sun. He learns about some of the most inspirational personalities in every walk of the life, as well as those who make one ashamed of being a human. He gets to appreciate the transient nature of life as he stumbles upon the myriads of conquerors and emperors being relegated to the dustbin of history and known to nobody except history buffs.

His liberal outlook on cultural relativism gets dented as he learns about some customs of “preliterate” cultures. The entries on the world’s foremost writers and scientists become a painful realization for him how little he has done with his life. He is depressed to know that Asimov authored more books than the total number of post-it notes he has authored to date. On the other hand, he is inspired by overcoming-the-odds stories such as that of pool champion Willie Mosconi who practiced with potatoes and a broomstick after his father forbade him to play pool.

With his candour and self-deprecating humour, Jacobs makes an apparently boring and tedious task of reading an encyclopedia look like a hilarious account of riding an emotional rollercoaster. The Know-It-All is a piece of work that will inform and entertain in the same breath.