'The know-it-all' on what it is to be smart

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. In a volume of this length - nearly 400 pages, in need of trimming - one must find one's author an agreeable guide. Although ostensibly a stroll through the encyclopedia, the volume serves as a diary of a loving, if superficial and neurotic, young man. We learn of Jacobs's competition with his arrogant brother-in-law; a jokey, overachieving father who Jacobs aches to best; and a wife whose attempts at becoming pregnant are a driving force in the narrative.

Ultimately "The Know-It-All" is a somewhat fitful and ultimately dissatisfying account of the domain of intelligence. At various points in his efforts Jacobs meets people known for their knowledge, or visits places where knowledge is produced and displayed. He spends time with Alex Trebek, the long time host of "Jeopardy!" and visits a high school debating squad, a meeting of Mensa, the Encyclopedia Britannica headquarters, and the sixth grade at his elementary school. Eventually he is selected as a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

"The Know-It-All" provides a compelling memoir of a goofy Everyman. But whether a great deal of knowledge leads to contentment or to quirky and tiresome conversation is a question that can be addressed only in a sequel.

Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He is the author of 'Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture.'

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