Does reading the encyclopedia make you smarter?

In "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World," author A.J. Jacobs recounts his experience in tackling his intellectual Mount Everest — reading all 33,000 pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

He takes on the challenge for a variety of reasons. Beating his lawyer father, who attempted the same feat but stopped in the mid-Bs. Outsmarting his brainiac brother-in-law. Most importantly, filling in his knowledge gaps and trying to stuff some of the facts he learned in school back into his head.

"Back in high school and college, I was actually considered somewhat cerebral," Jacobs writes. "I brought D.H. Lawrence novels on vacations, earnestly debated the fundamentals of Marxism, peppered my conversation with words like 'albeit.'

"I knew my stuff. Then, in the years since graduating college, I began a long, slow slide into dumbness."

A stint as a writer for Entertainment Weekly and hours spent watching reality TV took their toll on Jacobs.

As he starts his quest, Jacobs finds that even if he gets through all 44 million words written in tiny font, he may not get the payoff he wants. He gets near the end of the B volume, officially passing the point where his father left off.

Jacobs shares with his father the fascinating fact that broccoli is classified as a type of cabbage. His father counters by revealing that he has calculated the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight — 1.98 x 10 to the 14th power.

Jacobs does have some early successes with his new knowledge, such as helping his wife answer a crossword puzzle question about Fred Astaire's real name (Frederick Austerlitz).

But he can't stop himself from reeling off facts to his co-workers, friends and relatives, much to their annoyance.

While reading "The Know-It-All," which goes back and forth between narrative about Jacobs' life and interesting tidbits he gleaned from the encyclopedia, I found myself storing up trivia in hopes of dazzling people. For days, I hung on to the fact that football's Heisman Trophy was named after Georgia Tech football coach John Heisman, who worked as a Shakespearean actor during the off season.

Then, when my former sports editor spouse was watching ESPN and the topic of the Heisman Trophy came up, I casually dropped my fact about Heisman's Shakespearean past. Score!

Since my husband was suitably impressed, I let fly my fact that an inch is the width of a man's thumb. He was not impressed, so I bet him that within a year, I would catch him using his thumb to measure something. I measured his thumb, which was a perfect inch, and my own, which was three-quarters of an inch.

Within days, I used my thumb to measure the diameter of a take-out pizza that seemed suspiciously smaller than the size I had ordered — a noble use of newfound knowledge.

Jacobs finds that learning a lot about a subject, like chess, doesn't necessarily make him better at it. After boning up on chess moves recommended by the encyclopedia, he visits a chess club and is trounced.

"I probably knew the gap between information and know-how was big, but I had gotten a firsthand lesson in just how big it can be," he writes.

Jacobs takes a Mensa test to try and join the high I.Q. group, but fails miserably. He's allowed into the group on the strength of his SAT scores from long ago.

Disqualified from appearing on the game show "Jeopardy" because he has interviewed host Alex Trebek for the magazine Esquire, Jacobs tries out for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and wins a chance to compete on the show.

As one of his lifelines, Jacobs chooses his nemesis brother-in-law. Will the two join forces to go all the way to the top, or will all their collective knowledge prove worthless when it matters most?

I'll leave you with that cliffhanger.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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