We Experiment on A.J. Jacobs

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A.J. Jacobs is a bit of a gonzo journalist and a little bit of an undercover secret agent — but, most of all, he is a living, walking experiment. In his first book, The Know-It-All, he read the entire Encyclopædia Britannica from beginning to end. In his follow-up, The Year of Living Biblically, he attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible — expunging all polyfibrous garments from his wardrobe, not shaving for a year, living inside a tent in his living room for a week (his wife, an enduring spectator and the eternally good-natured Teller to his Penn, was invited to join him inside but chose to sleep in their bedroom instead) and even stoning sinners in Central Park.

guinea pig diaries aj JacobsIn Jacobs’ new collection, The Guinea Pig Diaries, he embarks upon a new project every chapter, from outsourcing every aspect of his life to India (including emails, calls from his boss, and sending love letters to his wife) to practicing Radical Honesty, a method of living in which he tells everyone exactly what’s on his mind, from his mother-in-law to an attractive editor at Rachel Ray magazine. He even sneaks into the Oscars, impersonating Australian actor Noah Taylor, and becomes a celebrity for a night.

Jacobs is less a guinea pig than a test tube, letting new theories pass through him with nearly no absorption. But he never misses an opportunity for profundity, and he’s always ready to learn life lessons from any source, great or small. Sometimes, it feels like he’s learning the same lessons every time –that he needs to stop multitasking, stop being shallow, and relearn the simple lessons of being a child. Although it’s never explicitly stated, Jacobs’ hero could be Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten — with a side dish of Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps.

The new book doesn’t come close to the emotional honesty and rawness of Jacobs’ attempt at in vitro fertilization in Biblically or his reconciliation with his father in Know-It-All, there are basic emotional truths in each chapter of Guinea Pig, like the let’s-work-together-and-save-the-world moment at the end of a Stephen King book, or a really good rabbi’s sermon. It’s punchy, funny, constantly self-deprecating but unfailingly optimistic.

We were lucky enough to talk to Jacobs by phone from Denver, where he was preparing for a reading. After the swarthy, self-assured-but-inquisitive tone of his books, I wasn’t sure what to expect — either the snarkiest person alive or the gentlest. To my surprise, the voice that answered the phone was laid-back, chilled out, and not at all what I imagined from already having read about his innermost thoughts. Inadvertently, I blurted out:

MJL: Where are you from?

A.J. Jacobs: I am actually from New York City. I grew up in Manhattan.

Weird! You have such a…I don’t know what to call it, a relaxed accent. It’s not at all what I expected.

Well, I’m in the middle of my book tour in Denver. Maybe I’ve adapted a Colorado accent unknowingly!

This new collection kind of feels like a best-of. There’s not really a point A that you’re starting from, or a point B that you’re aiming for, like you had in your first two books.

About half of the pieces come from Esquire, and half are new. One piece I did, the one about pretending to be Noah Taylor at the Academy Awards, I did a tiny version of it in Entertainment Weekly — which was just a couple hundred words in a box. I sort of built it up into a full story in here.

How did you recreate the experience? Do you keep a journal?

I do keep a journal, and I did keep some notes. So I felt good. It felt like delving back into the aj jacobs beardglory that was being a celebrity. As a matter of fact, it felt good revisiting all these pieces.

Did you feel like you were digging up dirt on your own past?

Actually, no. Most of them were either very recent or they were completely new, so it wasn’t like I had to do too much digging.

You say you always keep a little bit of each experiment over the rest of your life. As a Sabbath-observant person, I felt a little bit of myself shrivel up at that…like a lot of people I know, I hoped you were going to keep with it, or that we were somehow different from all your other experiments.

The Biblical experiment changed my life forever in so many profound ways. First of all, we joined a synagogue. We don’t really go, but we’re members, which is a pretty big step for me. Also, we’re sending our kids to Hebrew day school there. I’m okay whether they become observant or non-observant, as long as they’re mentsches. At first, I thought it would be nice to send them there. Now they know more Hebrew than I do.

One of the biggest ways it affected me was in blessings, where the Bible says to bless everything you eat. It changed my whole attitude toward gratitude. During my year, I was saying all these blessings of thanksgiving, and I kind of got carried away, as the Bible tells us to do. I was saying thanks for every little thing in my life. Over the course of our day, we tend to ignore all the things we have that go right. Instead, we focus on the three or four that go wrong, and this has kind of taught me not to overlook those things.

And the same for many of the experiments in the new book, they’ve changed me for good as well.

Did any of the new experiments activate something in you that you don’t like?

Maybe the celebrity-for-a-night experiment. I was getting so many compliments, and people telling me how great I was, that my ego started to balloon out of control, even though I knew deep down that I wasn’t a famous celebrity. I got a taste of how these celebrities become egotistical maniacs. Afterward, I remember waiting in line at a restaurant, thinking, “Don’t these people know who I am?”

How do you set your limits for what to write about?

That’s a very good question {laughs}. My wife certainly has veto power about any experiment involving her. I’ve had some readers suggest I do every position in the Kama Sutra. She vetoed that, which I’m certainly grateful for. I think it might hurt my back.

But another one she nixed is — well, I’m very interested in the way technology affects our relationships. What is the effect of all this Facebook and text messaging on humans? And I wanted to take it to the extreme, and just communicate through Facebook and text messaging for a month. She said, no way. We have our niece’s bat mitzvah, and I’m not going to do a video Skype thing, you’re going to show up and eat the chicken.

She also has veto power over the passages in my books about herself — although, interesting to note, she’s never used it.

Did you show her the part in the new book where you’re being Radically Honest, and you had that meeting with the editor from Rachel Ray’s magazine where you were trying to look down her shirt?

No, that one I don’t think I showed my wife that. But she would’ve let that go. She’s gotten used to it. After the first memoir, The Know-It-All, she’s gotten used to being a semi-public figure.

Where do your ideas for projects come from?

Some of them I get from my family, like the first one where I read the encyclopedia. My dad actually started to do that himself, but he only made it to the middle of B — to the word boomerang. Others aj jacobs, biblicallycome from just taking a subject I’m fascinated with and pushing it to the extreme. I’m very interested in the battle of rationality versus emotion, so what would it be like to be completely rational, like Spock from Star Trek? Some come from readers. The final chapter of the new book comes from readers, who said I owed my wife for all the unpleasantness that I put her through, from foot massages to watching Kate Hudson movies.

In your wife’s conclusion to the book, she accuses you of choosing the month of February on purpose for that experiment, because it’s the shortest month of the year. Did you?

No, that was a pleasant coincidence. It was supposed to be sooner, but as I learned from the chapter on rationality, there’s something called the Planning Fallacy, which says that projects always take longer than you estimate.

I have to tell you, my introduction to you was really weird. I read The Year of Living Biblically at the same time as I was reading the autobiography of the man you said inspired it, your aunt’s ex-husband, Gil Locks — he tied tassels around his lapels because the Torah said to, and did all those crazy things. In the book, though, you go to dinner at his house, and that’s it. Was there anything more to your Guru Gil story?

I kept in touch with him a little. I called him to fact-check to make sure I got everything right, and he was very excited to get any publicity and he wanted me to help him publish his own book in the USA. So I gave him my publisher’s contact info, but I don’t think they picked it up. He talks about—one of the bios of him talks about when he was a Hindu cult leader, he went over the edge and would beat up his followers, and I asked him about that and he says, “I can’t remember, I took so many drugs over those years.” Then he said, “Yeah, I probably did.”

No, it’s true, he still has a little cult over there. Do you hang out with your Aunt Kate?

I do! I love my Aunt Kate. I think she was very happy with my experiment, just because I showed an interest in Judaism, which is something I’ve never done before. I think she’s disappointed that I’m in a Reform synagogue, but she thinks it’s better than nothing. We’ve done Shabbos together, and Hanukkah.

What do you have planned now?

I figure that I have one final self-improvement project left. I tried to radically improve my mind with the encyclopedia, and my spirit with living biblically, and the final one will take on the physical, the body. I’m trying to become the healthiest person alive.

Have you started yet?

I have started. I’m still in the beginning stages, but I’m doing it. I changed my diet, my exercise routine. I’m wearing these shoes that look absurd but are supposedly extremely healthy. There’s a movement that believes we should always be walking around barefoot, because our feet our designed for bare feet. These shoes are designed to be like that. They’re shoes that are the closest thing to the naked human foot.

I have a friend who goes barefoot in Manhattan! Her name’s Sarah Barefoot. She’s barefoot everywhere. Or, she was until she had to get a day job. But why not just go barefoot?

I figure, there are health cons to going barefoot around Manhattan. But the con of stepping on a piece of glass probably outweighs any pros on the issue. So, the next best thing is this glove for the foot. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Posted on October 23, 2009

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2 thoughts on “We Experiment on A.J. Jacobs

  1. Pingback: MJL Interviews A.J. Jacobs « Jewish Book Council Blog

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