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 Encyclop√ɬ¶dia 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.

Posted on October 23, 2009

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