Pros: witty, fascinating, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny at times
Cons: perhaps too light on the research
You only get one life. There are two sides to every story. You've gotta walk a mile in the other guy's shoes and try to see things from someone else's point of view. Live each day like your last. But don't forget that whole thing about the unexamined life not being worth living. Go with your gut. But remember, only fools rush in. Never put off for tomorrow what can be done today. Haste makes waste, though.
Man, life is confusing. It's also short. Most of us barely have time to figure out what we're doing before our time is up. And we really fall into our lifestyles by accident – we don't test the waters enough, try to see what's out there, and what works for us.
A.J. Jacobs is different. He is/has been a writer/editor for Esquire, and Mental Floss, and Entertainment Now and various other publications, and his specialty over the years has been a strange form of hermit crab journalism, throwing himself into a new shell again and again, and writing about it for our amusement. He's tried being smart – by reading every single word in the Encyclopedia Britannica, in an attempt to master all the knowledge he'd forgotten over the years, and then some (the result: he found that a brain can only retain so much, and forgot most of it). He's tried being religious – by spending a year trying to live according to the many, many rules in the Bible, including all the bits that contradict all the other bits, and even the bits that make absolutely no sense whatsoever (the result: hilarious confusion and a surprising amount of what you might call spiritual enlightenment, as you can find out here).
But in his 2009 book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment, he really shows us what it means to try new things, as he describes nine life experience experiments he's performed, ranging from the commendable (a Rationality Experiment, where he spends a month trying to eliminate the various cognitive biases we all suffer from, and which prevent our thinking things through properly) to the eccentric (he tries to follow the 110 Rules of Behaviour of George Washington) to the just plain bizarre (he tries to outsource his work and personal life to employees in India – from answering his emails to arguing with his wife to buying gifts and groceries).
Jacobs is a great writer – he's witty and clever and he knows pop culture like the back of his hand, and he knows how to turn an experiment into a story. He's geeky and a bit socially awkward, and has a self-deprecating sense of humour that makes it hard to dislike him no matter what weird experiment he's involved in. He's just a regular mensch, you know?
And the experiments themselves aren't just entertainment. I mean, yes, they are that, but they're also real learning opportunities, for A.J. And readers alike, and there's a little Coda at the end of each section detailing what he learned, and how he felt about it, and how it's continued to influence his life (or not, as the case may be).
So when he poses as Noah Taylor (he was in the movie Shine – you know, the Rachmaninov one) at the Oscars, he gives us a peek at the world of real celebrity, and the way it can go to your head really quickly, even if you don't deserve it at all. And when he handles online dating for his kids' nanny by pretending to be her (with her consent, of course) he gets a little taste of what life is like for beautiful women (not as fun and glamorous as some of us might think). And when he adopts Radical Honesty (exactly what it sounds like, a level of honesty that's way above and beyond, where you speak your mind, as plainly as possible, never filtering what you're saying) he learns that honesty may not always be the best policy. Incidentally, that Radical Honesty thing leads, unsurprisingly, to a lot of confrontation, and what he describes as the worst month of his life. Go figure.
It's not particularly deep stuff, though. And yes, it's all fascinating, but don't go into it expecting to learn everything there is to know about a subject. Sure, Jacobs interviews and discusses things with a whole lot of experts, and reads a few books and magazines (not research journal articles, mind you) and really throws himself into it. But there's only so much he can learn in a month – the average length of an experiment – and massive oversimplification is inevitable (most noticeable in his Rationality Experiment, where he never once defines what “rationality” actually is, and much of his behaviour actually seems highly irrational). In that way, Jacobs is a lot like Malcolm Gladwell: infuriatingly simplistic, but thought-provoking. Only A.J. is funny. Like, really, really funny. The outsourcing story (which he describes as the best month of his life) is hilarious, and the bit where he has to be photographed naked (at the behest of Weeds star Mary Louise Parker) is way beyond amusing, and if you don't laugh-out-loud at some point during every experiment, you might want to check your humourmometer.
It's not just A.J. that makes the experiments great, though. Part of the entertainment comes from his interaction with a cast of characters that are worthy of the name (“characters”, I mean): editors who are just slightly less crazy than he is, and experts who must think he's out of his mind, and friends and (extended) family who aren't afraid of lovingly mocking him, and his three kids (who're too young to be bothered) and their nanny and especially his long-suffering saintlike wife, Julie, who has to live with this maniac.
So the final experiment is delicious revenge: Julie gets to be in charge of A.J. for a whole month (and pretty soon he comes to realize that, when it comes to the real world, she's in charge all the time, and everyone's better off that way). He has to do whatever she says, and she has an alarmingly long list of dos and donts. A.J. uses this essay to explore family roles and feminism and women's rights over the ages, as well as how the perception of the stay-at-home dad has changed over the years, and Julie uses this month to do whatever the heck she wants to do (or get A.J. to do it, which is even better). This, it seems, is the best month of Julie's life, and eventually the power does get to her head a little (not as much as the famous Stanford prison experiment, of course, but instant obedience is a heady drug, it seems). And it ties together all the other experiments, and manages to be both funny and heartwarming at the same time.
In a Nutshell
A.J. Jacobs is one of the weirdest guys out there (or at least, one of the weirdest guys out there with a book deal). He's also incredibly funny, seriously likeable, and manages to turn his life into performance art while still learning and even teaching some important stuff. We need more guinea pigs like him.