October 2009

Kelly Zavala

nonfiction

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

“I’ve been told … that there are easier ways to make a living,” says author A.J. Jacobs, but “[I]f you really want to learn about a topic, you should … try to live [it].” Indeed, Jacobs has made a living in learning. He researches unique topics, theories, and techniques firsthand and pens the results. His books The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All were both experiments in which Jacobs spent one year living by the rules of the Bible and another year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. His newest book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment, is a collection of bite sized trials in which he outsources his life to assistants in India, learns and obeys the rules of civility as per George Washington, removes the filter between his brain and his mouth, and much more. In his detailed account of the hilarity that ensues, Jacobs provides readers with laughter, knowledge, and a new understanding of the world through his stories.

Subtle humor is the most significant player in each chapter. Jacobs draws his audience in with titles like, "I Think You're Fat," "What Would George Washington Do?" and "Whipped," alternately referred to as "Operation Ideal Husband." He then baffles and delights by bringing the unusual out in the mundane. In Chapter Two, Jacobs outsources aspects of his work and personal life to two companies in India. He writes that he is in love with one of his assistants and looks forward to her calls and e-mails every day. “It’s constant positive feedback, like phone sex without the moaning.” In Chapter Four, Jacobs poses as a celebrity and attends a movie star event. He quotes, “I know it’s obvious, but the density of celebrities is stunning and disorienting. This many famous people shouldn’t be clustered in one place like that. It’s not natural. It’s like going to a wedding where you’re the only guest and everyone else is a bride or groom.” Later, he comments on coming off the celebrity high. A friend tells Jacobs he is experiencing symptoms of a celebrity disorder aptly named “Acquired Situational Narcissism." Per Jacobs, "This is a multisyllabic way of saying that celebrities often become wankers.”

At the heart of everything, Jacobs is melding his curiosity with the desire to always better oneself. In "Whipped," Jacobs learns the sheer magnitude of his wife's responsibilities, including those he didn't know existed, and vows to help shift the balance of responsibility from 20:80 to 50:50 in the future. In "The Unitasker," Jacobs learns how to tune out the world and become more efficient in all aspects of life, from writing an article to playing with his children. He learns how to behave civilly and decently from icon George Washington, and the values of honesty carry over into his post-Radical Honesty life as those lessons hit close to home.

The most frustrating aspect of this book is the lack of a singular focus. He admits in his chapter about "Unitasking," the opposite of multitasking, that "there are so many temptations [to multitask]. So many needs to fill. Snacks, cups of water, caffeine, curiosity about what Julie's doing. I pop up from my desk once every five minutes." In a similar manner, Jacobs pops from topic to topic about that often. Somewhat disjointedly, the paragraphs within the chapters bounce all over the place. He might talk about his feelings of empowerment pretending to be a woman in one paragraph, and in the very next detail a brief history of matriarchal society, and then bounce back to how it feels to be acting out the other gender in a dating scenario. Besides this, Jacobs breaks into tangents often. He provides two whole pages to the story of how he proposed to his wife. It was a very sweet story, but had little to do with the subject of the experiment, which was fame. This subject hopping is not all bad, however. The many shifts in focus can act as a series of natural pauses for the reader to laugh, discuss, or reflect upon Jacobs’ words. It also adds to the illusion of having read more in less time, allowing the reader to fly through twenty pages in what feels like five pages.

Interestingly enough, it appears the clarity and organization of Jacobs’ chapters reflects the experiment. One of the best researched and most clearly written chapters is “The Rationality Chapter,” in which Jacobs trains his brain to think only rationally, without presets or biases. Here, he deals only in facts and logical courses of action, resulting in an interesting, efficient, well-organized piece on rationality. One of the most directionless is “The Truth About Nakedness,” in which Jacobs poses nude. Here, he has almost no control over what happens, and his chapter reflects that. He attempts to write about learning humility and vulnerability, but mostly just whines about his crushed ego because the camera crew does not overwhelmingly covet his nude form.

Despite these sidetracks into tangent-ville, there are lessons to be learned. In pure creative Jacobs fashion, the author decides to outsource his worries in Chapter Two. Even more incredible, it appears to work! “I asked Honey if she would be interested in tearing her hair out in my stead. Just for a few minutes a day. She thought it was a wonderful idea … Every time I started to ruminate, I’d remind myself that Honey was already on the case, and I’d relax.” Jacobs learned that thinking is doing. Knowing he did not need to worry meant that he didn't! More time was then dedicated to other tasks. In his “Radical Honesty” chapter, Jacobs confesses to a friend of a friend that he doesn't like meeting outside of the home but is afraid of offending someone and becoming the topic of an anti-A.J. Jacobs blog. The man responds that he hates meeting with editors anyway for fear of coming off like an idiot. “That’s one thing I’ve noticed: when I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves.” The chapters are chock full of interesting lessons in human behavior.

Jacobs concludes his book in his introduction by stating his reason for experimenting at all. "[T]he goal is that you're able to keep the good parts and ... the experiment will end up making life better in the end." Jacobs writes the truth. The Guinea Pig Diaries is a light and quirky read that leaves behind a sense of having learned something profound as the chuckles fade.

 

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs
Thorndike
ISBN: 1410420817
351 Pages

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