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Interview: September 11, 2009

September 11, 2009

Always in search of a new challenge, A.J. Jacobs --- author of the New York Times bestsellers THE KNOW-IT-ALL and THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY --- looked to "understand the mysteries of modern life" in his newest work of nonfiction, THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES. In this interview with's Ron Kaplan, Jacobs talks about what inspired this latest endeavor and explains how such activities as posing in the nude, pretending to be a celebrity while crashing the Academy Awards, practicing radical honesty and outsourcing his everyday tasks to a team in India changed his outlook on life. He also likens his experiences of returning to his normal self to cult deprogramming, gives insight into how his wife deals with his extreme behavior, and shares details about his next project, a quest to become the healthiest person alive. How did the idea for THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES come about?

A.J. Jacobs: There were all these topics in American life I wanted to explore --- marriage, work, dating, outsourcing, fame. I could have written a book on each of them, but life is short. So I decided to undertake a handful of experiments that would, hopefully, give me insight into the topics, and then group them in a book.

BRC: Which came first: the radical honesty, pretending to be a woman for purposes of finding the nanny a boyfriend via the Internet, or pretending to be a celebrity? How would any of these stories mesh with your chapter on emulating George Washington?

AJJ: Finding my nanny a boyfriend on the Internet came first. It was all in the name of a greater good --- of finding her true love. So I think President Washington would be okay with it. He had a romantic streak --- you should see the letters he wrote to his crush, Sally Fairfax.

BRC: Aside from the normal anxiety when you had to pose in the buff, as per Mary Louise Parker's instructions, did you have a chance to think about objectification of women as sex objects?

AJJ: Well, I definitely can’t look at a nude photo the same way again. Now I think about what the experience was like for the woman (or man). What were the negotiations like? What music did they play to get her in the mood? Did they give her a couple of glasses of white wine? Did she get a lunch spread featuring couscous and grilled chicken? And why didn’t I get a nice lunch when I posed nude?

BRC: Was being a "unitasker," concentrating solely on one thing at a time, as difficult as it sounds? It almost seems Zen.

AJJ: It was absurdly difficult, but also very rewarding. For instance, I tried to talk on the phone. Just talk on the phone. Without answering email or cleaning my microwave at the same time. It was bizarre --- but it actually improved the conversations hugely, and it lowered my stress. But the temptations were monstrous --- I sometimes put on a blindfold when on the phone to block out the Internet and all the other distractions.

BRC: Aside from the near-fight you had while working on THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY, what’s the closest you’ve come to physical harm in the pursuit of knowledge?

AJJ: After I read the encyclopedia, I had to get a new glasses prescription. The Britannica typeface is tiny.

BRC: Is there one experience from THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES you enjoyed more than others?

AJJ: I loved trying to be the most rational person alive. It involved examining every decision I made, from the smallest (the type of toothpaste I use) to the biggest (how I raise my kids). It was eye-opening, to say the least. It’s amazing how irrational our brains are. They weren’t designed to be rational.

BRC: From your days as The Know-it-All, are you tired of people approaching you and either correcting something you might have said in error or trying to stump you, pop quiz-style?

AJJ: I still get letters about the fact that Jean-Paul Sartre wasn’t cross-eyed, as I say in my book. He was wall-eyed (eyes facing outward). I’m sorry! (And I blame the encyclopedia, which used the cross-eyed phrase).

BRC: Of all the “embeds” you’ve done, which has had the most profound effect and moved you in a way you could not foresee?

AJJ: I’d say THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY. It changed my perspective on life in such a profound way. To give just one example, I’m filled with gratitude. I said so many prayers of thanksgiving during my Bible year, that I started to realize the hundreds of things that go right everyday, instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.

BRC: How far into a project have you gone before you say to yourself, “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”? Do you feel you’ve gone that far so you have to see it through, or have you decided enough is enough?

AJJ: I don’t mind hardship. Well, I don’t love it, but I don’t mind it. That’s part of the process. So I try not to give up even if things get uncomfortable. But if the process is boring and I’m not learning anything --- that’s when I say, okay, let’s move on.

BRC: Can you give a few examples of ideas that just didn’t pan out?

AJJ: My brother-in-law suggested I become a eunuch for a year. But that seemed like more of a lifetime commitment, so I passed. At one point, I wanted to push the limits of technology and see how long I could go without human contact --- solely communicate through text message, Facebook, email, etc. But my wife said, "you are *not* attending our niece’s bat mitzvah via Skype. You’re going there in person." So that one didn’t work.

BRC: After immersing yourself so deeply in your projects, do you ever have a problem with reverting to your old self? Would this be akin to deprogramming someone who’s been in a cult for a period of time?

AJJ: I think that’s an excellent comparison. The return trip is often bumpy. I often feel a sense of postpartum depression. After the Biblical year, for instance, I felt overwhelmed by choice. The Bible provided such a clear structure, and when it ended I didn’t know what to do. Could I really read People magazine? Could I really eat anything I want? It was disconcerting.

BRC: Do you inadvertently fall back into a habit you’ve picked up, such as being too truthful?

AJJ: I don’t know about inadvertently, but I do think I’m more truthful than I used to be. I still tell plenty of lies --- just not quite as many. I’ve cut down by about 40 percent. Maybe that’s a lie --- 30 percent.

BRC: Does the fact that you’re a New York guy have any effect on your work? Do you think it would have been different if you came from a less cosmopolitan environment?

AJJ: It’s just a great environment in which to do these quests. Some of them are fish-out-of-water-type journeys, and New York provides great water. Or lack of water, I guess, if I’m going to take the metaphor strictly. Like with the Bible book. Trying to be the most religious man in the world in a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah --- it was the best place to do it.

BRC: You’re the editor-at-large for Esquire. Exactly what does that entail?

AJJ: It mostly means I don’t have an office and work from home in my boxer shorts. The “editor” word is a bit misleading. It’s predominantly writing. I write a few feature articles a year.

BRC: Do writers feel they’re cheating their readers by charging for previously published work, or is that just an example of recycling?

AJJ: The key is to make sure there’s added value, as they say. Like in this new book, about half of the pieces previously appeared in Esquire, but half of them are original. And the ones that did appear before are updated with a coda --- a sort of literary version of the “extras” section on the DVD.

BRC: I've heard that your publisher is launching THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES with a very different kind of event. One that celebrates your wife. What can you share with your readers about this, and what has been the reaction of your wife to all of your "experiments" along the way? Is there one that was her least favorite?

AJJ: Yes, I’m throwing a party for my wife to thank her for tolerating me all these years. She’s been mostly patient, but at times, she gets back at me. With the encyclopedia, she fined me $1 for every irrelevant fact I inserted into conversation. With the Bible book, I was obeying a law that said I couldn’t sit where a menstruating woman has sat, because the seat had become impure; my wife was offended, so she sat in every seat in our apartment and I had to spend much of the year standing. In the new book, she gets her ultimate revenge. She gets to write a rebuttal chapter.

BRC: What do you still want to try? Will you be working on another book?

AJJ: My final project is underway right now. I’m trying to become the healthiest person alive. I’ve changed my diet, changed my lifestyle, changed my shoes, changed my breathing techniques. I should probably stop typing now and go back to eating my quinoa.

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