Review

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As an Experiment

by A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs is the thinking person’s Walter Mitty. Except
instead of physically demanding challenges --- with perhaps one
exception --- he deals in the cerebral. The editor-at-large for
Esquire, who lived the examined life in THE YEAR OF LIVING
BIBLICALLY and read every entry in the Encyclopædia
Britannica
in THE KNOW-IT-ALL, collects several shorter but
similarly thought-provoking pieces in THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES, where
he seems too humble even to refer to himself in that regard.

Who among us hasn’t wished to just dump all the minutia of
everyday life into someone else’s lap? Jacobs accomplishes
this in his essay, “My Outsourced Life,” starting off
with little things, like shopping, and escalating to conducting
arguments with his long-suffering wife, Julie, who deserves major
props for putting up with all of these schemes. (By the way, she
finally gets a measure of recompense as hubby caters to her every
wish for a month in “Whipped.”)

Some of Jacobs’s experiments border on the dangerous, as
when he resolves to spend a month being radically honest (“I
Think You’re Fat”) or pretends to be a movie
personality, crashing the Oscar Awards (“240 Minutes of
Fame”). While published under the general category of humor,
THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES could also be considered a philosophical
treatise. In “The Rationality Project,” Jacobs channels
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner of FREAKONOMICS fame when he
deconstructs several behavioral theories to prove their
irrationalities.

Some of the pieces seem to contradict each other. The book leads
off with Jacobs masquerading as a beautiful woman as he attempts to
play an online Cyrano for the family’s lovely nanny. For all
the anecdotes he includes regarding this well-intentioned gesture,
one can imagine the creepy stuff that didn’t make it
into print. In another essay, the tables are turned as Jacobs
becomes objectified as a condition for an article and photo shoot
of “Weeds” star Mary-Louise Parker (“The Truth
About Nakedness”). Both of these seem to go against his
attempt to follow the tenets of our nation’s first president
(“What Would George Washington Do?”). Although he
doesn’t actually follow said behavior as he did in THE YEAR
OF LIVING BIBLICALLY, it’s an interesting look at the mores
of a more genteel period; there’s something to be said about
the dignity and formality with which our foreparents comported
themselves.

Perhaps the most difficult of the projects was the concentration
required to do just one thing at a time, to totally immerse oneself
in the here and now (“The Unitasker”). Can anyone these
days but the most devoted yogi actually focus to that extent? Not
me; as I write this I’m checking my email, listening to music
and drinking my coffee, with the U.S. Open on in the
background.

One wonders how long Jacobs maintained some of these behaviors
after completing the assignments. He has said there are some habits
he acquired during his BIBLICALLY period that he tries to maintain.
Does he still retain all the knowledge from reading the
encyclopedia? Can he still just stop and smell the roses? Has he
managed to keep that buff physique for which he worked so hard for
the nude photo shoot?

Can you say “sequel”?

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 22, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2010
  • Genres: Humor
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1439104999
  • ISBN-13: 9781439104996