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A.J. Jacobs: living life by the book

by Archives October 28, 2008

It’s hard to believe that a print journalist, who’s known for being socially awkward and who admits to being completely committed to the obsessive compulsive disorder from which he suffers, can be so outgoing in so many different social contexts.
By day A.J. Jacobs is the editor-at-large for a little known magazine called Esquire. Outside the walls of this publication, he is an experimental journalist who completely immerses himself in his work and writes while completing personal experiments.
“I see myself as a human guinea pig,” he said about his favorite type of work. “I love a good life experiment.”
Although he interviews big celebrities by the likes of George Clooney and Rosario Dawson, ultimately Jacobs enjoys his experimental journalism the most.
“My favorite articles to write are the ones about personal quests,” he said.
Jacobs explained how the books he writes sometimes coincide with his job at Esquire, “I wrote [a piece] called ‘My Outsourced Life,’ about how I hired a team of people in Bangalore, India to live my life for me: answer my phone, return my e-mail, argue with my wife for me, etc.”
The interesting thing about Jacobs’ experiments is they breathe new life into the pieces he writes. His article titled “I Think You’re Fat” explored his month-long experimentation with a concept called Radical Honesty. He actually lived it and wrote about it with the feel of a miniature memoir. He told the truth to everyone, all the time. He also said whatever was on his mind, which wasn’t always flattering to the people around him. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do for someone who is often described “socially awkward.”
His books demand a tremendous amount of time and dedication. The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, followed Jacobs through an entire year, as he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, or as he refers to it, “a-ak to zywiec.” The book is a hilarious and tremendously informative memoir that covers everything from obscure definitions and personal encounters to Jacobs’ dissatisfaction with MENSA’s lax acceptance requirements.
When I spoke to A.J. earlier in the year, he was fresh off the release of his new book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. For the first nine months of his experiment he followed the Jewish traditional Old Testament and concluded by venturing into the New Testament for the final three months. As a clean-shaven professional who considers himself “Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian – not very,” he had quite a year in store for him.
“Esquire is not the most biblical of magazines,” said Jacobs, explaining how his biblical year interfered with his day job. “They assigned me an interview with a beautiful actress, Rosario Dawson. I could barely look at her without being tempted.”
As his beard grew longer and people began to look at him awkwardly on the streets of New York City, the rules of both the Old and New Testaments became a kind of second nature for A.J., although there were certain laws that remain impossible to complete in the modern age. He did, however manage to stone an adulterer, even if it involved permission from an older man, tiny pebbles and terrible regret in the moments following the stoning.
“The Bible also says you can’t touch women during certain times of the month,” mentioned Jacobs about rules that seem impossible to follow. “Even more, you can’t sit on a seat where a woman during her time of month has sat. My wife thought that was offensive and sat on every seat in the apartment, so I had to stand a lot of the year.”
His year of living by the literal word of the Bible inspired him in many ways. “I became much more grateful,” said Jacobs. “I try to focus on the hundred things that go right every day, as opposed to focusing on the three or four that go wrong.”
It also gave him the religious education he never had while growing up. “It did make me more interested in the good parts of religion – as well as more aware of the dangerous parts,” he said. “At the end of the year, my wife and I did decided to send our son to Hebrew school.”
It isn’t easy to constantly tell every little aspect of the truth nor is it a simple task to read the entire Britannica. Though his dedication isn’t always obvious to first-time readers, it’s this dedication that makes his writing absolutely fascinating.
In a way, his devotion to experimental journalism can be measured by the length of his beard at the end of his biblical voyage.
Jacobs recalls cutting his hair and shaving his face the day it was over.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” said Jacobs about cleaning up. “The beard was wildly uncomfortable, but I had also become quite attached to it. It was like a family pet.”
At the moment, besides compiling his new book called Life is an Experiment (consisting of previously published works in the realm of experimental journalism), Jacobs is sticking to his regular stuff at Esquire. He wants to stay away from the experiments for just a little while, because The Year of Living Biblically was a little difficult on his family.
“My wife says I owe her after all I put her through. So she says I have to do the year of giving her foot massages.”

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