A.J. Jacobs - The Ultimate Guinea Pig

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If you enjoy my posts on this blog, you have A.J. Jacobs to thank. Yes, Mr. Know-it-All was the guy who recommended me to Will Pearson and Mangesh about a year before we all started blogging here. In fact, A.J. was planning to do some more regular blogging back in the early days, too, and was on a lot of our early conference calls as we plotted to take over of the blogosphere!!!! [insert maniacal Austin Powers laugh] (Did you read Jason's post last week? Clearly we're well on our way now!)

Anyway, A.J. is one of the few people I know who really follows that Randian philosophy: "There is no competition among men;" we should all be so selfless and upstanding. We should all be so talented, too.

Chances are, you already know a lot about A.J. and his amazing quests to read the entire encyclopedia, or live his life according to all the commandments in the Bible. (If you missed the latter, check out one of A.J.'s own posts on this blog about the experience.)

Today, we're thrilled to help A.J. promote his fantastic, new book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment "“ just out in stores now. And tomorrow, we'll be giving away 5 brand new copies of the book in a fun contest you're not going to want to miss. But, as always, you'll better your chances in the contest if you read the whole Q&A below, and really get to know this unusually talented, hilarious mouth breather [his words! not mine!].

DI: I haven't read the whole book yet, but I really loved all the experiments I read, especially the one where you posed as your nanny and picked up men online, and the one where you outsourced your entire life to Bangalore. I also dug the one where you had to obey your wife's every whim and command; that one was especially close to home for me. But certainly there must have been one or two experiments that got cut from the book. Talk a little about them, and why they were left out.

AJ: Well, I get a lot of suggestions for experiments from friends, family and readers. One reader suggested I do all the positions in the kama sutra. My wife shot that one down pretty quickly. So not all of them make it out of the planning stage.

Check out this hilarious teaser for the new book!


DI: Which was your favorite experiment to conduct?

AJ: One that I loved was the quest to become the most rational person alive. Sort of a "˜What Would Spock Do.' Because it made me realize just how irrational human behavior is. And how many of our life decisions are made based on inertia and laziness. Like something as simple as what toothpaste we use. I've been using Colgate for 30 years. Why? Because some guy at my sleepaway camp used Colgate, and he seemed cool, so I started using it and never stopped. But for this project, I scrutinized every single decision, and I realized"¦.I HATE the taste of mint Colgate. It's medicinal. So I tried a whole bunch of different toothpastes. And it was a revelation! I now use Tom's of Maine orange/mango-flavored toothpaste. And it's delicious. It's like eating dessert. Those little decisions make a huge difference in quality of life.

DI: If you weren't married, weren't a well-known, respected author out there doing book tours and such, if you had no living family left on earth, what kind of experiments might you have attempted? Go ahead, unleash your inner-nerd, we won't hold these against you. We know"¦ these are just *hypothetical* experiments.

AJ: At one point, I wanted to do an experiment where I interacted with people exclusively through technology "“ Facebook, email, IM, etc. My wife nixed that one too. She said, you're NOT attending our niece's bat mitzvah via Skype. You are showing up there in person.

I'd also love to read the entire Wikipedia. I'd consider that time well spent. I feel a bit guilty saying that, since my first book was about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. But I find the breadth of Wikipedia alluring. I spend hours a week Wikitunneling (hopping from one wiki-link to another). I'd never get to write a book about it since I'd never finish.

DI: People have called you a modern-day George Plimpton. Even you refer to the master in your book. Okay, so Plimpton was a great journalist. We all know that. And not such a bad actor. Right? Right. But I'll still always remember him as the classy face of Mattel's Intellivision, which I owned (still own!) and worshipped, cradled, slept with, dusted vigrously"¦ What about you? We're about the same age; were you an Atari guy? Intellivision? What was your favorite game? What cartridge did you wear out first?

AJ: I loved an Atari game called Adventure. You ever see that one? You had to get the chalice and kill the dragons and trap the bats. It was particularly exciting because it contained a secret room "“ according to Wikipedia, it's the first video game Easter Egg in history. Players had to pick up an invisible gray dot and bring it below the golden castle, where it would open a room that had the words "Created by Warren Robinett." And then the gray dot would have sex with a prostitute. Or maybe I'm misremembering that last part.

DI: There will probably come a day when you've put yourself through every test there is, and written adroitly about it—or maybe when you grow bored with this wonderful niche you're creating. Have you given any thought to what you'll write about then? Do you have any aspirations to pen a novel?

AJ: I don't think novels are in my future. I love non-fiction too much. Plus I don't think novels come naturally to me. Though I do think that there should be a novel about Belle Boyd. Hers was an amazing tale I learned about in the encyclopedia. She was a beautiful female spy for the confederacy during the US Civil war -- who ended up falling in love with a Union soldier and eloping. A real Romeo and Juliet story. A novel waiting to be written.

DI: Besides Plimpton, what other writers do you like?

AJ: I love Bill Bryson. And Mark Twain. I love Victorian non-fiction, like Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey. And also David Israel, even though he's not Victorian. [DI note: AJ, can I use that as a blurb on the back of my next book?]

DI: Talk a little shop for a mo. What's your process like? I know in one of the chapters you talk about writing 2 hours each day, in the morning. But is that your norm?

AJ: I actually write a lot from 10 pm till 2 a.m. It's the quietest time of the day for me. I've got three young kids, so the mornings are category five storms.

DI: Do you ever get writer's block? How do you deal?

AJ: I once did some research on writer's block. If I remember correctly, Nabakov wrote standing up. Ben Franklin wrote in the bath. And the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller used the smell of rotten apples to get him in the writing mood.
So that's what I want to try: Standing up in a bath filled with rotten apples.
Instead, I usually start writing sentences about any old thing "“ about my socks, about a glass of orange juice. I know I'm going to delete these passages, but it's a way to get warmed up.

DI: Many writers say they find the writing process more rewarding than the actual
publishing process. What about you? What's the best part for you?

AJ: I actually love the research process best. I love diving in and reading all the literature. And I love interviewing people and hanging out with scientists and professors and George Washington impersonators and so on. When I was researching The Year of Living Biblically, I think I became the first person to out-Bible talk a Jehovah's Witness. He came over to my house and after three hours he looked at his watch and said, "˜I have to go!'

DI: What's the best thing about being A.J. Jacobs?

AJ: I recently got an iPhone and I now listen to Podcasts on double-speed. So I can ingest an hour of Fresh Air in just half an hour!

DI: What's the worst thing about being A.J. Jacobs?

AJ: Well, I have trouble breathing through my nose, so I'm a bit of a mouth breather. Mouth breathers get a bad rap, you know?

DI: If you could go back in time and live your life as an experiment with a historical figure, how would that go?

AJ: One idea: I'd ask to be Goethe's apprentice. He was an 18th century German writer (Faust), but he was more than that. He was the most well-rounded man in history. He was a master of all trades. He was, among other things: a lawyer, a painter, theater manager, botanist, statesman, alchemist, biologer, soldier, astrologer, novelist, songrwiter, mine inspector, clothing designer and irrigation supervisor. I'd love to try to be mini-Goethe.

DI: You talk about your three boys a lot in the new book. If one of the comes to you one day and says, "Dad, I want to be a journalist," what advice would you give him?

AJ: Have genuine and deep curiousity. Notice the details "“ how people talk, what places sound like, what they smell like. And don't misspell the name "˜Wayne Gretzky,' because his fans will write you angry letters.


DI: Lastly, what's on deck for you?

AJ: My next project is the final part of my self-improvement series. I've worked on the mind (The Know-it-All). I've worked on the spirit (The Year of Living Biblically). Now I'm going to work on the body. I'm trying to become the healthiest person alive. No more junk food, not even Graham Crackers "“ which mental floss readers might know were originally designed as health food in the 19th century by a wacky diet guru named Sylvester Graham who hoped the crackers would, among other things, discourage self-pleasuring.

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September 16, 2009 - 9:39am
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