Books

20 Questions: A. J. Jacobs

Photo (partial) by © Michael Cogliantry

He coos, he digerdoos, he pole dances, he plays harmonica – without a harmonica -- and he’s funny, too. In his latest book of bold experimentation, My Life as an Experiment, A. J. Jacobs, Editor-at-Large for Esquire, lives as a woman, becomes a human guinea pig, and otherwise provides an edutaining look at things we humans tend to hold dear – and then he turns it all askew.

He coos, he digerdoos, he pole dances, he plays harmonica – without a harmonica -- and he’s funny, too. In his latest book of bold experimentation, My Life as an Experiment (Simon & Schuster, July 13), A. J. Jacobs, Editor-at-Large for Esquire, lives as a woman, becomes a human guinea pig, and otherwise provides an edutaining look at things we humans tend to hold dear – and then he turns it all askew.

Read about the experiments he underwent for this book on his website, AJJacobs.com. Read about how he relates to Winnie the Pooh’s friends, Tigger and Eeyore, here on PopMatters 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Can it be a speech? I just re-read Lou Gehrig’s "Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" speech on Wikipedia. (My six-year-old son keeps asking me for baseball stories, and I ran out, so I had to resort to scouring the Internet). That speech is so beautiful and moving.

Book: My Life as an Experiment: One Man's Humble Quest to Improve Himself by Living as a Woman, Becoming George Washington, Telling No Lies, and Other Radical Tests

Author: A. J. Jacobs

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 2010-07

Length: 272 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $15.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/e/experiment-cvr.jpgI love this line: “When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter -- that's something.” My mother-in-law once did that, and it was indeed something.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Tigger or Eeyore, depending on the day. Sometimes I feel like I can jump father than a kangaroo. But if I skimp on sleep or have too many deadlines, my Eeyore is in the ascendant.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Let’s Get Small, by Steve Martin. I was too young to realize that the title gag was about drugs, but I still thought it was hilarious.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek. Plus, I recently learned that the Vulcan salute is based on an ancient Jewish sacred hand gesture, which makes me like it even more.

5. Your ideal brain food?

For one of my previous books, I read the Encyclopedia Britannica (research The Know-It-All). And, yes, there are some boring parts (the 23 pages on Portuguese literature come to mind). But there was so much in there that was tasty brain food.

There must be a thousand movie ideas in the encyclopedia. Like the story of the beautiful Belle Boyd, who was a spy for the Confederates during the Civil War, but then fell in love with a Union soldier. It’s Romeo and Juliet set in the Civil War. I’m buying my Twizzlers and large soda right now.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

My favorite type of book is one that’s entertaining and also illuminating. I believe they used to call it ‘edutainment’. So that’s what I hope My Life As An Experiment does. I want people to learn about fascinating topics – psychology, outsourcing, marriage, the effects of multitasking – and enjoy themselves doing it.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Having a father who holds the world record for the most number of footnotes in a law review article (4,824).

Book: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

Author: A. J. Jacobs

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 2008-09

Length: 416 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $15.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/biblically-cvr.jpg8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

I love George Plimpton, the writer who would get himself punched in the face by pro boxers for a story.

But I’m particularly in awe of Nellie Bly, the wonderful 19th century female journalist and the pioneer of ‘immersion journalism’ (or whatever you want to call it). She committed herself to an insane asylum to expose the abuses there. She also traveled around the world in less than 80 days in an attempt to replicate the feats in Jules Verne’s novel.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

I’ve always been jealous of composer John Cage’s song, 4’33” which, as you might know, is four minutes and thirty three seconds of musicians sitting silently onstage.

How long did it take him to compose that? I’m guessing it was less than the two years it takes me to write a book. He’s much more efficient than I am.

10. Your hidden talents...?

I’m a hand cooer which, if you don’t know, means I can play songs by blowing into my hands. It’s sort of a harmonica without the harmonica part. For awhile, I owned the world record for longest sustained hand coo note. But my friend beat me. We’re still friends. Barely.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

When I was 12, I met Mario Cuomo, who was then running for governor. He was kind enough to take the time to give me some life advice: “Go everywhere you can go. Read everything you can read. Meet everyone you can meet. Eat everything you can eat. Learn everything you can learn.”

I still follow that advice. Well, mostly. I don’t eat cheese.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Honestly? It’s my iPhone. Which I bought. I love to listen to podcasts and books on tape, and there’s a button you can tap that makes them go doublespeed. So I get twice as much NPR.

The only problem is, when you’re having an actual conversation, you’re saying to yourself, ‘why is this person talking so slowly?’ Also, even at doublespeed, William Hurt takes forever to say a sentence.

Jacobs poses for "The Truth about Nakedness" chapter. Photo by © Nigel Perry

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Levis. I’m probably the worst-dressed man who works at Esquire magazine. My only criteria for clothes are that they be loose and comfortable. If there are Armani’s with elastic waistbands, I’ll try them.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I read about some amazing historical characters in the encyclopedia. Maybe I’d invite Victoria Woodhull, the great 19th century activist. She was the first woman to run for president. The first female stockbroker. Also, she was a renowned psychic.

I love the combination of a psychic stockbroker. Who wouldn’t invest with that?

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Maybe to the opening night of Rite of Spring by Stravinsky in Paris, 1913. Not because I’m particularly fond of atonal music. But because I’m fascinated that a piece of music could cause an actual riot in the audience. They were so angry about the lack of harmony and discordant notes, they rioted. I love that they took their art so seriously.

Nowadays, we’d just quietly leave at intermission and have a pasta dinner.

Book: The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

Author: A. J. Jacobs

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 2005-10

Length: 400 pages

Format: Paperback (reprint)

Price: $15.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/k/knowitall-cvr.jpg16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Spa vacation. As long as there’s internet access. I get stressed without it.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Coffee. Though my next book is about trying to be absurdly healthy, so I’m afraid I’ve had to cut back and start sipping green tea.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

City. Especially since I just read a study that said New York is, oddly enough, one of the healthiest places to live.

One reason is that we drive less, so we get in fewer car accidents. And I’m a terrible driver, so this is definitely good for me.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Don’t get angry when people say you need to be angrier.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

As I mentioned, I’m writing a book about trying to be the healthiest person alive. I’ve been testing everything from fish oil tablets to pole dancing classes to caveman workouts to playing the didgeridoo (good for preventing snoring).

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