The first thing you need to know: this book is hilarious. That might be the last thing you need to know, too. But if you want details, here are some: A.J. Jacobs writes regularly for Esquire. He incorporates madcap ideas in his professional and personal life. His descriptions of these trials—usually lasting about a month—are witty and entertaining. Moreover, his experiences as a “human guinea pig” offer serious food for thought, as well.
Jacobs begins by addressing one of our zeitgeist’s hot topics: multitasking, widely seen as an effect of the internet and of ubiquitous gadgetry in general. Everyone seems to be sending text messages while checking emails and talking on the phone, often to the accompaniment of music, sometimes while (gulp) driving. Research suggests that all this activity is actually rendering us less efficient, not more. We think we’re doing all these tasks simultaneously, but in fact are actually stopping and starting every time we shift our attention, which slows us down and makes for a more superficial effort all around.
Alerted to this idea, Jacobs spends a month doing what he calls “unitasking.” You remember—it used to be called “paying attention to what you’re doing.”
That was difficult enough, but harder still was Jacobs’ bout with something called Radical Honesty. This is more or less just what it sounds like. For a month Jacobs went through life without lying to anybody about anything. Or he tried to. He failed, but he gave it his best shot, and frankly was more honest than I usually am. The movement’s founder and number one proponent, Brad Blanton, agreed to a number of interviews for this chapter, and his honesty is, well, refreshing. But Jacobs finds himself bumping up against societal and personal constraints when Blanton pushes him to not only stop lying, but to go the next step and broadcast what is on his mind at all times.
Jacobs demurs, “Men think about sex every three minutes, as the scientists at Redbook remind us. If you speak whatever’s on your mind, you’ll be talking about sex every three minutes.” He is understandably reluctant to take this step.
There is also, of course, a thin line between dishonesty and compassion—do you really need to tell the grieving widow that you never liked her deceased husband anyway, and won’t miss him much? Probably not.
Jacobs’ experiments range from absurd (outsourcing his personal correspondence, including emails to his wife, to a personal assistant in India) to the nervy (impersonating Australian actor Noah Taylor, whom he resembles, for four hours at the Academy Awards). He allows himself to be photographed nude, in order to see what it feels like. He spends several weeks trying to abide by George Washington’s list of “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”. (Rule #24: “Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.” Rule #90: “Being set at meat scratch not, neither spit, cough, or blow your nose except there’s necessity for it.”)
Throughout, the tone is relentlessly breezy, even when the subject matter unearths serious considerations. In a chapter entitled “The Rationality Project”, Jacobs tries to weed out all the irrational responses that his brain has been taught throughout the course of his life. (Disclaimer: this isn’t possible.) Even when he’s being flip, he touches on important ideas: “Studies have shown we find things tastier if we pay more for them. Or if we eat them out of fancier containers. Later in the day, I eat microwaved chili off our wedding plates. It’s delicious.”
Reflecting on George Washington’s famous reserve, and how this ideal is so far from our modern era’s preferences for self-expression, Jacobs wonders, “Why should we show all our emotions? Why should we always try to be true to our natural selves? What if our natural selves are assholes? Stalin was true to himself.”
Good point. So too are his reflections about celebrity on Oscar night, when he was feted, celebrated, kowtowed to, and treated like a superman for no discernible reason. He refers to Robert Millman, a Cornell University professor who describes a mental disorder called Acquired Situational Narcissism. “This is a multisyllabic way of saying that celebrities often become wankers. When you’re famous, when everybody stares at you, flatters you, insulates you, you start to think you’re the center of the world.”
This might not be philosophy on the order of Bertrand Russell, but it’s interesting enough, and Jacobs is skilled at wrapping up such nuggets in lively anecdotes that keep the pages turning. As the reader approaches the final experiments, the author agrees to do anything—anything—his wife demands of him for one month. He says it’s to “explore the tricky power dynamics of the modern American marriage.” Fine, but we just want to see her put him through the wringer. We’ll probably learn something along the way, about gender or marriage or culture. That’s a bonus.