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This Guy Will Try Anything

Best-selling author’s whacky lifestyle experiments test the bonds of matrimony – and sanity

Email icon  elizabeth.t.johnstone@gmail.com

A.J. Jacobs sizes up his formidable foe, brown eyes narrowed behind the slim wire frames of his glasses. His enemy is freshly baked and smells temptingly like chocolate chips, cinnamon and nutmeg. His enemy is round, with crispy edges and a soft, chewy center. His enemy, right now, is a cookie.

Finally, Jacobs asks: “Is it organic?”

Unfortunately, it is not. He shrugs, and his face splits with a quick, sudden grin— the smile of a mischievous boy about to break the rules.

“Don’t tell my publisher,” he says, and takes a big bite.

Jacobs, bestselling author of “The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically,” and the new “The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment,” is a few months into his latest project: a year spent trying to become the healthiest person alive. This means only eating foods with less than five ingredients, going to the gym for the first time in his life, and of course, no cookies. But this time the cookie wins, if only because Jacobs has the pained look of someone who knows he’d eat frog legs in ketchup before hurting the feelings of the young baker who’s offering. Jacobs is probably what most people would call a Nice Guy.

He is a nice guy, who for the sake of one of his zany lifestyle experiments, unleashed his inner jerk to practice Radical Honesty, a movement started by psychotherapist Dr. Brad Blanton that requires chucking the filter between your brain and your mouth out the window. “He found it to be scary,” Blanton said.

Jacobs’ wife, Julie, confirms that he hates confrontation. At one point, he had to tell her somewhat tedious friends after a chance encounter at a restaurant that he never wanted to see them again. Radical honesty works, Jacobs mumbles, a tad embarrassed. He hasn’t seen the couple since.

This radically honest quagmire of marital relations is only one of the near-disasters Jacobs seems to court in “The Guinea Pig Diaries,” which Kirkus Reviews called “a lightweight but endearing and nimble look at how pursuing absurd extremes can illuminate the more mundane aspects of contemporary existence.”

Over several months, Jacob goes on an undercover online dating adventure as his children’s attractive nanny; poses naked at the request of the actress Mary Louise Parker for a spread in Esquire; and outsources his entire life, including arguments with his wife, to India. And in case you feel sorry for the long-suffering Julie, there’s “Whipped”— the month Jacobs spends at his wife’s beck-and-call. It was his answer to readers who wrote to inform him that she must be some kind of saint to put up with the by-products of his experiments: disgustingly long biblical beard, countless useless facts, writing down everything she says to use for fodder in his books.

“They said that I put my wife through so much that I needed to pay her back,” Jacobs said, sheepishly. This may be true, but there’s a bright side to living life on the record.
“I don’t have to send a holiday letter to anyone,” Julie cracked. For Julie is funny, too. “I feel like I should bring one of his books to my high school reunion and say, ‘here! Here’s sort of an update of what I’ve been doing.”’

Falling in Love at Entertainment Weekly

Fifteen years ago, they were co-workers at Entertainment Weekly. Jacobs, a writer with nothing better to do, volunteered to spend 24 consecutive hours testing a La-Z-Boy recliner equipped with a beer fridge and a butt massager. What would become the first of many extreme “experiments” failed, really, because he fell asleep. But the idea of immersing his ordinary self in extraordinary circumstances was firmly planted. Julie’s response? “This guy is craaaazy!”

His upbringing was far less eventful. He grew up in the tony Upper East Side, read books, attended a private school a few blocks away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then studied philosophy at Brown University.

After college, he worked his way up from covering sewage disputes for the Antioch Daily Ledger Dispatch, a tiny paper in San Francisco, to his current position as editor-at-large at Esquire. At 41, he has a full head of dark brown hair and an apartment on the Upper West Side where he is (usually) happily ensconced with Julie and their three young sons. And Julie has full veto power over his George Plimton-esque immersion pieces.

He described his first forays into the genre, such as crashing the Academy Awards disguised as the actor Noah Taylor, as thrill-seeking, gonzo-style journalism— “Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs.”

Julie laughed. “That’s about the time I found out he had a crush on me,” she says. If he had been trying to woo her from afar with his uniqueness, it worked.
“I thought, life would be interesting with him,” Julie says.

Now, he says, his experiments go deeper. Reading the encyclopedia and following all the rules of the Bible were excuses to satisfy his curiosity about topics that interested, in an extreme way. He also views the experiments as radical methods of self-improvement. For the chapter in The Guinea Pig Diaries about George Washington, he dressed like our first president, and followed Washington’s fastidious list of rules of civility and conversation — all 110 of them (published as Appendix A, just in case anyone else would like to give it a try). “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.” Yankee fans, are you listening?

Jacobs’ editor at Simon & Schuster, Marysue Rucci, said that Jacobs’ willingness to see things from another perspective is influential and provocative —perhaps the reason he gets so many e-mails with suggestions for future experiments, and detailed reports from those who have cracked open the encyclopedia in search of wisdom of their own.
“I don’t have the bravery to go through what he goes through,” Rucci said. “Radical honesty — I mean, can you imagine?”

But some of his ideas will never see the light of day, let alone a book deal. When Jacobs, a big fan of web-enhanced conversation (he whipped out his silver Macbook Pro early in our first interview), proposed spending a few months without any face-to-face interaction (communicating only through Facebook, instant messenger, and e-mail), Julie exercised her veto power. There’s no way he was going their niece’s bat mitzvah via iChat, she told him — not even for the sake of an experiment.

“I still think it’s an interesting one,” said Jacobs, momentarily defeated. “For someone who is not married.”

A.J. Jacobs' latest book.

Playing George Washington, just to see what it's like.

Photos Courtesy of Simon & Schuster