I first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living Biblically”. This intrigued me, so I decided to read the book he was pushing at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, because I didn’t know what types of experiments Jacobs had performed. But the book is short, and his writing, if sometimes overbearing, is usually entertaining too. The Guinea Pig Diaries is genuinely interesting and enjoyable.
This is a compilation of articles that appeared, in one form or another, in Esquire. I considered talking about each chapter briefly, but with nine chapters, the detail I would like to devote to each experiment would make this review long and frightfully boring. I loved some chapters and didn’t like others. So I’ll give you the highlights.
The first chapter, “My Life as a Beautiful Woman” was one of my favourites. I spend a lot of time online. When I was younger, I was (probably wisely) relatively anonymous. Gradually I allowed that anonymity to evaporate, and now I use my real name everywhere. This is important to me, because I do not want to create a dichotomy of online/offline personae; I want to be me, whether I am on the Web or in person. But for other people, anonymity is a necessity or a desire. It’s a chance to escape, to gain voice, to explore an alternative identity. The fact remains that despite some legislators’ brutal attempts to curtail the fundamental openness of the Internet, it is very difficult to verify someone’s true identity.
In the case of Michelle’s online dating profile, Michelle was actually the user and participated on the site … but she had Jacobs ghostwriting for her. I loved Jacobs’ account of how this experience changed the way he saw some of these men and, in turn, what he thought about dating and dating sites in general. He expresses his disappointment when dates he has arranged for Michelle don’t go well. He exhorts men to be prudent in their selection of usernames: “topnotchlover” sends a very specific message…. I found myself wishing for more of this chapter, just because the story of this partnership between Jacobs and Michelle to navigate the waters of online dating was so intriguing!
Fortunately, “My Outsourced Life” also proved interesting. The idea of outsourcing one’s entire life sounds like—and usually is—a joke. Jacobs plays it up this way at first, making light of how he hired two different Indian companies to attend to his business and personal tasks, respectively. His assistants, Honey and Asha, did research for him, composed emails, placed delivery orders, etc. Jacobs has his assistants write emails to his boss, write apology notes to his wife, and even conduct a phone call with his parents! It’s all right-out-of-the-textbook hilarious. But as the chapter progresses, a theme emerges:
When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is screwed. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.
It is a small and subtle observation of the culture of entitlement and complacency that belies the myth of the American dream that one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Other countries are trying that tactic too, and they are reaping the benefits of getting Bootstrap v2.0.
“The Truth About Nakedness” is a slightly underwhelming chapter. It is not, as the title and risqué photo that precedes the chapter might suggest, about Jacobs’ year of living nude. No, instead he discusses how Mary Louise Parker agreed to pose nude for an article she was writing for Esquire about what it feels like to pose nude. Parker said yes, but she wanted Jacobs, as her editor, to pose nude as well. And of course, being the human guinea pig that he is, he acquiesced. I was not that interested in his account of the details of the photoshoot and his feelings at the time. However, the coda to this chapter is a strong voice for critiquing media:
I can never look at a nude picture in the same way. I can still admire a nude photo, but I can no longer separate it from the context in which it was created. I can’t forget, as Mary-Louise put it, the loss of control and possible objectification.
Photography has this amazing power to capture a moment and keep it suspended with infinite potential: what is happening, and what will happen? The right photograph at the right time can be evocative and inspiring. Yet photography can also reduce a human subject to an object, something to be admired or lusted after. For a photograph to be inspiring and empowering, there needs to be that human connection. Jacobs underscores the idea that every photograph has a story, and when we look at a photo, we should wonder about that story.
There are other chapters that are well worth reading: he spends a month doing everything his wife asks; he spends time trying to act completely rationally; he spends a month dressed as George Washington. With each chapter, Jacobs mixes witticisms with genuine reflection, and he always manages to dig down to some kind of profound, albeit not earth-shattering, truth. Despite Jacobs’ engaging tone and the book’s short length, The Guinea Pig Diaries is not a light, fluffy bagatelle. Sometimes that tone bothered me—Jacobs writes with the smugness of someone who is being funny and knows it, and that sardonic self-awareness irked me. His writing has that feel of being smooth, practised, and edited, with the perfect parenthetical inserts and the oh-so-well-timed asides. But this is a minor complaint for what is otherwise a solidly entertaining book.
The subtitle of this book is My Life as an Experiment. I hope that most people’s lives are experiments of one sort or another. I don’t ghostwrite for women’s online dating profiles or live by the personal code of conduct of one of America’s Founding Fathers … but I like to think that even as an introvert, I manage my own little experiments quite well. You don’t have to be audacious and ostentatious in your experimentation if you don’t want to … although, who knows, maybe it means you have a book deal in your future!