A.J. Jacobs: The Guinea Pig Diaries

In his introduction, Jacobs lays asserts that his participatory journalism draws on the tradition of writers like Nellie Bly and John Howard Griffin (the author of Black Like Me). But I would assert that he also belongs somewhere along the continuum of writers like Dave Barry and Mark Leyner, who blur the lines between the humorous essay and autobiographically inspired fiction. Jacobs and his (presumably) long-suffering wife Julie are very much characters in The Guinea Pig Diaries. I was also reminded of Julie Powell (Julie & Julia) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, 30 Days) , both of whom also participate in time-bounded projects and explicitly incorporate their partners’ reactions into the work documenting the project.

Jacobs’ blend of ingredients is not dissimilar to Spurlock’s: a lot of subjective experience, a dab of underlying science, a few gags, a bit of analysis, a few insights. (Probably my favorite aspect of The Guinea Pig Diaries, much of which was originally published as articles for Esquire, are the codas to each essay, in which Jacobs discussed how each project did (or didn’t) continue to affect his life after its conclusion.) But I think it’s fair to say that the emphasis is on entertainment, with educational value as a secondary focus.

Jacobs’ nine “experiments” and the resulting chapters all follow the same basic template. Some seemed goofier than others. I thought “What Would George Washington Do?” was the weakest, but it demonstrates the general form. In it, Jacobs follows Washington’s personal code of conduct for a month (sort of an abbreviated, watered-down version of Jacobs’ own The Year of Living Biblically) with a side-order of biographical tidbits; in the process he comes to realize how uncivil our society is, and how much he dislikes shaking hands.

The fascinating meta-lesson of Jacobs’ experiments, though, is that he consistently finds that adopting a given behavior — even very artificially and deliberately — winds up changing his attitudes about the behavior he’s adopted. Funnily enough, I recently arrived at the same realization (perhaps sparked by some of the things I read in Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open) and so I’m currently engaged in a few different Jacobs-style experiments with the goal of altering my mindset through behavioral changes. (For instance, I’m trying to defuse my anger at unsafe and law-breaking bicyclists. So far, it seems to be helping.)

needs more demons? the essays do get a bit samey if you read them all back-to-back (which is awfully easy to do). The incursion of an extra-dimensional evil entity would have broken up the pace a bit, for sure.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

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