A.J. Jacobs is wearing a pedometer fastened to his shorts when he walks into the restaurant he chose for our lunch: a health-food joint on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that’s filled with terrifyingly skinny middle-aged women wearing yoga pants. He also has a video camera, which at first I take for a cellphone headset, clipped to his ear. “Do you mind?” he asks. “It’s for a story. I’m supposed to document everything that happens to me.”
At first, the thought of having a speaking part in one of Jacobs’ signature articles thrills me. Jacobs, after all, is famous for a particular type of experimental (in the true sense of the word) journalism. The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment chronicled his willingness to try pretty much anything — posing nude, living as George Washington, embracing extreme honesty (in which one says whatever is on one’s mind). And these are just his short-term experiments. For The Know-It-All, Jacobs read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Year of Living Biblically, his most ambitious book, required him to take literally, for 12 solid months, the proscriptions and prescriptions of the Bible, from stoning adulterers (with pebbles) right down to living by some of Leviticus’ most baffling rules (avoiding mixed fibers, for instance).
These books and essays are much more than the sum of their respective conceits. Jacobs is a first-rate humorist, but his wit is both gentle and profound; he never takes a potshot, and he saves his most intense scrutiny for himself. Though the stunts may seem gimmicky at times, the writing never is; Jacobs’ intellectual curiosity matches his willingness to go out on a limb. He’s absolutely game for anything, and he brings a nimble intelligence to bear on every endeavor. His latest is titled Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection.
There is so much out there on this subject — probably several Britannicas’ worth of diet and nutrition advice alone. How did you decide what to write about?
I could have spent another century on this project, assuming I lived that long. To limit things, I focused on two main areas. First, I wanted to follow health advice that has real evidence behind it. For instance, what do studies actually say about Vitamin C for colds?
I don’t know. That it helps?
No, it doesn’t work. And what do legit scientists think about the sedentary life? (Answer: It will slowly kill you). But then I also wanted to explore a handful of the extremist movements, such as your raw-meat-eating cavemen and your Crossfit groupies who find satisfaction in working out until they vomit.
Were there extremes that were even too much for you?
Plenty of them. I decided colonics were not for me. Granted, I did get a run-of-the-mill colonic just to see what it was like, but I passed on the more exotic colonic treatments. There’s a buffet of options I declined: coffee colonics, yogurt colonics — you name it.
So you do draw the line somewhere.
I do have a pretty high bar for humiliation. I’m OK looking ridiculous as long as there’s a chance it will lead to something interesting or insightful. Sometimes I think of myself as a method actor. When I dress in robes and sandals and grow a huge beard, it’s not the real me. It’s a character I’m exploring.
You seem to be enjoying yourself tremendously. Are there moments when you’ve quailed?
When my wife ran into some old friends at an ice-cream store and pretended that she didn’t know me (I looked like Moses at the time), I thought, “Am I taking this too far?”
Your wife is an awfully good sport.
She is. Though there is a part in The Year of Living Biblically about seats: The Bible says you can’t touch a woman during her “time of the month.” And if you take Leviticus really strictly, you can’t sit on a seat where a menstruating woman has sat, because the seat has become impure. Julie found that offensive, so she sat in every seat in our apartment, and I had to stand for much of the year.
According to Drop Dead Healthy, standing is supposed to be good for you.
I have actually given up the sedentary life. I was really surprised by all the research that says sitting at your desk all day is terrible for you. One doctor even told me, “Sitting is the new smoking.” So I bought a treadmill, put my computer on top of it and wrote the book while walking. And I still do most of my work on a treadmill. I love it. It makes me feel more energetic, if ridiculous-looking.
As I read Drop Dead Healthy, I couldn’t help but be a little surprised that you don’t spend much time worrying about the body’s appearance.
I pretty much knew I could never have six-pack abs. One of my favorite discoveries was a Harvard Medical School journal that argued that six-pack abs are actually unhealthy. Apparently, rock-hard abs make you breathe more shallowly instead of from your diaphragm. Who knows if that’s true, but I grabbed on to that fact and told everyone. And it was from a Harvard publication! It wasn’t like I saw it on a Marilu Henner infomercial.
Which of your books is your favorite?
The Year of Living Biblically, just because it changed my worldview more profoundly than any of the other projects. I grew up with no religion, and I had a very narrow view of the topic. I couldn’t understand why so many smart people were deeply religious. Why would you believe in these ancient, dusty legends? I thought it was the equivalent of believing in the tooth fairy. But I got to see life from their point of view, and I found many things I liked about religion. Not everything, and I still don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I saw the benefits firsthand.
Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
By A.J. Jacobs
Simon & Schuster
A.J. Jacobs will appear at the Southern Festival of Books, Oct. 12-14 at Legislative Plaza. All events are free and open to the public.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.