BY DAVE ALLEN When does a quirk turn into something more? Writer A.J. Jacobs has turned what seems like a quirk — overhauling his life in sometimes-simple, sometimes-radical ways and cataloging the impact at length in books and for Esquire — into a genre. Quirk is the baseline for Jacobs’ life — he works at a fashionable men’s magazine, but largely forsakes fashion for comfort and claims to own only one suit; he’s an obsessive-compulsivegermaphobe living in New York City, where personal space and public hygiene are scarce — but with each experiment, he seems to take his fish-out-of-water strangeness a little further. His efforts, though, starting with 2004’s “The Know-It-All,” have begot an entire life-experiment craze in literary memoir — for a recent example, see “No Impact Man,” about trying to go green and save the planet while being a young, hip husband and father. With the release of “The Guinea Pig Diaries” in September, Jacobs seems to have reached the end of tinkering with his lifestyle; now that he has three young children, future experiments might be too damaging. With this culminating work, and Jacobs’ appearance this Saturday at the First Person Arts Festival, in mind, let’s ask: why did he do all this?
In “The Know-It-All,” Jacobs reads the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, eager both to become the smartest man in the world and to compensate for a lax, intellectually diffuse college and adult experience. The chapters run alphabetically, with sections headed by encyclopedia entries, and he turns many of them into disquisitions on the importance and meaning of knowledge, his struggles to conceive a child with his wife, and the way that bits of knowledge creep into his conversations and end up confusing or boring the hell out of friends, associates, and the late Ted Kennedy. Why this lust for knowledge, which began with a young Jacobs seeking to become “the smartest boy in the world” and even laying claim to the title? He grew up with an intellectual heavyweight for a father, a widely-published author who held the record for most footnotes in a book. It’s not just to say he’s done it, and the way that much of the information fails to stick with him makes it clear that the mission won’t make him the smartest man in the world. In a larger sense, it’s about self-improvement and about setting goals, even if they’re difficult — or downright impossible. We all know what it’s like to try to be the best at something, but we know even better what it’s like to come up short. In the end, Jacobs comes to appreciate his father’s deep knowledge and love of the obscure and how much trivia to sprinkle into his conversations and articles. He even realizes all of this before he collapses, exhausted, after reading aboutZywiec, a Polish city famed for its breweries.
“The Year of Living Biblically” casts an even wider and, for many Americans, an even more personal net. Having been in a largely secular Jewish household, Jacobs is curious but skeptical about the importance of religion. More deep-immersion ensues, and he tries to adopt a strictly religious lifestyle and seeks to adhere as closely to a literal interpretation of the Bible as possible. He risks more than eyestrain from reading lots of fine print in a book; outright shunning seems a distinct possibility after he grows out his beard and forelocks (those crazy curlicues Orthodox Jews have), stones adulterers, and goes out of his way to avoid menstruating women. He does all this with little regard for how it might disrupt his life, or his wife’s or his son’s, his co-workers’, and or the lives of dozens of strangers he meets as he explores the nature of religious faith. He just goes for it, and while he doesn’t actively step on toes, but he does dive into the deep-end of religious fundamentalism in this country, visiting the Amish, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, the Creation Museum (devoted to disproving Darwinian evolution), and an all-Hasidimrager in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Even though he concocts an alter-ego to help get himself in the proper, reverent state of mind — he calls this alternate, super-religious version of himself “Jacob” — his heart is clearly in it. He prays, probably for the first time in life, and wonders about the legacy he’ll leave for his son and for the child conceived during the year of spiritual exploration. He emerges a “reverent agnostic,”
These various episodes might seem like a kind of “Candid Camera” or, worse, “Punk’d,” but Jacobs is, at his heart, a very thoughtful and humane guy, despite the quirks. He doesn’t gloss over the untidy, all-too-human bits: his compulsions, his shallow interests in pop culture, his desire for success (and the Amazon searches for his book sales that go with it). We’ve seen participant-observer accounts before — much of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction comes to mind, as well as George Plimpton’s — but Jacobs seems dead-set on journeying to the center of himself, rather than rooting out the heart of a decadent society, a la Wolfe, or the National Football League, a la Plimpton. Since wrapping “The Year of Living Biblically ,” Jacobs has even taken on multi-tasking and attempted to rid his life of it. Sounds minor, but revolutionary, in a way: focusing on only one thing at a time, giving people your undivided attention. Word has it he’s going to turn the audience this Saturday into some kind of experiment, too. You might not walk away converted, to Judaism or to anything else, but you might be changed.
A.J. Jacobs reads from “The Guinea Pig Diaries” at 7 pm, Saturday, November 7, at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets available here.