A.J. Jacobs might look like your ordinary garden-variety
journalist, but labeling him with a title as unoriginal as that
would be the single best way to completely discredit his flair for
writing books more hilarious and dazzling than the inside of the
It's not just about his edgy lifestyle stunts either. Jacobs is
a bonafied New York Times bestselling author many times
over, the editor at large at Esquire magazine, husband
to Julie, and harried dad to three free-spirited boys,
Jasper, and twins Lucas and Zane.
His claim to fame - or infamy as it were - is his unmistakably
committed, insanely thorough, somewhat offbeat, irreverent yet
reverent submersions into immersion journalism.
Jacobs is perhaps best known for The Know-It-All: One Man's
Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,
published in 2004, that recounts the months he spent reading all 32
volumes - that's 44 million words - of the Encyclopedia
His unassuming wit and sarcastic enthusiasm is infectious, like
my favorite quote about The Know-It-All from his his official
biography: "It subsequently spent eight weeks on the New York
Times paperback bestseller list. It was praised by Time magazine,
Newsweek, Vanity Fair, USA Today, Janet Maslin in the New York
Times and A.J.'s Uncle Henry on Amazon.com."
Yes, he likes to write about himself in third person ... just to
see if you're paying attention.
So it's no wonder that after poring through those musty tomes
dedicated to everything from a-ak to zywiec, that Jacobs' next
experiment, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble
Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, published
in 2007, turned into a year-long endeavor dedicated to following
the holy book's 600+ precepts, parables, teachings and laws, from
the most famous to the less famous, like those that involved
letting his facial hair grow unfettered and free (which he did for
361 days), blowing a trumpet made from a horn at the beginning of
every month, stoning adulterers (he opted for pebbles), and
enlisting a spiritual advisory board of seasoned priests, rabbis
and ministers to guide him along his trying path. Jacobs even
included his estranged uncle turned radical rabbi (not the Uncle
Henry on Amazon.com) on his sojourn to Jerusalem.
That's what I mean about being thorough. The man leaves no stone
unturned (I sense a pun).
The Year of Living Biblically lasted on my nightstand
for just two days, and once I'd read it from cover to cover, I
decided I had to know more about the so-called agnostic who put
himself into "the mind-set and sandals" of his ancestors,
"first, to find out if I was missing something - like a man who had
never fallen in love or had never heard Beethoven - or if half of
the world is deluded."
Throughout our interview, a very down-to-earth, surprisingly
approachable Jacobs - no snooty divas here - told me I had the
patience of Job (perhaps the best compliment I've ever received),
battled pneumonia with chest-wracking coughs hearkening back to the
early 19th century, and gave me more than a few insights to his
topsy-turvy, always action-packed world.
Has the literary world ever reacted negatively to your
work? How do you deal with critics and naysayers?
Thankfully, I've gotten mostly positive reviews. But sure, I've
been trashed as well. I deal with naysayers the typical way: a
healthy diet of depression, brooding and revenge fantasies.
Actually, that's less true for the second book. The Bible talks a
lot about being thankful for the good things, and I think that
perspective actually rubbed off on me. I made a conscious decision
to focus on the good.
As a self-proclaimed human guinea pig, where do you
think your next experiment will lead you? Maybe you could try
subsisting on what I like the call "the toddler diet" for an entire
year. At the conclusion, you'll either come out looking like Keanu
Reeves in Little Buddha or like Morgan Spurlock after hitting the
McDonald's drive-thru for the umpteenth time.
Who doesn't enjoy the yogurt-covered fruity goodness of
Actually, my wife says I owe her after all I put her through
with the Bible book and the encyclopedia book, so she's been
pulling for a year of giving her foot massages. But the publisher
didn't go for that. Instead, I'm going to try to become the
healthiest man in the world. Workouts, diets, supplements, the
You've been interviewed on the Today Show, chatted
seat-to-seat with Oprah, and shared a cup of coffee with the
anchors on Good Morning America. What's the single best question
any of them asked you? Do you think they actually read your books
or just skimmed the dust jackets?
I was once on a radio show in Los Angeles and it was clear that
the host hadn't read the book. But more than that, it was clear he
hadn't read the 200-word summary provided by the publicist. He had
no idea what the book was about. We spent the entire ten minutes
talking about the cover design. As for the best question: Maybe
when John McEnroe (who had a short-lived talk show) asked if I
thought about the encyclopedia while having sex with my wife. At
the time, the answer, sadly, was yes.
Did you ever think that any of your books would end up
on the New York Times Bestseller List for so many consecutive weeks
in a row? Does that motivate you to want to write even
Well, if you're living biblically, then humility prevents you
from thinking your book will end up on the bestseller list. But I'd
also be lying (another biblical sin) if I didn't admit that I was
hoping it might happen.
When you're not writing, stoning adulterers or
convincing Jasper that he's really eating a bagel and not an
English muffin (I know he's very particular), and Julie's not
working on a scavenger hunt or wrangling the twins, what's a normal
dinner conversation - or any conversation - at the Jacobs home
like? Do you have a regular family routine?
Julie and I don't have a lot of leisurely conversations these
days. It's like when I interview a celebrity for Esquire,
and the publicist will say, 'You have 30 minutes to talk to Tina
Fey. Now go!' I feel the same with Julie. We have to find a few
minutes together, then talk really fast, like that guy in the old
As for Jasper, right now, he's into playing the game 'which one
doesn't belong.' But it's actually quite difficult, because he only
gives you two choices. 'Which one doesn't belong: A football or an
You seem to root for the underdog when it comes to your
writings - the idea of telling the truth no holds barred, the ever
popular but always controversial Bible, knowledge that one actually
has to look up in a non-electronic encyclopedia. What drives
I do love an underdog (by the way, I was curious, so I just
looked up its origin. The encyclopedia doesn't list the origin, but
some word nerd blogs say it comes from Michael Vick's favorite
sport. In early America, dogfights were common, and the dog that
was pinned down was called the underdog. In any case, I see myself
as an underdog more than an alpha male. So I'm just rooting for
Congratulations on welcoming twins Zane and Lucas to
your brood. What are the top five best things your children have
taught you about being a parent?
That it's hard to discipline a child when you're laughing.
That strawberries are surprisingly aerodynamic.
That Mo Willems is a genius.
Just how much joy can be derived from doing something for the
first time. The first time Jasper replaced a battery, he was
ecstatic for three hours.
That you can find hours of entertainment in simply watching your
children sleep. Though I imagine this will get creepy when they
turn 13 or 14. For now, it's okay though.
During your Bible study, did you come across any
passages banning or prohibiting the use of certain kinds of
diapers, promoting organic swaddling clothes or any other kind of
trimming and trapping associated with babies?
Well, I suppose that diapers should not be made of mixed wool
and linen. Also, if the diaper has corners, theoretically it should
have fringes hanging from it, as instructed in Leviticus.
Fertility became an issue for you and Julie during The
Year of Living Biblically. Was the ultimate decision to pursue
fertility treatments a no-brainer? Any advice for couples grappling
with elusive gestation and procreation?
We did want another child, and since our insurance covered IVF,
it was kind of a no-brainer. But I got the easy part. I just had to
give the shots. My poor wife had to get the shots and a whole lot
My only advice - and I think that Julie would back me up on this
- is that, if it works, you forget about the horrible stuff. It's
like writing a book. When I was writing this one, I was so
overextended, I swore I'd never write another book. But now I'm
going to do it.
What does the future hold for you and your
The aforementioned Yogos.
Three bar mitzvahs... probably with sports themes.
High School Musical 3.
Some group hugs.
Convonista says: A.J. Jacobs and I sat down for this
hilarious conversation in 2006. This interview was originally
released in 2007.
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.
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