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 Liberace’s closet.
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 Britannica.
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 Yogos?
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 whole deal.
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 more?
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 FedEx commercial.
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 apple.’
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 that?
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 myself.
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 more.
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 family?
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.