Book Review: The Guinea Pig Diaries

Excerpt from the book jacket:

In his role as human guinea pig, Jacobs fearlessly takes on a series of life-altering challenges that provides readers with equal parts insight and humor. (And which drives A.J.’s patient wife, Julie, to the brink of insanity.)

I loved The Guinea Pig Diaries, by A.J. Jacobs. It came into my life just yesterday – I spotted it while out shopping and couldn’t resist the title, especially since Jacobs’ The Know-It-All had been highly recommended by Carrie from Books and Movies (The Know-It-All is currently sitting in my to-be-read pile).

It’s rare that I decide to read a book on the day that I receive it; I’m such a moody reader, and my mood has to coincide with a book’s genre, plot and theme first. But late in the afternoon yesterday, I was feeling a little down, so I decided to read an essay or two from The Guinea Pig Diaries because I just didn’t feel in the mood for a novel.

What a ride those first few essays were! I couldn’t stop at just two essays; I ended up reading the entire book last night.. Did I say “feeling a little bit down”? It’s hard to stay down when you’re laughing out loud, and laugh out loud is exactly what I did while reading this book.

The charm of the book doesn’t stop there, though. Jacobs is very funny, but his words are more than pure comedy. He takes his experiments seriously, and writes about the insights he’s gained during the course of each experiment. Each essay ends with a Coda that talks about how the experience of the experiment itself has altered his life, for good or for bad.

And the experiments run such a wide range. There’s his outsourcing experiment, where he decides to spend a month outsourcing both his work and his personal life to a team out in Bangalore, India:

I had [Asha] call AT&T to ask about my cell phone plan. I’m just guessing, but I bet her call was routed from Bangalore to New Jersey and then back to an AT&T employee in Bangalore, which makes me happy for some reason.

Then there’s the month he decides to give Radical Honesty a try. Radical Honesty isn’t just about not lying; it also requires you to remove that filter from your brain and your mouth, so that you’re always – and that’s always – saying what you think:

One other thing is also becoming apparent: There’s a fine line between Radical Honesty and creepiness. Or actually no line at all. It’s simple logic: Men think about sex every three minutes, as the scientists at Redbook remind us. If you speak whatever’s on your mind, you’ll be talking about sex every three minutes.

There are other experiments, too. There’s the month he decides to live his life according to George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation; the month he gets a taste of what being a beautiful woman is like when he persuades his sons’ nanny to let him handle her online profile at a dating site; there’s the time actress Mary-Louise Parker agrees to write an essay for Esquire about what it feels like to pose naked (with an accompanying photo), provided Jacobs agrees to appear in the magazine naked too; and there’s the time he appeared at the Academy Awards disguised as a celebrity, for his “240 Minutes of Fame”.

My favourite piece, though? It’s a toss-up between “The Rationality Project” and “Whipped”. During Project Rationality, Jacobs decides to eliminate all cognitive biases from his brain for a month:

As one scientist puts it, we’ve got Stone Age minds living in silicon-age bodies. Our brains were formed to deal with Paleolithic problems. When my brain gets scared, it causes a spike in adrenaline, which might have been helpful when facing a mastodon but is highly counterproductive when facing a snippy salesman at the Verizon outlet.

What I liked most about “The Rationality Project” was the aftereffect Jacobs experienced as a result. There’s something that’s so appealing to me about letting go of the assumptions we make all too readily about various situations in life, and Jacobs highlights some real long-term benefits of his experiment.

In “Whipped”, Jacobs decides to go along with readers’ suggestions that he make it up to his wife for all that she has  had to put up with during the course of his quirky quests and experiments:

I need to pay Julie back in a more appropriate fashion. I need to spend a month doing everything my wife says. She will be boss. I will be her devoted servant. It will be a month, they say, of foot massages and talking about feelings and scrubbing dishes and watching Kate Hudson movies (well, if Julie actually liked Kate Hudson movies, which she doesn’t).

How could I not enjoy reading about that? Jacobs was figuring that his wife would get bored of being in charge. Do I even need to say it? That didn’t happen.

I loved The Guinea Pig Diaries. It was funny, yes, but each essay also made me think. And to me, that’s essay writing at its best.

I’m very eager now to read Jacobs’ The Know It All – or at least, I would be, if it weren’t for the fact that he misspelled Wayne Gretzky’s name in that book (and that is an inside joke you’ll only get once you’ve read The Guinea Pig Diaries).

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