My favorite kind of learning is the stealth variety: where you don't realize you've learned something because you're too busy being engaged and (God willing) entertained.
With The Guinea Pig Diaries, nine immensely readable stories (and a clutch of highly enjoyable appendices, end notes and other writerly add-ons), A.J. Jacobs jumps straight to the top of my list of People I Officially Endorse Learning From. This book is smart as hell and you can dance to it, proving that you don't have to be a pompous gasbag (or even an earnest gasbag) to assist your fellow travelers in their quest for useful information.
Jacobs' not-so-secret approach to researching his stories is, as the title suggests, that he approaches his job as a journalist by treating his life as a series of experiments.1
The sly awesomeness to this approach is that it allows him to deeply explore topics that would otherwise be dangerous territory for an upper-middle-class, educated, Anglo male from the First World. When you're at the top of the privilege food chain, you risk alienating a huge portion of your audience by even broaching the subject of the subjugation of women; if, on the other hand, you can truthfully recount your real-life experience with being treated as an object (posing nude at the behest of a female celebrity) or a "wife" (ceding full control of decision-making to your own, real-life spouse), not only do you gain credibility, you garner some enormous good will. Especially if you're hilarious at your own expense in the recounting.
Not all of the topics are especially inflammatory: there's great, thoughtful stuff in there about nature and purpose of truth, courtesy of an experiment in something called "radical honesty", and some wonderful observations about the importance of character from a delightful piece on George Washington (who apparently didn't start out with much of the stuff, go figger!).
Even the essays you might consider puff pieces going in end up being substantial in their insights. "My Outsourced Life," a piece that in a slightly different form ran in Esquire several years ago, took a trendy topic, the growing number of Western folk who were turning to the Far East to get their dirty work done more cheaply, and without any big fuss managed to make some really good points about power, mutual respect and personal responsibility without ever veering into...well, pompous (or earnest!) gasbaggery. This is like the non-consumer-object version of what I've come to call "selling-fu": Jacobs invites you into his conclusion not by ramming his thesis and data down your throat, but by lining them up in an irresistible (yet truthful! and transparent!) fashion.
The older I get, the more I realize that there really is no way to change any mind that's not ready to be changed. But you can start building bridges with the right thoughts and techniques, so they're there to cross when the people on the other side are ready. A.J. Jacobs is building excellent bridges to further conversation, and I, for one, am happy to cross over and keep talking...
- Buy The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs on Amazon
- Visit A.J. Jacobs' website
- Watch A.J. Jacobs' talk on his Year of Living Biblically at the 2007 TED-esque EG Conference
1It's even got a name, "immersion journalism", and plenty of modern practitioners: Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, who wrote one of my all-time favorite read-and-re-read books, Nickle And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Although AJ is way funnier. At least, in the book.
Images (left to right): Photo of A.J. Jacobs © Nigel Parry, originally in Esquire; © 2009 Simon & Schuster; Design: Jason J Heuer, Photo: Michael Cogliantry.
Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.