A.J. Jacobs recently released another memoir analyzing an aspect of his life while simultaneously writing a treatise on a sociological issue. His literary journey has taken him from writing about knowledge and spirituality to his most recent offering, a book exploring the idea of how to build a healthy body.
Jacobs recently took some time to respond to some questions regarding his recent bestseller Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection.
Diversions: Our journal is primarily interested in what we refer to as “American experiences.” Body image is certainly on the minds of many Americans, as is a level of anxiety regarding health. In Drop Dead Healthy, you refer to your wife’s urgings and an experience with pneumonia as catalysts for the pursuit of “bodily perfection.” My first question is, how did your perception of the idea of health change as a result of your experiences?
Jacobs: I realized there’s a big difference between looking healthy and being healthy. America has a weird obsession with washboard abs, for instance. Sure, they’re pretty to look at. But killer abs don’t increase your lifespan. I’m more interested in things that make you live longer, stress less and increase your happiness than those that reveal the musculature of your stomach.
Diversions: You tried a lot of so-called cures on your quest for physical fitness. In retrospect, what alleged path to fitness seemed like the biggest waste of time? Is there any thing you would describe as an obvious scam?
Jacobs: Yes, two things — one from each end of the body. First, juice cleanses and detox diets. There’s little if any scientific evidence that they make you any healthier. Your body detoxes by itself just fine. Second, on the other end, colonics. You can live a long and happy life without shooting water up your butt.
Diversions: What is your writing process? I’ve read The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, and I’m consistently impressed by the apparent transparency of your style. Does this come naturally to you, or has there been a process of stripping away any boundaries between you and your readers? What are your current boundaries? Are there things you won’t write about or share with your audience? (For the record, I’ve also skimmed The Guinea Pig Diaries at a local Barnes and Noble. I’m not sure why I haven’t bought it yet. I’ll get to work on that ASAP.)
Jacobs: Thank you for your honesty about The Guinea Pig Diaries. Very transparent of you! I think there’s something liberating about writing about my own flaws, so maybe that plays into my writing style. I also read my books out loud to myself and will often change the sentence structure to make it sound more conversational.
Diversions: Can you share any upcoming projects with us? Are there any experiments on the horizon for intrepid urban explorer A.J. Jacobs?
Jacobs: I’m planning on diving into the world of Silicon Valley. I want to embed myself with the startup community.
Diversions: Are you answering my questions from your treadmill desk?
Jacobs: Total honesty here: I spent six hours on my treadmill today and notched up 11,700 steps. But right now I’m sitting on my butt.
In previous works such as “The Know-It-All” and “The Year of Living Biblically,” A.J. Jacobs has educated and entertained readers with his unique, humorous style of immersive, experiential journalism. Now, in “Drop Dead Healthy,” he has completed a trinity of sorts, exploring the development of his mind, spirit, and body.
While the origins of body consciousness may have originated in ancient cultures, there is no question about where it has reached its zenith. Americans are constantly bombarded with images of idealized bodies, alleged miracle wellness cures, fitness routines designed to bring out the visibility of the musculature on our torsos (why?), and weight-loss diet programs. Jacobs wades out into the conceptual quagmire known as “health” and attempts to make some sense of it all by subjecting himself to repeated, often genuinely funny, experiments and procedures while chasing after healthiness.
Jacobs’ narrative begins with a traumatic bout with pneumonia during a family vacation and some not-so-subtle prodding from his wife. He realized how his quality of life and life expectancy could both benefit from a reevaluation of his current lifestyle choices. As with his previous pursuits, Jacobs dives into the quest for health wholeheartedly, consulting with an assortment of so-called experts before engaging in experiments on various bodyparts.
“Drop Dead Healthy” is a very organized book, structured according to whatever specific aspect of health Jacobs was focused on while writing. For example, food, sex, stress management, sleep, “toxins” and hydration all get their own chapters.
Jacobs’ inquisitive spirit leads him to try anything and everything in order to achieve optimal health, and he quickly learns that a lot of the information in the multi-billion dollar fitness industry is contradictory and often useless. When he finds something that does work, Jacobs gleefully relates his successes to his readers, and he delights in skewering allegedly effective health remedies and programs when they amount to nothing more than hype. He donned noise-cancelling headphones to preserve his hearing and wrote the majority of the novel while walking on a treadmill with a makeshift desk for his laptop in an effort to burn calories and strengthen his cardiovascular system. Behaviors that may seem weird to casual observers often proved effective in Jacobs’ project, and he welcomes the attention his odd practices generate.
Jacobs’ self-deprecating humor is his greatest attribute as a writer, and this is one area where his books truly shine. There are few authors who lay themselves bare in the way Jacobs does, both in his experiments and in his more personal relationships. Jacobs’ wife, Julie, is a frequent fixture in his books, and he isn’t shy at all about sharing exactly how his lifestyle experiments affect his relationship. For example, after reading about how arguing may help keep the brain healthy, Jacobs began looking for ways to engage in verbal skirmishes. “Nowadays, I’m always looking for a fight,” Jacobs wrote. “Yesterday, Julie told me she read an article about how songbirds are being illegally hunted in Europe. ‘Isn’t that terrible?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then I saw an opening. ‘But let me ask you this. Is it any more terrible than people killing and eating turkeys or chickens?’ I then ranted about how we think it’s okay to eat ugly animals: cows or turkeys . . . By this time, Julie had stopped listening, and I’m following her around the kitchen as she puts away glasses and bowls.”
Although Jacobs ostensibly embarks on a mission to learn what fitness gurus have to say about whatever the secrets to healthy living may be, his narrative is more accurately described as one of perpetual self-discovery. Jacobs learns that health is a relatively flexible idea, and the process of finding what works for him is the part of his journey readers will benefit the most from.
- Jacobs’ style is supremely accessible and easy to read.
- The book is extremely informative. You will learn things.
- This book is funny. You will literally laugh out loud while reading it.
- Some of the gimmicky experiments feel, well, gimmicky.
- Because the volume of information is so great, it can feel very academic sometimes. This happens rarely, but it may provide problems for readers with shorter attention spans.