A.J. Jacobs, The Guinea Pig Diaries

When the book club read A.J. Jacobs last summer, I was in a busy patch, and I didn't get around to The Year of Living Biblically. I figured it'd be a lot of fun, but even though I wasn't teaching at the time, somehow I still failed to make any time for it. I've always regretted that missed book more than the others (though I regret there've been any missed books at all).

So anyway, when I was at Munro's recently and saw on their sale table Jacobs' more recent The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment, well, it was an easy choice to pick it up. And that's in spite of the ways I'm trying to change my life after having read Ellen Ruppel Shell's wise and chiding Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which by the way I encourage you to read and think about carefully.

The Guinea Pig Diaries was just as much fun as I'd hoped it would be. I laughed several times while reading this book, loudly enough and often enough that my daughter looked up from her infinitely prolonged self-enacted Playmobil stories to glare meaningfully at me, and that's not something that happens much around here. Jacobs has figured out how to tell a story effectively while doing little more than telling us one MORE time that he's got some personality quirks and that his wife is a saint who's nevertheless awfully good at pushing buttons (his and others'), and it's a very pleasant book as a result.

Anyone who watches the usually funny but too often cringeworthy How I Met Your Mother will be familiar with the regular line "Challenge accepted! I, Barney Stinson, will [insert task here]": Neil Patrick Harris' character keeps interpreting comments like "that'll never work" as challenges, with predictably humiliating and/or dazzling effect. Well, Jacobs does the same thing, usually for a month at a time.

He outsources as much of his daily life as he can to a company in India: the weekly sweaty-eared call to his parents, passive-aggressive apologies to his wife, pushing deadlines with his editor, and so on. He does exactly what his wife tells him to do, for a whole month. He tries to be as rational as possible, catching his brain taking shortcuts whenever possible. (His description of the hell of 80 minutes spent taste-testing 40 kinds of toothpaste, for example, made me laugh for what seems now like inexplicable reasons, but laugh I did: "I never realized how much I hate mint. What a tongue-stinging, foul taste. It brings back memories of the green goo that goes with lamb chops. What kind of stranglehold to mint growers have on toothpaste makers? Bite me, mint lobby" [p.88]).

But that's it, mostly.

Sure, he contextualizes it all in a frame narrative of "what have I learned over the years?" and "has my life really changed as a result of the experiments?", but mostly it's a series of cute stories about a guy clever enough to realize that his wife is a gem, that he's a schmuck, and that the world's a really cool playground, even for adults. Words to live by for most of us, I guess, but it's a pleasant rather than a meaningful book.

Which is okay, I sometimes try to tell myself....


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