My Experimental Life (A.J. Jacobs)

A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically is one of my favourite books. In it, Jacobs, a non-practising Jew, takes up the challenge in the self-explanatory title: living a year according to the literal rules of the Bible – eight months Old Testament and four months New Testament. The result is a hilarious quest proving his wife to be an absolute saint. But it is more than just humorous. After just a few weeks it becomes clear that the Bible requires interpretation. I still think The Year of Living Biblically should be compulsory for all biblical hermeneutics classes.

Nut Job Journalism

In My Experimental Life* Jacobs continues in the tradition of experimental journalism; the best way to describe something is by experiencing it yourself. Contrary to The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All (in which he read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover), My Experimental Life is a collection of nine shorter experiments:

  1. exploring internet dating using the profile of his stunning babysitter;
  2. outsourcing his life;
  3. living according the rules of radical honesty;
  4. impersonating an actor at the Oscars;
  5. making only rational decisions;
  6. posing nude;
  7. following the life rules of George Washington;
  8. saying goodbye to multitasking;
  9. surrendering to every single wish of his wife.

In his typical witty and hilarious style Jacobs again displays his utter commitment to his quirky experiments. From using an outsourced Indian assistant to send his mom a birthday gift to wearing a face mask when phoning, to not get distracted; Jacobs goes all the way.

Challenging humour

The result is a compendium of easy to read, short reports. I read through it in no time. He takes the reader from wanting to participate in his projects to understanding that you have to be an absolute nut job to take it this far. For example, in the radical honesty test it is quite clear that there is a huge difference between trying to be honest and insulting people.

But Jacobs also inspires the reader to think about their own life and question aspects of it. Are we, men, really as bad in helping our wives as the book suggests? The “Whipped”chapter definitely challenged me to be more sensitive to the amazing amount of energy my wife invests in our household. Or is the constant flow of simultaneous stimuli indeed causing us to be more stressed out as the chapter on multitasking suggests? Maybe it would be a good thing if Facebook wasn’t on when I’m watching a movie.

Fragments

Despite these positive sides, My Experimental Life did not meet the expectations I had. Because of the smaller snippets, the flow of the book is just not as great as his previous work. The humour and conclusions are more shallow. Which is logical given the format, but at the same time it is what I was craving, coming from the convincing conclusions and humour in The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs’ numerous repetitions of referring to struggling with how to handle Jewish purity codes, for example, led to situations so magnificently described I found myself laughing out loud several times. My Experimental Life has to settle for just smiles. Not bad, but just not as satisfying.

In the same way The Year of Living Biblically was much more thought provoking. Maybe that is partly influenced by my background as a theologian, but I believe almost all readers will have been more challenged by the ethical deliberations in his literal Bible study. My Experimental Life is just too fragmented to do that. As said earlier, it does challenge the reader, but even though I read The Year of Living Biblically more than four years ago and My Experimental Life only recently, I reiterate that the former is much better.

My Experimental Life is a good read. It’s witty, fun, and enriching. But just not that much more than that. So pick it up and enjoy, marvelling at the crazy rides he exposes his wife to (truly, she is still a saint). And then go read or reread The Year of Living Biblically.

A.J. Jacobs, My Experimental Life (Arrow Books, 2009)


  • Also released as The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment