Ask Me Another
5:10 pm
Thu May 2, 2013

A.J. Jacobs: The Quest To Do Everything

Originally published on Thu June 20, 2013 11:31 am

When it comes to learning about unfamiliar ways of living, author A.J. Jacobs believes the best way is to immerse yourself completely. The editor at large for Esquire magazine assumes the role of a "human guinea pig," taking on challenges many of us would find taxing. For his book The Know-It-All, he read the entire encyclopedia--from A to Z--in one year. In The Year of Living Biblically, he followed every single rule in the Bible, from loving thy neighbor to stoning adulterers. And for Drop Dead Healthy, his quest to become the healthiest person alive, Jacobs wrote the book while walking on a treadmill. In case you're wondering, he clocked in over 1000 miles.

Jacobs took a breather to chat with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg about how he usually comes up with these ideas: out of pure ignorance. He admitted that he knew nothing about the Bible, so he decided to learn about it from the inside-out. "I'm Jewish," he said, "But I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian." Jacobs also shared that he was shocked by the information his doctors provided as he started the journey toward bodily perfection. He added, "My body is what they called 'skinny-fat,' so I looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat."

For an Ask Me Another Challenge, we thought it would be fitting to quiz Jacobs on famous people who go by two initials and a last name. And one lucky grand prize winner of the show won a piece of the beard he grew during his year of living Biblically.

About A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs is the editor at large at Esquire magazine, author of four New York Times bestsellers and a human guinea pig.

Jacobs has written for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine and Dental Economics magazine, one of the top five magazines about the financial side of tooth care. He has appeared on Oprah, The Today Show and Good Morning America. He is a periodic commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, where he discusses important trivia.

His other experiments include My Outsourced Life, for which he hired a team of people in India to do everything for him--including arguing with his wife--and Radical Honesty, in which he removed the filter between his brain and his mouth for a month.


In the video below, A.J. Jacobs shares what he learned from his quest to be the healthiest man alive during a TEDMED talk.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is Esquire magazine's editor-at-large and author of New York Times' bestselling books "The Know-It-All" and "The Year of Living Biblically." Give it up for A.J. Jacobs.

(APPLAUSE)

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you. Thank you, Ophira.

EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

JACOBS: Pleasure to be here.

EISENBERG: So in our earlier trivia question about you, we talked that you spent time on a treadmill, standing up, writing "Drop Dead Healthy."

JACOBS: Right, yes.

EISENBERG: About 1,000 miles, that's right.

JACOBS: About 1,000 miles. Yeah. Because sitting is so bad - we're sitting right now.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

JACOBS: So I feel guilty, but sitting is actually quite unhealthy. So I thought I better walk and write the book at the same time.

EISENBERG: And now that you finished the book, are you back to the chair?

JACOBS: You know, I still do the walking and the...

EISENBERG: No way.

JACOBS: I do. I do. And by the way, I am extremely uncoordinated. So if I can do this, I think other people can.

EISENBERG: So you've built a permanent structure of treadmill and desk?

JACOBS: Yes. Yes, exactly. It is a permanent structure, treadmill and desk.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So when you go home at night, at 2 in the morning, you're on a treadmill?

JACOBS: Well, I wouldn't say - I don't get home at 2 in the morning.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: I've got three kids.

EISENBERG: Okay, sir.

JACOBS: I wish.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right, so when you get up at 5 in the morning...

JACOBS: There you go.

EISENBERG: You go on your treadmill.

JACOBS: Yes, absolutely.

EISENBERG: I heard that you said when you were - you know, you're writing "Drop Dead Healthy," your quest to become the healthiest person alive.

JACOBS: Right.

EISENBERG: That it almost killed you.

JACOBS: Yes. It was...

EISENBERG: How was that possible?

JACOBS: Well it was very painful.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Because I had never done anything before. I had never gone to a gym. You know, I had - my body was what they call skinny-fat. So I looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So this was a shock to my system. You know, I did start out slowly. So I started out with the chocolate, alcohol and coffee diet, because all of those - in moderation, of course - in moderation are...

EISENBERG: That's a diet, by the way? That's a diet.

JACOBS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Well, it's one I made up. But then I realized that had some limitations and I had to really go full force.

EISENBERG: You call yourself a human guinea pig, right? You read the encyclopedia all the way through and wrote about that. You've done numerous stunts in "The Guinea Pig Diaries" and then you lived your life according to the Bible for a year. Where do you get these ideas? Do you just decide, you know what, I'm just going to immerse myself? Why?

JACOBS: Well that's it. You know, usually it's out of pure ignorance. Because, you know, for the Bible book, I knew nothing about the Bible or religion. As I say in the book, I'm Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So not very. So I thought this was one way to learn about the Bible is by living it, by learning it from the inside out. So that's what I did. You know, I followed the hundreds of rules, love your neighbor, Ten Commandments, but also no shaving your beard and stoning adulterers.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: I used very small pebbles.

EISENBERG: Oh that's nice. That's nice.

JACOBS: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Very sweet of you.

JACOBS: Thanks.

EISENBERG: And how does your family respond to these stunts? That you're like, all right, I'm going to grow a big, crazy beard, and I'm going to stone adulterers and there you go.

JACOBS: They have mixed feelings, mixed feelings.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: I mean some of it they like. Like my wife liked that I tried to be a better person while living biblically and not gossiping. But other things drove her crazy. Like in the Bible, it says you cannot touch women during their time of the month.

And if you take Leviticus really literally, you cannot sit on a seat where a menstruating woman has sat, because then the seat is impure. So my wife found that offensive and sat in every seat in our apartment.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Good for her.

JACOBS: She is very sharp. And I had to stand for much of the year, which turned out to be very healthy. She was looking out for me.

EISENBERG: How did she like kissing you with the beard?

JACOBS: She didn't. Not only did she not like it, she did not kiss me with the beard.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So it was six months without...

EISENBERG: No smooching for six months.

JACOBS: Yeah, I know. Thank you. Thank you for the pity, yeah.

EISENBERG: The concern.

JACOBS: It was not easy.

EISENBERG: Your first book, "The Know-It-All."

JACOBS: Right.

EISENBERG: You read the entire encyclopedia. At the end of it, did that improve your life or is ignorance bliss?

JACOBS: The sad part is I've forgotten 99 percent of it, which is - and the parts that I remember are not - they're kind of hard to insert into everyday conversation. Like, I remember that Rene Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: That's the stuff that sticks in there. Or that the Bayer Aspirin Company, in 1898, they created a new cough suppressant. It was called heroin.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: And it was very effective, but it had some side effects. So they had to take it off the market.

EISENBERG: From "The Year of Living Biblically," was there something that you will keep in your life?

JACOBS: One thing is just the idea of gratitude, because the Bible says you have to say thanks all the time. I was saying thanks hundreds of times a day for all the little things that go right that we just take for granted. Like that this microphone is working, that's crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: That's amazing.

EISENBERG: You're right.

JACOBS: I'm very thankful for it.

EISENBERG: Thank you. Thank you, microphone. Yeah. I just have to talk about the beard again a little bit. So you saved the beard. Matter of fact, a little spoiler alert, a part of the beard you're offering as a prize.

JACOBS: I am. That was a mixed reaction from the crowd there.

EISENBERG: I know, they're scared.

JACOBS: I do have another present just in case, for some crazy reason someone doesn't want a tuft of my beard hair.

EISENBERG: And you have been on a game show before, because during "The Know-It-All" you went on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

JACOBS: The nemesis in that book is my brother-in-law, who is just a condescending, infuriating know-it-all. I think he'd be happy with me saying that. He knows it.

So when I finally got on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," I got to the $32,000 level and he was my phone a friend. So I call him up and he blows it. He chokes. So I humiliated myself on national television, but I brought him down with me.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So it was almost worth that $32,000. Not quite.

EISENBERG: All right, well you're pretty much up for anything, I can tell from what you've already done with your life and immersed yourself into. But I ask you, are you up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

JACOBS: I am ready to be humiliated again on national airwaves.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Very good. Thank you so much. A.J. Jacobs, everybody.

JACOBS: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Now, A.J., we found a contestant for you to play against. Her name is M.R. Hashman. Welcome.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Actually, your name is actually Maura Ruth.

MAURA RUTH HASHMAN: Yes, that's correct.

EISENBERG: But Maura, you have many nicknames.

HASHMAN: That is correct. Throughout my life, I've had several nicknames. One of them is my email in college was Mr. Hash.

EISENBERG: So I guess you got a lot of interesting emails.

HASHMAN: Yeah, it definitely gave me an assumed reputation anytime I emailed someone.

EISENBERG: Okay, very good. Good to know. Welcome, Maura Ruth. So in your honor, A.J., this game is called Initial Names. It's about famous people, who like you go by two initials and a last name. To make it trickier, we'll give you their full given names, dropping their initials plus a brief description.

For example, if I said Hineas Aylor, a 19th century showman, that's Phineas Taylor without the initials. And the answer it P.T. Barnum. Whoever wins gets a special ASK ME ANOTHER prize. How are you feeling, Maura?

You're going to do fine.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Obert Lawrence, Goosebumps inducing children's author.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: A.J.?

JACOBS: R.L. Stine

EISENBERG: Yes, exactly.

(APPLAUSE)

JACOBS: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Ohn Ierpont, turn of the 20th century plutocrat and bank namesake.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: A.J.?

JACOBS: J.P. Morgan.

EISENBERG: You got that one, yes.

JACOBS: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Athryn Awn, a Canadian country shantos and loather of capitalization.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: A.J.?

JACOBS: K.D. Lang.

EISENBERG: K.D. Lang.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Live Taples, Irish author who wrote a series of children's books with a Christian theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: A.J.?

JACOBS: C.S. Lewis.

EISENBERG: That's correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Yeah. Lwyn Rooks, famed writer for the New Yorker magazine, who also gave us "Stuart Little" and "Charlotte's Web." Lwyn Rooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: A.J.?

JACOBS: E.B. White.

EISENBERG: E.B. White, that is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Aurits Ornelis, Dutch graphic artist whose stairways seemed to go in circles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: A.J.?

JACOBS: M.C. Escher.

EISENBERG: M.C. Escher is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: A.J., you won this round.

HASHMAN: What?

EISENBERG: Well done.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Maura, you were fantastic. We have a prize for you. We have an ASK ME ANOTHER chamois. It's got trivia on it. You can use it to clean your iPad, eyeglasses.

HASHMAN: Oh, this is great, because I could not solve a Rubik's Cube.

EISENBERG: Well, we have a Rubik's Cube for A.J. Jacobs. Maybe he would like...

HASHMAN: Good.

EISENBERG: It's a special ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. Thank you so much, Maura. And one more round of applause for A.J. Jacobs.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Hey, Jonathan, do we get another song from you tonight?

JONATHAN COULTON: Yes. And, you know, I wanted to do a song by somebody with two initials, in honor of our last game, and so I picked ZZ Top.

(APPLAUSE)

COULTON: A lot of people don't know those Z's are initials, but it's for the two Top brothers, Zachariah and Zoloft.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: This is called "Sharp Dressed Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

COULTON: Clean shirt, new shoes. I don't know where I am going to. Silk suit, black tie. I don't need a reason why. Come running just as fast as they can. Every girl's crazy about a sharp dressed man.

Gold watch, diamond ring. I ain't missing not a single thing. Cufflinks, stick pin. I step out, I'm going to do you in. They come running just as fast as they can. Every girl's crazy about a sharp dressed man.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.