A book, or just a thicker magazine?

When it’s hot outside, and my brain needs some rest, I sometimes think I need to read a magazine. And often I do – a few weeks ago, for example, I read the May 21st issue of the New Yorker, which was particularly jam-packed. I was especially fascinated and touched by the story in that issue about the career and death of the Kenyan Marathon runner Samuel Wanjiru.

But often, I have to say, I don’t find magazines very satisfying. Too many ads, too few articles, too much of same-old, same-old. Although I have to say that I almost always buy the Oprah Magazine before going on long trips, I am getting sick and tired of being told by Dr. Oz how anti-oxidants will change my life, and Oprah’s mixed messages are annoying: am I supposed to be content with what I have, or am I supposed to buy more stuff?

(Note to self: I should probably read Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk)

So, what to do when you’re too hot and tired to read anything longer than 20 pages, but you can’t stand to buy a magazine? Short stories work for some (and I can recommend The Penguin Book of Summer Stories as a start). But this weekend, I read non-fiction instead: A.J. Jacobs’ Guinea Pig Diaries, which is a compilation of humorous essays about various experiments the author has tried on himself. The experiments include

  • being as rational as possible for a month (which Jacobs defines as avoiding cognitive biases)
  • acting like George Washington for a month (by following the list of 110 Rules of Civility, compiled by Jesuit instructors, on which Washington was known to model his behavior
  • outsourcing tasks in both his personal and professional life to two women working for companies in Bangalore (Jacobs  notes that his article on the subject preceded the enormous popularity of the 4-Hour Workweek craze
  • posing nude for a magazine
  • doing everything his wife desires for one month
  • “living as a woman” – or so the book cover claims
  • uni-tasking for one month, while musing on Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Of all of these tasks (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), the only one which failed to either make me laugh and think a little (mainly because I was too annoyed) was Jacobs’ quest to “live like a woman.” This is misleading – Jacobs simply spent a month collaborating with his single, 27-year old babysitter (who, he reminds us repeatedly in a way that even he acknowledges might be a little creepy, is very attractive) in her quest to find a boyfriend through online dating. Sorry, A.J., or more likely, A.J.’s publisher, if all that “living like a woman” entails is a stream of mild rejection, some embarrassment and a whole lot of complimentary emails from men, sign me up. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Jacobs does get into a few more of these complications, in fact, in the essay for which he did everything his wife desired for a month. He acknowledges (as does his wife, in an interesting coda), that the most eye-opening moment of this experiment came when the couple sat down, and Jacobs’ wife simply wrote down every household task she completed every week. Surprise! She was working the second shift. As a person who is lucky enough to read reference books and talk about information behavior for a living, I also found Jacobs’ chapter on multitasking, or the avoidance thereof, to be both funny and extremely interesting. Mostly, though, it just made me feel incredibly focused. I don’t, for example

  • watch TV while eating dinner
  • listen to the radio in the shower
  • do anything except knit or surf the web while talking on the phone (my husband and I, to the shock of some of our friends, own a landline phone, just one, that plugs into the wall, without a portable handset, as our primary phone, and rarely use our (one) cellphone)

That being said, I could connect to, and laugh at, Jacobs’ essay on multitasking because I have struggled with focusing my attention and with decisions about where work begins and “not-work” begins (I am, after all, a librarian writing a book blog “for fun”). The themes examined in all of these essays, whether superficially or occasionally a little more deeply, are ones that will interest most readers: how do I work? how do I relate to my family? how do I treat my spouse? what makes me unique? how do I feel about my body? am I a good parent? how do I think? how do I present myself to the world?*

Some might claim that this book is disjointed; the quality of the essays is certainly uneven. But for the price of 3 magazines (or none, if you get this book from the library!), you’ll get a satisfying reading experience. I should say, though, that if you haven’t read anything by A.J. Jacobs, I wouldn’t start with this book, and I would opt instead for The Year of Living Biblically, which, to my mind, is a much better book, because it allows Jacobs to explore one particular experiment (to follow biblical rules strictly for one year) at much greater depth, with deeper research and a more interesting personal transformation.

*(tip: George Washington presented himself to the world with his shapely right foot and calf extended, and never, never, never, wiped his nose on the tablecloth)

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