My Experimental Life by A J Jacobs

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My Experimental Life by A J Jacobs

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Category: Humour
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Journalist Jacobs sets himself a series of crackers challenges, then writes about them. Hardly original, but his whimsical tasks provoke a good deal of humour - and a surprising amount of thought.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0099547426

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A J Jacobs has a reputation for setting himself onerous tasks. His first book was about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; his second detailed a year spent according to the Biblical precepts. In My Experimental Life, he recounts nine briefer episodes of living outside his comfort zone.

Though, if he were being honest (as was his task in one of his 'experiments') I suspect even Jacobs might admit that this book is less a thoroughgoing set of scientific tests, and more a miscellany of articles and whimsical challenges. Which doesn't mean it's not funny and though-provoking, because it is both, and often at the same time.

As an addition to the overcrowded comedy quest genre, My Experimental Life is unlikely to pose much of a threat to some comedians' more outlandish adventures. Out of the nine chapters here, at least three can't really be said to be experiments at all. One is simply the tale of how Jacobs, in his job as an editor at Esquire magazine, had to pose naked for a photograph in order for an actress to do the same for an article.

Another simply recounts how he masqueraded, à la Cyrano de Bergerac, as his child's nanny when she wanted to venture into online dating. Given that this story is ostensibly his experience of living as a beautiful woman, you do feel rather short-changed. Similarly, his attempt at outsourcing aspects of his life and work to India is just an enactment of a daft idea which proves to be both more successful and less unsettling than one might have expected.

If such stories stretch the definition of what is an experiment, they are at least tightly written and amusingly told. Jacobs has a engaging personality, self-deprecating and witty. Although British readers may not get all the American cultural references, there is enough here to entertain and engage. And, as Jacobs has himself found from living his life according to others' rules, some readers may even pick up a few valuable tips themselves.

The most instructive of the stories here involves Jacobs testing - though without the rigour suggested by the word 'experiment' - some of the precepts by which others have lived. The most contentious of these involves trying to follow the tenets of Radical Honesty, a system propounded by a (let's be honest) rather unpleasant man called Brad Blanton.

A more noble role model comes in the form of George Washington, who lived by no less than 110 rules of 'Civility and Decent Behaviour'. Jacobs finds some of these enobling, others potentially alienating, like the possible offence given by aping Washington's refusal to shake hands.

In this, as in most of Jacobs's self-imposed trials, the person who has to bear the brunt of the inconvenience and downright puzzling behaviour is his wife Julie. He does, however, allow her to exact some revenge by undertaking, as an experiment of course, to obey her every command for a month.

The closest we get to true experiments are his attempts to live a rational manner, and his struggle against multitasking. You get the feeling here of Jacobs genuinely straining against ingrained habits in an attempt at self-improvement. As he says, some of the experiments have transformed his life for good.

And one or two incidental ideas - such as the technique of vocalising: ie saying out loud what you are doing or thinking - are less mad than they seem. "The very act of saying 'I'm angry' makes you less angry," he says, for example. And you find yourself wondering whether they might be worth trying. Maybe, after all, despite its modest ambitions, this is one of those books which really could change your life.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a fictional look at the effects of always telling the truth we can recommend Truth to Tell by Mavis Cheek.

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