Panel Nerds: A.J. Jacobs, Self-Aware Guinea Pig and Self-Help Guru


panelnerds-i-disagree-sir11Who: A.J. Jacobs

What: Reading for The Guinea Pig Diaries

Where: Barnes and Noble 82nd St.

When: September 21, 2009

Thumbs: Up

As pets, guinea pigs are pretty blasé. They don’t do tricks. There are no guinea pig parks for them to run around. Even the wheel, the simplest pet activity of all, belongs to the hamster. So guinea pigs are only good pets inasmuch as people are willing to interact with them.

Author of The Guinea Pig Diaries, A.J. Jacobs, is a lot more active than your typical caged guinea pig, but he too is only interesting insofar as people try to connect with him. His books are not just tales of his adventures; he explained that he hopes his readers will try experimenting as a way to improve their lives. If last night’s book reading is any metric, his readers are looking for ways to connect to Jacobs and to his experiments.

Jacobs’ persona is central to his work as he practices immersion journalism. For his first book, he set out to read the entire encyclopedia. He said that reading the entirety of human history was a life affirming experience. In his second book, Jacobs chronicled his Year of Living Biblically, where he tried to live the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. Jacobs said that adhering to the biblical principle of thanksgiving taught him a lot about showing gratitude. His latest book is a collection of shorter experiments ranging from his best month, when he outsourced his entire life, to his worst month, when he practiced something called “radical honesty.”

None of these enterprises are undertaken only as larks. They all hinge on self-improvement. When Jacobs presented each chapter topic, he told the assembled crowd not only what he did, but what lessons he took away from it and how it has changed him in the long run. More notably, it has also changed his relationship with his readers. Although much of Jacobs’ work involves following paths prescribed by other people, he has become someone who others turn to for his wisdom. During the Q&A, one woman asked for advice about taking risks. It wasn’t a question about leaping into the type of experiments Jacobs does, but rather a more open-ended question about taking any risk at all in life.

So while Jacobs may call himself a guinea pig, it’s his conclusions that are important to people. Discoveries he makes might provide insight into other organisms. That is seemingly why people like Jacobs so much. As they check out his lab, they wind up drawing theories about themselves.

What They Said

“One of the best ways to improve your life is to try to experiment with it.”

– A. J. Jacobs books could probably also be listed in the “self-help” section

“You’re not going to Skype your way through your niece’s bat mitzvah.”

– A. J. Jacobs’ wife nixed his plan to communicate only electronically for a month

“My life has probably changed for the worse; my marriage has changed for the better.”

– A. J. Jacobs summary of the after effects of spending a month following everything his wife asked him to do

“I want people to feel that they’re in this journey with me, to climb the Everest with me.”
– A. J. Jacobs next project might be spending a year climbing Mount Everest — or it could be a metaphor

What We Thought

  • Much of Jacobs’ family was in attendance. We sat next to his father and behind his wife and son. It’s always a warmer atmosphere when family is in attendance, but it’s even more meaningful when the author’s writings and stories have so profoundly influenced his day-to-day life.
  • We attended Jacobs’ reading at the same Barnes & Noble last fall. This crowd was at least twice the size. Has Jacobs become much more popular? Is there less going on this year on the Upper West Side? Did our Twitter feed send people there? Let’s assume the answer to all of those questions is yes.


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Panel Nerds don’t like…Premature Evaluators

If something a panelist says intrigues you, just keep it in mind and wait to ask it when it’s the right time. There’s no excuse to hear something interesting and instantly shoot your hand up only eight minutes into the event. The author has a plan. Let him or her get going before you bring it all to a conclusion.

Panel Nerds Etan Bednarsh and Danny Groner are New York-based writers and avid panel-goers. Want them at your panel? Email them here:

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