A.J. Jacobs has created his own little niche market: conducting experiments in his life and then writing about them. The first of these books, The Know-It-All, chronicled his experience reading every single page of the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. He followed that up with The Year of Living Biblically, in which he spent a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible as literally as possible. I loved both of these books, so when I heard that Jacobs had a new book last year, I was thrilled. He has a very funny, accessible writing style but manages to convey a lot of information in an entertaining way. He kind of reminds me of Bill Bryson in that way; you manage to learn while laughing.
In this book, Jacobs conducts a series of mini-experiments—ranging from outsourcing everything in his life to a company in India to posing nude to trying to live like George Washington. There are nine experiments in all (one for every chapter). One of my favorite experiments was Project Rationality, which involved trying to overcome all the biases, false assumptions, and warped memories with which our flawed brains make decisions. Just reading this made me realize that my life is a series of false assumptions and half-truths.
Although I found the books entertaining and highly readable, I was a bit disappointed. I suspect the reason is that these are mini experiments instead of immersive, year-long experiments like the ones he wrote about in his previous books. I ended up wanting more and felt like the book was over way too soon. Although it is a good introduction to Jacobs’s writing style and isn’t a bad read, I enjoyed The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically much more. However, if the worst I can say about the book is that “I wanted more of it. It was too short,” then that isn’t so bad, is it? Just read it; you’ll like it.
Excerpts from the chapter where Jacobs tries to experience fame by attending the Oscars as the actor Noah Taylor: Even more striking, though, is that Noah Taylor and I shared the same haircut and eyeglasses. For reasons I’m still puzzling out, in my mid-twenties I decided to let my hair grow down to my shoulders. This wasn’t cool long hair, mind you. It was shapeless and stringy, like Ben Franklin or a meth addict. And the glasses? They were thick. black, and clunky. I suppose I was going for a retro intellectual vibe, something in the Allen Ginsberg area. What I got was Orville Redenbacher.
Where I Got It: I bought it for my Kindle.
The best description I can think of for Sloane Crosley is that she is the female David Sedaris—and that is meant as a compliment as I’m a huge Sedaris fan. This book is a collection of essays on a variety of topics ranging from the perils of having an unusual name, the pitfalls of volunteering, moving mishaps, having a boss from hell, and the horrors of being a bridesmaid. Although I suspect we have little in common—being at least 20 years apart in age and growing up in wildly different environments (Crosley was raised in Westchester, New York and currently lives in New York City)—I found myself laughing and relating to so much of what she wrote about. (Not the quest to find a one night stand though, thank you very much!) I found her writing assured, and there was enough chuckles per page that I was never bored. Perhaps the best way to give you a feel for her writing is to share some excerpts:
On volunteering: I took my volunteerism as seriously as someone like myself could. I knew my motivation was rooted in boredom; I wouldn’t stick with it if it wasn’t relatively easy. This narrowed the field considerably. Clearly orcas were out of the question, as were the disabled, women in need of JCPenney suits, the ozone layer, lead-paint prevention, historical landmarks, and anything involving a ladle.
On agreeing to be a bridesmaid: The subplot of modern marriage assumes that a wedding is the crown jewel of any best friendship, a time when otherwise rational women are legally permitted to misplace their minds and treat their friends like heel-skin-shaving employees. This is something we tolerate in our closest pals, but I had barely spoken to this woman in a decade….I had no choice but to respond not only with a “yes,” but with a “yes, I’d be honored.” On one tacit condition. There was an unspoken understanding that I would be standing up there with her as a one-time favor. In an effort to mask her apparent lack of sociability as an adult, that evening the role of “old friend” would be played by yours truly. Like the best man’s polyester-blend tux, I was a rental.
On making tarts: First you have to understand how to bake a successful dessert tart. Most baking, even complicated baking that results in caramelized pine nuts or perfect chocolate and vanilla swirls, consists of adding dry ingredients to wet. Any cookbook worth its weight in sugar will encourage you to experiment. Add craisins! Dally in dates! Go nuts! Perfection is to be found in the imperfect! Except with tarts. Unless you are professional, you will find the tart to be a high-maintenance, unforgiving whistle-blower of a pastry. If they could sprout sexual organs and mate, they’d go extinct on the jungle floor. Chocolate chip cookies, impossible to f**k up, would breed like deer.
If you are a fan of autobiographical essays with a humorous slant, this collection is a must. Of course I’m filled with seething resentment that someone this young could be so funny and write so well. But I am a bit biased as my dream is to be a writer of humorous essays just like Sloane. So I consider her my competition. Game on, Sloane! Game on!
Where I Got It: Paperback Swap.