A.J. Jacobs waits until the fifth page of his newest book, “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection” (Simon & Schuster: $26), to mention his Jewish heritage. He repeats a line from a previous book of his: “I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. Not very.”
For readers who have missed his previous bestselling books and his magazine journalism (mostly at Esquire), Jacobs is a humorist—a sit-down comedian—with occasional serious journalism tendencies. His Judaism constitutes part of his humor, as does pretty much everything and everybody else in his life.
The most Jewish of his previous books is “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” He also is author of “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.”
Although Jacobs’ quests are anything but humble in ambition, he is a humble, self-deprecating person who—depending on the type of humor any given reader relates to—is drop-dead funny. (The only contemporary serious writers I find as consistently so are Dave Barry and Calvin Trillin.) In his previous books, Jacobs tended to organize around a calendar year, sharing his experiences reading and acting upon the encyclopedia (“The Know-It-All”) and the Bible (“The Year of Living Biblically”) more or less day by day. “Drop Dead Healthy” is organized less according to a calendar and more according to body parts. So, in his quest for exemplary health, Jacobs, age 41, married and with three young sons, overweight and not exactly athletic, starts with the stomach, then proceeds — sometimes to the north of the stomach, sometimes to the south. He covers the heart, ears, butt, immune system, genitals, nervous system, lower intestine, adrenal gland, brain, endocrine system, teeth, feet, lungs, skin, eyelids, bladder, gonads, nose, hands, back, eyes, and skull. It is somewhat like an armchair visit to the Mayo Clinic.
Did I mention the stomach? Jacobs returns to it more than to any other body part. His wife, Julie, who figures prominently in each of his books, cannot refrain from poking fun at A.J.’s belly. A.J. reports that Julie, not the humorist in the family, nonetheless has developed a repertoire. She calls her husband Buddha. Or, she will ask him, “So, when are you due?”
As with Jacobs’ previous books, a meaningful educational aspect lies amidst the laughs. That is why I refer to his humor as just part of his serious-writer persona. Jacobs realized how little he understood about his body—where the parts are located, what functions they are supposed to perform, what is best to eat and drink, the best exercise methods. “It’s like owning a house for 41 years and being unaware of the most basic information, such as how to work the kitchen sink. Or where to find the kitchen sink. Or what this so-called kitchen is,” Jacobs says.
During his preliminary research—consulting doctors and other experts, reading books and articles—Jacobs learned that perhaps 50 percent of an individual’s health can be altered by changed behaviors. The rest is genetic. The information on how to change behaviors, however, is often contradictory and sometimes downright quackery. He vowed to rely whenever possible on solid research, on verifiable evidence. Traditionally a pleasure seeker when food consumption is the issue, Jacobs decided to fight against the permissive philosophy that “Whatever I do, I’m still going to die,” so why waste time and energy on healthy eating?
He labors mightily to achieve better health for himself while also serving as a guinea pig for his eventual readers. During the experiments, he lost weight, firmed up and received good news on his lipid panel numbers. After nearly two years of the experimentation, though, he decided to wind down. The list of unachieved experimentation is long and probably impossible to complete: “I haven’t joined a chorus, which has been linked to reduced heart disease. I haven’t eaten Japanese daikon radish or geranium extract, which is supposedly anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-everything bad in the world. I haven’t returned to the Sleep Clinic for my follow-up CPAP exam.” He has not even covered all the body parts he intended to cover in the book; there is no chapter about the liver, for example.
Jacobs understands he will return to some of his unhealthy behaviors. Not everything will stick, just like not all the Biblical practices he tried for a previous book stuck. After completing that book, Jacobs did shave off his beard, violating an obscure Biblical tenet. He also went back to wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, violating another Biblical tenet. However, he improved his observance of the Sabbath and cut back on his gossiping, both also Biblical tenets. In much the same spirit, Jacobs vows to observe some of the healthy practices he learned about on the way to another completed book.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who tries to practice good health but keeps shooting himself in the foot—sometimes both feet.