The Washington Post, April 20, 2012
Some pity, please, for the family of journalist A.J. Jacobs, whose monomaniacal book stunts must create the kind of domestic unrest that used to exist only in Kaufman-and-Hart plays.
"Mommy, why did Daddy snarl at me when I interrupted his reading?" "Because he's trying to get through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and he's only as far as Balzac." "Mommy, why is Daddy wearing a long beard and smelling like road kill?" "Hush, sweetie, he's obeying the proscriptions of Leviticus." "Mommy, why has Daddy installed a platform over the toilet?" "Because he's . . ."
Well, why, indeed? Blame it on a pneumonia scare in a Caribbean hospital, or blame it on a book deal. Whatever it was, something prompted Jacobs to transform himself from "a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob" into a paragon of health and fitness—and to share the whole journey with us in "Drop Dead Healthy."
As Yoda might say, long this journey is: roughly two years in duration, with train stops at virtually every exercise and nutrition depot known to Men's Fitness and Outside and Esquire (where the author serves as editor at large). In his efforts to become "the healthiest man in the world," Jacobs leaves no stone unlifted. He smashes logs in Central Park (the Roman legionnaire's workout). He jogs shoeless through Harlem (the "Born to Run" workout). He writes e-mails on a treadmill. He eats Swiss chard and quinoa.
Even his downtime is spent sniffing spices, swallowing creatine supplements, slathering himself with Aveeno and wearing noise-canceling earphones. Along the way, he sifts through the riotous and contradictory advice of wellness experts, unanimous only in their disdain for each other. Perhaps the most intimidating guru is his toxiphobic aunt, who sweeps through his apartment like an exorcist, damning shower curtains and microwaves, and who, at the sight of American cheese, cries: "Oh, my God! This is child abuse."
On and on it goes: Wii kayaking and Swiss exercise balls and AntiGravity Yoga and compression suits from Under Armour. Jacobs is on a mission. He doesn't just cut sugar from his diet; he cuts it from his language, changing his wife's nickname from "sweetie" to "pumpkin." (Pumpkin has more fiber.) Oh, and maybe it's now—or maybe it was many pages ago—that you realize Jacobs's quest for bodily perfection is, like all his stunts, a quest for yuks.
Laughter is a good thing. As Jacobs will tell you, it reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol by 26 percent, helps people with heart attacks recover 40 percent faster and burns as many calories an hour as rowing. You might even get your recommended dietary allowance of laughter just from Jacobs's quips: Calorie restriction is "the most extreme diet you can find that isn't technically a psychological disorder or human rights violation. . . . Our ability to hear higher registers goes first, which means that the voices of women and children are silenced sooner, as if God were W.C. Fields."
But Jacobs's not-so-secret agenda is to have some not-so-original fun with a peculiar subsection of Manhattan: those consumers of the body who throw themselves into caveman diets and sphincter toning and juice fasts ($400 a pop) and all the genuinely obsessive acts that suppose death to be optional. And who are, at some level, preferable to their chronicler-enabler, dancing from fad to fad without being touched by any of it.
In one respect, at least, Jacobs enacts the very mania he satirizes: He can't get enough of himself. Photographing his shrinking paunch, tape-recording his snores, pausing in each chapter to alert us to his weight and belt size and lipid panels and bench-press capacity, he is his own first person. "I'm spending an embarrassing amount of time every night," he writes, "studying my torso in the mirror, trying to discern the progress." The final chapter is, in the words of the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, a hymn to him: "I'll chew more. I'll walk more, and hum and pet dogs. . . . I'll stop to smell the almonds. . . . I'll reframe life's horrible situations and outsource my worries. I'll floss my teeth and breathe from my stomach. . . . I'll drink ice water, meditate, and give abundant thanks. . . . When I exercise, I'll do High-Intensity Interval Training, alternating between sprinting and walking every minute. I'll avoid blue light before bedtime."
Well, maybe narcissism adds years to your life, too. At any rate, "Drop Dead Healthy" leaves us with two inquiries, both insoluble on their face. Are health maniacs cheating death or cheating life? And can A.J. Jacobs conceive of a book that doesn't have A.J. Jacobs as both its subject and object?