What Are You Reading? A.J. Jacobs Edition

By Arieh Ress, Adult Librarian
June 13, 2019
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

In December 2018, journalist, author, and self-proclaimed human guinea pig A.J. Jacobs came to the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) to talk about, among other things, his new book Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, in which he decides to find and thank everyone involved in his morning cup of coffee. From the bean growers to the warehouse workers to the shippers, Jacobs's journey was one of transformative gratitude and interconnection, all centered around a relatively small thing most people take for granted. 

A.J. Jacobs
A.J. Jacobs signing at SIBL

Photo by Arieh Ress

I caught up with the author and asked him:

What are you reading? What's next?

The American Census book cover

I don’t practice monogamy when it comes to reading books. I’m quite promiscuous. Or maybe that’s got a negative connotation. Let me rephrase: I’m polyamorous with my books. I read several at one time. Right now, I’m reading a history of the census called The American Census by Margo Anderson. I learned the questions used to be massive invasions of privacy, asking whether you were "crippled, maimed or deformed," "defective of mind," or had any debts.

I’m also reading, in no particular order: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker (a book on writing), Public Opinion by Walter Lippman (my next book is about truth and facts, and this is helpful), and Night of the Gun (by late New York Times reporter David Carr). 

Sense of Style book cover

Were there go-to bedtime stories your sons made you read them over and over again, and did the twins have different favorites or did they share one?

We Are in a Book by Mo Williams cover

We were all big fans of Dr. Seuss—despite the fact that I found parts of his work problematic. For instance, The Cat in the Hat. It’s an insane book. The kids are alone in the house and let in this stranger, then decide not to tell their parents. The true hero is the fish, who is rational and responsible and opposed to the whole caper.
We’re also big Mo Willems fans, especially his Elephant and Piggy books. There’s one called We Are In a Book! that, as a friend of mine pointed out, is the most existentially terrifying book ever. The two characters—Elephant and Piggy—realize they will disappear if you close the book, so they beg you (the reader) to go back to the start and read the book over and over in an infinite loop. It’s like a Beckett play.

The Night of the Gun by David Carr cover

In your most recent book, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, you traveled around the world on a mission to thank everyone involved in producing your morning cup of coffee. What was one interesting thing you never expected to learn along the way, but did?

I was surprised by how many people it takes to produce even the simplest object in our lives. My coffee requires the combined work of literally hundreds of people from all over the globe—farmers, biologists, truckers, weather people, box makers, politicians, and on an on. You know that little cardboard sleeve that goes over the coffee cup to keep our fingers from being burned? First of all, I learned it has a name: Zarf. That's the official word. Second, the project drove home that someone had to design the zarf, manufacture it, deliver it. As I say in the book, it doesn't take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world. 

A Gratitude Journey cover

You spent a year reading the entire encyclopedia and for The Year of Living Biblically you read through several versions of the Bible. Both are lengthy and have stretches of text that aren't exactly page-turning. What is your secret to plowing through very long books with sections that are not especially stimulating? Do you have a natural ability to retain information from such lengthy texts or is there a trick you utilize?

Good question. Two thoughts come to mind: First, I’m a fan of curiosity. I think it’s one of the great virtues of humankind. I once interviewed Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, and he told me something that I loved. He said, "I’m curious about everything—even things that don’t interest me." I loved that. It makes no sense, but I love it and relate to it.

Second, I have a file on my computer desktop called "One Thing." And after every conversation or podcast or movie or dinner, I try to write One Thing I found especially interesting or memorable. For instance, I listened to a podcast about Michelangelo, and learned that he was extremely insecure about the Sistine Chapel. He wrote his friends about how he thought it was a disaster. He’s a sculptor, not a painter. He thought it was a huge mistake. This is the Sistine Chapel—one of the great works of Western art. It’s heartwarming to realize even he was filled with self-doubt.

Anyway, I put that in my "One Thing" file, and I occasionally open it and skim it. Otherwise, I find that I’d forget everything and it’d all be a blur.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott cover

Does your writing process differ when approaching your books vs. the articles you have written? 

I find writing books massively intimidating. Sometimes I try to picture it as if I’m just writing a series of articles. I have to break it down into chunks, and then at the end I figure out how to link them together seamlessly. It’s sort of similar to what Anne Lamott talks about in Bird by Bird. When she was a kid, she had to do a report on all the birds of North America, and she was overwhelmed. She asked her dad what to do, and he said that she should just do it "bird by bird." So that’s how I approach it: Chapter by chapter.

What was the most bizarre/interesting thing you learned writing for Mental Floss?

I write a column for Mental Floss with the theme that the Good Old Days weren’t good. They were terrible. They were violent, unhealthy, racist, sexist—not to mention smelly. Each issue I write about a different topic, such as foods in the past, or courtship in the past. I remember the one about child-rearing in the past. In the 19th century, exhausted parents were encouraged to give their kids medicine to calm the toddlers down. Specifically: Opium. Parents could buy opium-filled lozenges to give to their offspring. I know giving iPads to kids is bad, but this does seem significantly worse.

The Year Of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs cover

Bonus Question: How does one go about renting a sheep in New York City? 

Ha! Well, that was surprisingly easy. The publisher wanted to do a photo shoot for The Year of Living Biblically in Times Square with me looking maximally biblical: Beard, white robe, sandals… and a sheep. So they found an agency that rents all kinds of animals for the day for movies. They actually rented two sheep—one main sheep and one body double sheep in case it was needed. It wasn’t. As they were taking the photo, a crowd of tourists formed trying to figure out what was up. I was a block away from the Naked Cowboy, and got more gawkers than he did. So I’d say that was the zenith of my fame right there.

What celebrities or public figures are you curious about?
Whose book list would you like to read?
Let us know in the comments!