A. J. Jacobs

The author-as-guinea-pig recommends some improving reading.

Over the course of his previous memoirs-as-experiments, A. J. Jacobs has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All) and lived for twelve heavily-bearded months according to the precepts of the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically). The third volume in his chronicles of attempted self-improvement, Drop Dead Healthy, finds the Esquire contributor dabbling in a variety of diet and exercise regimens with the goal of getting fit, even if it kills him. This week, he points us to three books that focus on improvement of the mind, the body, and the heart — though the last one gets there by satirical means.

Books by A. J. Jacobs

Moonwalking with Einstein

By Joshua Foer

“For my health book, I wanted to improve every part of my body — including my brain. So to help with my memory, I read this wonderful nonfiction book by Josh Foer. It’s been several months since I finished it, but in keeping with the book’s theme, I’ll try to write about it from memory. If I recall, Josh entered the USA memory championship as a journalist — and, to his surprise, after months of training, ended up winning. He used mneumonic devices that have been around since ancient Greece — tricks that are fascinating and, in Josh’s hands, often hilariously naughty. (To memorize a deck of cards, he once visualized Kareem Abdul Jabar and Rhea Perlman in a compromising position).

“The book is many things: A Gladwellian look at the science of memory, an adventure story, a how-to, and a meditation on the meaning of memory in this age of terabyte hard drives. By the way, it wasn’t Kareem Abdul Jabar. I misremembered. I looked it up and it was Manute Bol. I should read the book again.”

Mindless Eating

By Brian Wansink

“While researching my book on health, I had a meal with the most mindful eaters in the world. These folks practice something called ‘savoring meditation’ in which it takes ten minutes to eat a single blueberry.

“Most of us are the exact opposite. We shove food thoughtlessly into our ever-ajar maws. Brian Wansink — a professor of psychology at Cornell — has been studying how we eat for years, and summarizes his findings in this excellent book. We are not rational eaters. We eat more when watching TV. We eat more when we think the accompanying wine is from California as opposed to North Dakota. We don’t stop eating when we’re full. In one of his more ingenious experiments, Wansink created a soup bowl that was secretly replenished through a pipe in the table, so the bowl never became empty. Guess what? The test subjects just kept on spooning up that soup. If he hadn’t ended the experiment, they might have exploded. This book is enlightening, and will make you thinner as well.”

Super Sad True love Story

By Gary Shteyngart

“Gary’s brilliant satirical sci-fi novel begins like this: ‘I have made a major decision: I am never going to die.’ The narrator of these words is Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged schlub who works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for an Indefinite Life Extension Company. Through the story of Lenny, Shteyngart takes our current health obsessions, and magnifies them to ridiculous extremes. In this near-future world, we are judged by our LDL to HDL ratio, we load up on resveratrol on dates, we bicker about our friends’ testosterone levels. The book is also, as the title indicates, a love story. So even if you don’t like health-themed satire, you’ll probably be charmed by Lenny’s attempts to court the woman of his dreams, the much-younger and equally hilarious Eunice Park.”