Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection

In Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda defines “shtick lit” as “[b]ooks perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.” He identifies Walden as the earliest example of the genre, which would seem to establish a respectable pedigree, but the word perpetrated leaves little doubt as to Yagoda’s opinion of more recent efforts. He can’t be alone in casting a skeptical eye on shtick-lit superstar A. J. Jacobs, the Esquire writer responsible for The Know-It-All (shtick: reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety), The Year of Living Biblically (shtick: following every biblical injunction to the letter for twelve lushly bearded, annoying months), and now Drop Dead Healthy, evidently a reboot of Remar Sutton’s out-of-print Body Worry.

Full disclosure: I undertook the project of reading an A. J. Jacobs book with the express purpose of writing about it. My plan was to acknowledge, with a touch of self-deprecating humor, the unlikeliness of my enterprise: I know this seems like a crazy waste of time, guys, but just hear me out…. I’d suffer a few well-timed setbacks, and — this is de rigueur — get chastised by my wife for neglecting her, the kids, or my household chores. (I’m not married, but if memoir can massage the truth, why can’t reviews of memoir?) I thought about failing to finish the book. In the end, I may not have made it to my goal of 375 pages, but I did learn a whole lot about the value of shtick lit. Would I do it all again? Probably not, but I’m still glad I made the effort…  

Well, I did finish the book, and I did learn a lot about the value of shtick lit. The truth is, despite the warnings of Yagoda and others whose opinions I trust, I was never reluctant to read Jacobs. I find autodidacticism and self-improvement fascinating, and greatly to be encouraged. When I took up Jacobs, my hope was to defend him and his beleaguered genre from the cynics, the ones who can’t believe that anyone acts in a spirit of genuine curiosity or enthusiasm. I’d point out, too, that nobody is forcing them to buy shtick lit; if they have a philosophical objection to bogus projects undertaken expressly to be written about, they should make themselves useful and campaign to abolish the college essay.

The cover photo of Jacobs mock-struggling to do a pull-up is a clue to the fatal flaw of this book. It is not going to be, as advertised, a “quest for bodily perfection.” It is going to be a litany of shortcomings, a chronicle of thwartings and chastenings. It will consist of Jacobs dipping his toes in a thousand different dietary and fitness fads and will read like a novelization of every health-scare story and dubious medical study that ever beckoned from a website sidebar or nagged you from your Facebook feed. And because Jacobs will flit from topic to topic, body part to body part, anxiety to anxiety, the reader will almost but not quite fail to notice that Jacobs isn’t accomplishing very much at all.

It’s not that I wasn’t expecting this. I’m familiar with the conventions of the genre. It just took seeing them at their most conventional to realize that they’re dragging the genre down. Paradoxically, Jacobs expended an astonishing amount of hard work to produce a book this lazy. In just two years, he learned to eat better, to lift weights, to reduce his exposure to environmental toxins, to run correctly, and so on. He shed sixteen pounds, or eight pounds per year — a little more impressive than it sounds when you consider that he must have gained muscle weight in the process. He cut his fat in half. He wrote his entire book on a treadmill, walking over a thousand miles in the process.

His labors culminate in conclusions any fool could have seen coming: “I’ll incorporate much of what I learned” and “I’ll follow fitness expert Oscar Wilde’s advice: Be moderate in all things, including moderation.” It’s not even really fair to call these conclusions, since they probably appeared verbatim in his book proposal. You aren’t supposed to criticize an author for not having written a different book, but what if the book he’s written doesn’t need to exist? What if everyone already knows that health fads are zany and that moderation is good? A book trading on such modest insights had better be mind-bendingly funny. A quick test: Jacobs is sold on skin care when he sees two guys — “leather jackets, Harley tattoos” — at Penn Station, talking moisturizers. Do you find this a) funny, b) funny but implausible, or c) so Shoebox Greetings unfunny that it doesn’t matter if it happened or not?

Most of Jacobs’s humor is of the self-deprecating or auto-emasculating variety. “[A]s an experiment,” Jacobs writes, “I’ve been wearing my blue bike helmet as I run my errands.” Have you been, man? Is anyone laughing at this? Hack comedy is one thing, but what irks me is that someone gave Jacobs a great deal of money — he mentions his advance repeatedly — to challenge himself, and instead of doing that he’s screwing around with stuff like wearing a bike helmet in public. “Bodily perfection” implies that your forty-four-year-old carcass is going to scale Half Dome or complete Marine Corps boot camp. I don’t care that you ate a bushel of vegetables, tried on a CPAP, or submitted to the indignity of wearing Vibram FiveFingers sneakers. I’d like to see some results. As it stands, we don’t even get an “after” photo.

Jacobs’s crowning achievement is a modest triathlon: eleven minutes of swimming, thirty-three minutes of bicycling, and an unspecified amount of jogging, probably 3.1 miles. Here lies the problem with shtick lit: the pedestrian nature of its goals. When men get old and retire — when they become the target market for books making light of their Jacobs-like ineptitude — they tend to read a lot of biography. Why? Perhaps it’s because age, regret, and self-criticism conspire to produce a craving for real achievement, or at least for stories about real achievement. Most of us have been half-assing it since the day we were born. Self-deprecation has become a reflex, a preemptive excuse — which is why books like Jacobs’s will climb the bestseller lists and, let’s be fair, actually entertain the average reader. Yet if shtick lit is ever to live up to its promise, it’ll have to abandon its jokesy “points for trying” mentality and start attempting the impossible in earnest.