In the past few super-packed days, I’ve actually managed to finish not one but two books. The first I finished on Thursday while riding in the passenger seat of the car, somewhere in Ohio, and the second, earlier tonight. It’s been two days since I finished it, but it won’t be hard to recall my thoughts on Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A. J. Jacobs.
This isn’t the first book I’ve read by A. J. Jacobs. I read his first book, where he read the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, hoping to become the world’s smartest man. I thought it was interesting and hysterical. His second book, detailing a year of living according to the Bible, was one that I decided I could pass on. This third book was on my maybe list, but I found a copy at Book Thing so I thought I’d take a chance.
I normally shy away from self-help/health-and-fitness books, because they seem to always contradict themselves. This one was no different, but Jacobs made the meta-contradictions even funnier in his quest. A recurring character throughout the story was Jacobs’ “eccentric Aunt Marti“, sweeping in with phone calls and emails bearing advice about natural foods and the latest cocktail of deadly germs and toxins in our daily environment. She even makes an appearance in one chapter to help cleanse Jacobs’ New York City apartment, which she does to the nth degree. I’m not going to say what happens to her, but suffice it to say she had it coming.
Jacobs breaks the book down into chapters, each based on a body part; twenty-six of them, corresponding to the months he spent doing research, providing regular updates with his weight, workout regimen, and other details such as number of bowls of steel-cut oats consumed, or number of miles walked on at his homemade treadmill desk – actually, a nifty way to get some exercise and be productive at the same time (provided your speed is low enough to allow you to type, think, and take strides at the same time). Details on this and some of his other fitness/health/nutrition tips appear in several appendices.
I flagged so many pages of the book for new vocab words and funny ideas, as well as a few that I could implement in my own life. Some of Jacobs’ findings, however, are painfully basic, like in his chapter on the stomach, where a doctor whose expertise is in “orthorexia,” or a condition involving an unhealthy obsession with health food. As someone who is constantly between a multitude of eating plans, from “you only live once, so enjoy as much Nutella and Twizzlers as possible” to “if I can’t force myself to eat healthy food, then I’m not going to eat at all” to “yeah, I’m eating healthy…because I can’t put forth the effort to actually make food” to “I had fruit for breakfast so I can have pizza for lunch” and everywhere in between, the nutrition sections were of interest to me. On page 89, Jacobs is incredulous at the nonchalant response he gets of “don’t get fat and get your vitamins” which is like the kindergarten equivalent of basic nutrition advice. But this doctor also suggested to not smoke, drink sparingly, avoid pollution and get some exercise once in a while. I do all those things! Next time I’m feeling down on my body image, I can at least tell myself that I didn’t have a cigarette (26 years clean!) and I walked to State Street (to get a croissant and a cappuccino).
Speaking of food, I will never look at graham crackers the same way again: apparently, their inventor, Sylvester Graham, believed that masturbation led to “insanity, weakness, and death” (101) so he invented a treat to lower the libido. He could’ve just gone with baklava; just as good and just as unattractive. I don’t think I’ve ever had a baklava that turned me on.
In chapter nine, Jacobs explores the world of the lower intestine by visiting Dr. Lester Gottesman, who does a type of plastic surgery to make peoples’ farts smell better (I am not making this up), admitting that it has no health benefits and is purely cosmetic, in a sense. On page 133, Jacobs toots out this vignette:
I’m not a big scatology fan, unlike my sons, who can amuse themselves for an entire afternoon by repeating the phrase “crocodile fart.” So I’ll spare you from an overabundance of detail in this chapter. This chapter will be somewhat soft focus, like the TV camera in a Barbra Streisand interview…I found Dr. Gottesman because he’s been included on New York magazine’s Best Doctors list for the last eight years and has written, in his words, a “shitload” of academic articles.
And this one, on page 151, where he aspires to lower stress by petting strangers’ pets:
The evidence is solid that pets are good for humans’ health. A study by the Mayo Medical Center found that dog owners had significantly lower cholesterol. A study by the Minnesota Stroke Institute said that people who owned cats were 30 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack (though 40 percent more likely engage in scrapbooking).
My favorite parts were the appendices. They greeted me like friendly pats on the shoulder, telling me that I’m doing okay in my own life and providing some tips on the easy side, like drinking more water, increasing chewing during meals, and to stop eating in front of the TV. Avoiding all the toxins and constructing a treadmill desk is a bit much for me, but keeping myself in check about eating healthy things and excising stress through meditation, relaxation, and speaking/writing my worries is something I could handle.
Now for the negative criticism. In his first book, A. J. Jacobs came off as an ingenue, someone who just had a crazy idea and executed it in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants manner, making discoveries along the way and injecting personal anecdotes. There was a certain amount of innocence in his writing and a humility to his personality. The A. J. Jacobs I saw in this book put himself on a bit of a pedestal. Granted, getting healthy is more expensive than reading, but the lengths he goes to for learning are extreme, both in approach and in price. His adventures take him to quirky doctors, insanely expensive fitness classes, and technological gadgets that, if/when they didn’t work, would probably be hard to get rid of on Craigslist. I get that he’s doing the work so we don’t have to, but seriously…some of this stuff? They’re not about getting healthy and attaining physical perfection, they’re more like “look at how much my publisher gave me for this advance, so I blew it on a bunch of infomercial-type products that I’m going to test out for your amusement.”
But seriously, the amount of doctors he goes to for procedures, tests, or chatting? I’d love to read some sort of follow-up chapter cataloging and analyzing all the unusual and/or decrepit waiting-room magazines he encountered. Seeing as the author is pretty obsessive about, well, everything, I’m sure he already has some detailed raw material hiding in a treadmill-typed document or spreadsheet.