One of the most important things an adult has to learn is when you have nothing new, valuable, or novel to add to the conversation. I don’t always recognize when I’ve reached that point, but in this case I do. So, this review will be a collection of other reviews.
My simple recommendation is to go pick up this book. I’ve now read this, the Year of Living Biblically, and The Know-it-All, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three. The subject matter, methodology of research and reporting, and voice are all engaging, friendly, and informative. The construction is as a series of essays that all flow together in a cohesive way, and while they work better together as one book, I think any one essay could be taken out of the book and published separately with only minimal editing. This applies not just to this book, but to all of his writing (though the Know-it-All and Guinea Pig in particular).
Jacobs reads like a Malcolm Gladwell-lite. There’s research and investigation and plenty of author participation, but where Gladwell can sometimes be impenetrably New Yorker pretentious, Jacobs is familiar and approachable. They’re both excellent and both have their time and place. I’d say Gladwell is slower winter reading, while Jacobs is quick summer reading good for picking up during spring showers that keep me inside on otherwise good days. It sounds negative, and I know it sounds like I’m saying something negative about Jacobs, but I’m not. I genuinely enjoy his thinking, analysis, research, subject matter, and voice.
The Know-It-All in particular appealed to the geek in me. I love me some trivia and a good memoir, and this was the best combination of the two I have ever seen (is there anything else that falls in this category? Could there be?). Jacobs manages to skillfully weave together a memoir of himself as a smartass child and an adult with a wife and fertility issues with reading the encyclopedia. It sounds awkward, clunky, complicated, and awful when I see it put that way, but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s excellent, perfectly executed. I learn some neat-o trivia and feel his pain at negative after negative pregnancy test. He weaves the two stories together so seamlessly, the mechanical alphabetical encyclopedia becomes a character just as much as his wife and know-it-all younger self.
I can’t wait to read his next one to see how he approaches, say, living in a tree house with three kids and an annoyed wife for a year, or some other Morgan Spurlock-esque experiment, with humor, self-deprecation, and the sheer joy of learning and experiencing something new. That, I think is my favorite thing about this, and even more so the Know-It-All: Jacob’s sheer unabashed joy in learning, in striving to understand better the world around him, and through that, himself.
The Guinea Pig Diaries:
Most of the reviews on Amazon are positive and reflect my own opinion that the book is a good, quick read.
Goodreads is generally favorable, though they echo my own and Amazon’s raters’ feeling that this is the weakest of his books so far
Ms Bookish loved it: “I loved The Guinea Pig Diaries. It was funny, yes, but each essay also made me think. And to me, that’s essay writing at its best.”
Andrew also liked it: “I loved this book. Loved it! If you want something to read that is fun, will keep you wanting to read more”
This guy at Amazon sums up how I felt about the end: “acobs tells a story most anyone can relate to. I was sad when I got to the Z’s and I had to part with this talented narrator.”
Here are several good reviews by GoodReads commenters, most of which I agree with.
The New York Times was less than pleased.
The Guardian is lukewarm, but makes some very good points. I shared some of their criticisms but didn’t want to admit it because I liked Jacobs so much (his familiar voice makes him feel like a friend): “For all its upbeat, feel-good filmic potential there’s clearly something deeply inauthentic about Jacobs’s quest: it doesn’t seem like an act of the whole person; it’s a gimmick. But then, maybe a gimmick can set you on the path to enlightenment and self-knowledge. Lots of people dress up as chickens, for example, to run in the London Marathon but they still get fit.”