Hi reddit. I’m AJ.

I’m an author, journalist, human guinea pig and also your cousin.

I’ve written four New York Times bestsellers -- The Year of Living Biblically, where I tried to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year, The Know-It-All, when I read all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Drop Dead Healthy, where I tried to become the healthiest man in the world and My Life as an Experiment where I went undercover as a woman, lived by George Washington’s moral code, impersonated a movie star, and more. A TV series based on The Year of Living Biblically will debut on CBS in the winter.

More recently, I spent three years trying to build the biggest family tree in history. The quest took me around the world.. I drank beer with a US president, found myself singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and unearthed genetic links to Hollywood actresses and real-life scoundrels. In the end, I threw a global family reunion with about 10,000 people at 40 events around the world!

The experience inspired my new book, It’s All Relative. It’s about my family. And yours. Because it’s the same family. The book is about the extraordinary changes happening in family research and DNA, and how they have an impact on politics, race relations, health and happiness.

I’m very excited to be here today and talk to all my relatives. AMA about genealogy, writing, living Biblically, or whatever else reddit has in mind.

PROOF: https://twitter.com/ajjacobs/status/929020353766215680

Comments: 111 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

treeznstuff36 karma

How'd you go about extensively researching your family tree? I get to about the late to mid 1700s in mine and I can't find anything anymore.

ajjacobs37 karma

Hey treeznstuff. Here's a link to the appendix to my book which has lots of tips. Hope it helps. It's cowritten by professional genealogist Eowyn Langholf https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7TBuGJl_zRMdHJMUUlxUjFTVkxBMERWXy04eXVITGw4bDRr/view?usp=sharing

ajjacobs14 karma

Hey! The appendix to my book has a bunch of tips. I'm trying to figure out how to upload it here to Reddit. So bear with me for a few minutes.

Sveenee24 karma

Hey AJ,

Know-It-All is my favorite bathroom book. I just wanted to ask; what experiment, besides the one about being brutally honest, annoyed your wife the most? How bad did it get?

ajjacobs70 karma

Thanks Sveenee! I take that as a high compliment. I'd say the Bible book still wins for most annoying to my wife. In the book, I talk about how Leviticus says men should not touch women during their time of month, because women are impure. But if you take Leviticus literally, you should not sit on a seat where a menstruating woman has sat, because the seat is then impure. My wife found that offensive and sat in every seat in our apartment and I had to stand for the year. So she does find ways to get back at me.

CloneSummoner17 karma

What was the hardest part of living biblically for a year. Also did you abide by the old, or New Testament?

ajjacobs35 karma

There were two hard parts. First, avoiding the small sins. The Bible says you cannot gossip or lie or covet. I'm a journalist who lives in NYC, so those activities take up about 80 percent of my day. I never got rid of them, but I did find some strategies to cut down on them. The other hardest part was following those rules in the Bible that don't quite jibe with modern American customs/laws. For instance, stoning adulterers. But I was able to stone one adulterer. I used pebbles, so I didn't have to go to jail. Oh, and I mostly abided by the OT, but also spent several months with the NT.

HantsMcTurple5 karma

I want to hear more about these experiences. Please elaborate further.

eatandread68 karma

I mean he did already write an entire book about it that you could read

ajjacobs37 karma

Ha! Bless you eatandread

[deleted]-1 karma


ajjacobs14 karma

I'm not living biblically anymore, so Reddit AMAs are fully allowed.

kitikitish-10 karma

I think you missed the point. The goal is not to sin, but the "whole revelation" of the bible just tells you to turn away from sin, similarly to what you did, and rely on Christ's sacrifice the cover the cost of sin rather than obsess over it.

ajjacobs37 karma

The Bible is a complicated book created by dozens of writers and editors over hundreds of years. It has many messages, sometimes contradictory ones. I'm always wary of people who say "The point of the Bible is X" or "The point of the Bible is Y."

skyscraperdream12 karma

Has writing a book on everyone being your relative opened up the door for requests for favors/money/access/etc from all your newly discovered 'family'? Any interesting requests come in?

ajjacobs59 karma

I haven't had a bunch of people hitting me up for loans, thank God. But I have found that being related to everyone on earth is very helpful as a social network. For the book, I wanted to interview a patriarch of a notable family, and I settled on George H.W. Bush. His publicist said the president wasn't doing any interviews. But I explained to her that I'm the president's distant cousin, or at least cousin through marriage, and showed her how. She said, "Well, for a cousin, I guess we can make it work." The next week I was on a plane to Houston to have lunch with him.

ExoticRoughErotic10 karma

Curious - how did fundamentalist Christian readers react to The Year of Living Biblically (awesome book, btw)?

ajjacobs25 karma

Thanks! It was a really interesting example of the confirmation bias. Atheists told me they liked the book because it showed how crazy the Bible is. And religious folks told me they liked the book because it renewed their faith. I mean, some religious people were offended. But a lot appreciated that I wanted to find both the good and the bad in the Bible. I'm most heartened by those evangelicals who said it made them rethink their position on homosexuality or creationism or certainty in general.

ExoticRoughErotic9 karma

Ah that's cool that it made people rethink their position.

When I read the book, I thought it was pretty darned funny, but I also thought it was both respectful and fair. It would have been way too easy to really put down extreme fundamentalism, but you did a good job of expressing that many of those ancient rules are no longer relevant today and why.

Looking forward to your next book!

ajjacobs5 karma


Truthlaidbear9 karma

Now that you've chased what it means to be family to almost the absurd - has it changed how you perceive family? Like, are you numb to the concept now?

(Like, exposure to poverty or shock-value journalism diminishes our capacity to react).

ajjacobs25 karma

I actually love my new conception of family. It's much broader. One of the themes of the book is that everyone is family. According to some scientists, the farthest cousin you have on earth is probably about a seventieth cousin. And the hope is that this will make us act just a wee bit kinder to strangers. And it's not just pie in the sky thinking. There's actually some empirical evidence to back it up. There was a Harvard study last year that showed that Palestinians and Israelis who were told how they were related showed more kindness and willingness to negotiate with each other. I also like that family no longer has to be 2 opposite gender parents and 2.5 kids. It comes in more varieties than ever: Gay parents, sperm donors, open adoption, etc. In fact, the writer Armistead Maupin talks about the "logical family" and the "biological family." So your logical family need not share any DNA with you. It could be co-workers or people with similar passions.

PM_ME_Whatyousee8 karma

What is your next experiment going to be about ?

ajjacobs44 karma

I'm writing a book where I take one of my daily joys -- my morning cup of coffee -- and try to thank every single person who made it possible. I went to Columbia and thanked the bean farmers. And also the truckers, the logo designers, the guys who made the tires for the truck, who got the rubber for the tires, etc. It's meant to show that there are thousands of people involved in every little thing we do.

nyseed4 karma

How do you get the ideas for your books? What are some other ideas you are thinking of making into your next?

ajjacobs12 karma

I try to spend 15 minutes a day brainstorming ideas. Most of them are terrible. But every once in awhile I have one that I think has legs. And I develop that. I recommend it as a daily exercise -- just taking 15 minutes out of the day to think up new ideas. As I mentioned in another answer, my next book is about thanking every person who helped make my morning cup of coffee a reality (spoiler: It takes thousands, perhaps millions of people)

Chtorrr3 karma

Is there anything you really want to write about but haven't been able to yet?

ajjacobs19 karma

I'm very interested in rationality, so hoping my next book will focus on that. I've gotten lots of suggestions from readers about what should be my next topic. Several have said I should try to become the greatest lover in the world and do all the positions of the kama sutra with my wife. My wife said absolutely not. Which is okay. I feel I'm too old for that. Might strain my back.

IndyCentCyclist3 karma

Who did you have beer with and did it change your opinion of that individual afterwards?

ajjacobs26 karma

A couple of years ago, I found out that Daniel Radcliffe had said that I am one of his favorite writers. So when he was in NY, we had a meal (he doesn't drink beer). And I came away super-impressed (not just because he likes my books). Here's what I write about him in my new book.

I already admired Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter film series and many other good nonwizard movies. He’s the rare former child star who turned out thoughtful and well read and has never been arrested for head-butting a maître d’ or whatever. I admire him more when he asks me this question: “I know this is a bit creepy, but if you find out how I’m related to my girlfriend, would you email me?” We meet at a New York restaurant, and Daniel tells me the tale of his grandmother, who seems worthy of a biopic herself. In 1938 Daniel’s grandmother met a South African miner named Wilfred when he visited England. She fell in love, got married, and moved with him back to South Africa. According to Daniel: She said that as soon as the plane touched down, she felt him change as a person. He had gone along with English society. But now that he was back in South Africa, he was back to being a racist, vile man who did not treat people well. And then, during my grandmother’s pregnancy, he tried to have her put into an asylum. My grandmother says she was sitting in her living room one day and there was a knock at the door and it was the police. They said they had a warrant to take her away. And she said, “Who signed it?” and they said, “Wilfred, your husband.” Then he emerged from behind her, saying, “Oh yeah, I did sign that.” My great-grandmother had to fly to South Africa to rescue her daughter and my mum. My mum was two weeks old and became the youngest child to ever fly out of South Africa.

VirginiaDork3 karma

Family tree question--if X was the child of A and A died and X was adopted by B who is now their Step-A, how do you sort that in a family tree, especially if X takes B's last name? Which line do you follow?

ajjacobs2 karma

My theory is that family trees have to be flexible and account for lots of different variations. We should try include A, B and X in the tree. And trees are only going to get more complicated, with the rise of gay marriage, open adoption, donor siblings and even eggs fertilized with the DNA of three humans (which has already begun). I think the variety could be great, as long as there's a requisite level of love and supervision. To me, the more people involved the better. As my distant cousin Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village.

thxxx13373 karma

How many times was the word begat used?

ajjacobs16 karma

Forty or so. (Note: Forty is the biblical number that I interpret to mean 'a lot.' Notice how many 40s are in the Bible -- 40 days, 40 nights, 40 years, etc.)

JohnnyZZZZ43 karma

How many commandments are there?

ajjacobs17 karma

It all depends how you count. But several hundred at least. Including ones you don't hear much about, such as the one that says if two men are in a fight, and the wife of one of those men grabs the private parts of the other man, her hand shall be cut off. That one I followed by default -- by not getting in a fight with another man while his wife was standing nearby looking like she had a strong grip.

TxHoS833 karma

Out of all the experiments you have done, is there one you would recommend people actually try to do themselves because of benefits you saw?

ajjacobs11 karma

I'd definitely recommend people do more experiments in life. They don't have to go all-out, like following every rule of the Bible. But there are dozens of smaller experiments they could do. Even if it's trying a new toothpaste every month or taking a different route to work every day. It's good for the neurons. It shakes us up and helps us be more creative. One experiment I found useful during the Bible year was to try not to gossip. It definitely changed the way I felt and saw other humans. It got me out of a negative rut. I mean, I still gossiped because I'm a human being. But I did it less, and with less malice.

eatandread3 karma

I'm a huge fan of your work! I have your latest sitting on my Kindle waiting for the weekend when I can down it all in one go. What's your favorite fact that you've retained from reading the encyclopedia?

ajjacobs9 karma

Thanks eatandread! I suppose my favorite fact is that the Good Old Days were not good at all. They were smelly, disease-ridden, dangerous, violent, sexist, homophobic, irrational and on and on. It makes me thankful to be alive today, despite all the craziness we're going through. So one small fact from the encyclopedia that exemplifies this is that people used to get 'tobacco enemas.' Doctors would treat a variety of ailments by literally putting a tube up someone rear end and blowing smoke up there. This is probably the origin of the phrase 'blowing smoke up the butt.' I know many more horrible things happened -- including surgery without anesthesia -- but I'll never forgot to be thankful we are free from the tobacco enema.

Xuthltan3 karma

Are you a Christian and if so, which kind?

ajjacobs32 karma

I grew up with no religion at all. As I say in the book, I'm Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. So this was my attempt to understand religion from the inside. I ended up learning a ton and finding some aspects of religion that I think are wonderful -- such as the beauty of rituals, the compassion for neighbors and the supportive community. As for belief in God, I went back to being an atheist/agnostic after the year. I like to think we can combine the best parts of secularism and religion. And, I hope, we can reject dogmatism and biblical literalism (e.g. those who say homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says so).

Chtorrr2 karma

What would you most like to tell us that no one has asked?

ajjacobs4 karma

Well, I do love to talk philosophy. You know, the Big Questions such as 'Do humans have free will?' (I don't think so).

shloky2 karma

In a sense, your new book sounds like a travelogue of sorts - a) do you agree and b) regardless, what are your favorite in that genre?

(Or really, top 5 books across the board would be interesting too.)

ajjacobs3 karma

There's definitely travelogue elements. I went to the Mecca of family history -- Salt Lake City. I went to Ohio for the annual Twins Days festival, where thousands of twins converge (I have twins sons). The book combines travelogue with memoir, science, how-to and a quest to throw the biggest family reunion. I wrote a piece about other family books I love... https://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/1311.A_J_Jacobs

ctdaniels22 karma

Who are your favorite writers? Who would you say you've been most inspired or influenced by?

ajjacobs8 karma

Here's just a partial list: Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, Mark Twain, Barack Obama, Kevin Roose, Yuval Noah Harari, R.J. Palacio, Paul Shapiro (a friend who has a book coming out about Clean Meat, a potentially huge revolution of meat made from animal cells in a lab), Sandra Tsing Loh, Stephen Dubner, Oliver Sacks, Brad Meltzer, James Altucher...

ctdaniels21 karma

(Sort of a hack question, but I'm asking because I love creative nonfiction and feel like you're one of the truly skilled writers at the genre, so I'm curious who you love to read)

ajjacobs1 karma

Oh, and thanks!

TomInMD2 karma

Who is the most famous or interesting person that you're related to? How far back could you get?

ajjacobs11 karma

Well, Barack Obama is my fifth great aunt's husband's brother's wife's seventh great nephew. We're practically brothers! The beauty of genealogy today is these epic family trees with literally millions of people all on the same tree. They allow you to figure out how you're related to almost anyone else on earth (if only through marriage). This is being done in two ways. First, through crowdsourcing -- thousands of people working on the same family tree. And second, through DNA testing. DNA is helping us build the World Family Tree, and in about a decade we may have almost all seven billion people on the same tree.

iadtyjwu2 karma

How many people did you have to stone? Did you own any slaves? Rape anyi ne and have to pay their man owner? *a letter

ajjacobs14 karma

I did stone a couple of people -- an adulterer and an astrologer. I used small stones. Pebbles really. I didn't own slaves, but I did have a biblical intern who cooked me Ezekiel bread and helped me sell my clothes on eBay so I could give more to orphans and widows.

MudButt20001 karma

So, you're an entertainer?

ajjacobs10 karma

Well, I try to be entertaining. I'm no Yakov Smirnoff, but I try. I also try to learn as I go, and tell readers the most interesting and life-changing lessons.