A.J. Jacobs Tells Us Why “It’s All Relative”

By Ashlee Peck

AJ Jacobs It's All Relative Genealogy Book

Author and journalist A.J. Jacobs recently released his fifth book, It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree, the story of his quest to build one world family tree. If that doesn’t sound like enough work, Jacobs simultaneously undertook hosting the world’s largest family reunion — the Global Family Reunion. The busy author recently took some time off from his projects and adventures to speak to me. From advice for genealogy beginners to the valuable lessons he gained while writing this book, here’s what I learned.

It's All Relative Author AJ Jacobs

The start of something big

It’s All Relative begins with Jacobs receiving a strange email from someone claiming to be his eighth cousin, and informing him that they have over 80,000 shared relatives. While he’d often found genealogy to be a bit stodgy, he was intrigued by the ideas stated in this email. No stranger to taking on challenges, Jacobs decided he not only wanted to research this, but he wanted to take it even further. He wanted to set about creating one world family tree — a tree that would unite the entire human race and show that we in fact are all related.

Jacobs had two main goals when he began this massive undertaking. The first centered around the idea that we are all connected, and he wanted to explore that further. The second, and more personal, goal was simply to learn more about his own family’s history. He knew that his family had some interesting characters in it – from suffragists and civil rights activists to dodgy liquor salesmen. As a father, he was particularly interested in learning the stories of his ancestors so that he could share them with his own children.

When it came to the goal of a Global Family Reunion — well, it was just that. As Jacobs puts it, we are all related. So why not have one giant celebration that everyone can attend?

The projects

Luckily for Jacobs, he didn’t have to entirely invent the wheel when he started working on his worldwide family tree. Thousands of researchers and scientists have been working on a similar task, and it’s changing the way many people view things such as race and ethnicity. To help further this research and contribute to this unifying force, Jacobs created a Global Family Reunion website. The site not only contains information about the massive reunion he was planning, but a form that allows visitors to submit their information to be included. He also shares details on resources such as Geni and WikiTree.

Jacobs had less of an existing structure when it came to preparing for his massive Global Family Reunion. Entirely new to event planning, he admits he didn’t realize exactly what a job he was taking on when he came up with the idea. And to add to the pressure, Jacobs only gave himself 47 weeks in which to plan the entire event. Music acts, speakers, location… he had less than a year to plan it all. At the end of each chapter in the book, we are given a running update of how many weeks remain before the event, and I will tell you, you yourself will start to feel the stress rise the closer we get to the family reunion.

The things he learned

I’m not going to share how the story unfolds with you, I don’t want to spoil a fantastic book. But I would like to share what Jacobs considers one of the most valuable lessons he learned while writing it.

When I asked him what he had learned while working on the project, Jacobs told me that one of the biggest things was gratitude for his ancestors. We as a people have a tendency to romanticize the past, but in reality it was actually very challenging. As he notes, life was disease-ridden and full of inequalities. To take care of your family, and pave the path for generations to come, took massive sacrifice. As an example, he shares the story of his great-great-grandfather missing the train when he was meant to pick up his great-great-grandmother and the children from Ellis Island. In turn, they had to spend the entire night wondering if they had been abandoned and were going to have to return to Poland where, as Jews, they were in grave danger.

Jacobs also noted that he learned just how much work goes into event planning.

A first-wave feminist

In all of his research, Jacobs uncovered fascinating stories and countless relatives. When asked who of his ancestors he would most like to meet, he said he’d likely chose his great-grandmother.

As a suffragist and first-wave feminist, Jacob’s great-grandmother fought diligently to improve women’s lives. The author would love to share the present day movements with her and show her what women have achieved in the last several decades. He’d also love to hear more about her experiences first-hand.

Advice for beginners

As someone who very quickly went from a novice genealogist to being very fully submerged in ancestral research, I was curious what advice Jacobs would have for someone just beginning to research their family tree. Jacobs laughed and said, “Well, of course first you should subscribe to Family Tree Magazine, that is number one, otherwise you’ll be lost.” He then followed up by stating that everyone needs to go out and buy a recording device or learn about the audio recording functions on your phone. This will allow you to start interviewing your relatives, which will allow you to learn countless family stories that you weren’t even aware of. You can interview someone several times, you’ll often learn something new every time.

A future Global Family Reunion

I was excited to be one of the first people privy to the information that another Global Family Reunion is in the works. While Jacobs is less involved in the planning of this event, it’s been placed into trustworthy hands — including those of FamilySearch, who will throw a party in Salt Lake City.

Closing thoughts

As we finished up our phone call, I asked Jacobs if he had any final thoughts he’d like to share with me. He noted that he just wants to always remind everyone that “Genealogy is a force for good. It not only can teach us about our ancestors, but it can show us that we all are one big family. The hope is that we can all be a little kinder to each other.” I think we can all agree.