When Books Turn Life Upside Downby Richard Davies
There is a book about having sex every night for a year, there is a book about eating locally grown food for a year, there is a book where a Julia Child recipe is cooked every day for a year, and there is a book where life is lived according to the Bible’s rules for a year.
They are called annualism books and have been a publishing phenomenon for the best part of a decade.
And then you can loop into this popular genre so-called ‘stunt journalism’ books where the author undertakes an unusual or topical activity for a lengthy period of time. There is a book where the author answers ‘yes’ to every question to see what happens, there is a book where the author attempts to become a chef in a fancy three-star New York restaurant, and there is a book where the author attempts to survive in a series of dead-end low-paying jobs.
The poster-boy for books of this ilk is A.J. Jacobs, an editor at large on Esquire Magazine and the author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (The Know-It-All saw him attempt to read every entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica and made his name as an original writer willing to put himself in challenging situations).
His latest book is called The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment where he details a variety of ‘stunt’ activities including living life by George Washington’s “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”, pretending to be a beautiful young woman on an Internet dating website, outsourcing his life, attempting to focus on one task at a time rather than multi-tasking and adopting a ‘radical honesty’ policy where the truth was always spoken.
A.J Jacobs was kind enough to explain his work and why people are interested in his usual activities. “My job has been to live my life as an experiment and then write about it,” he said. “People like this genre because it’s voyeuristic and you get an insight into extraordinary and fascinating topics. I tend to simply dive head-first into things no matter what the consequences are.”
All Jacobs’ activities have almost immediate consequences on him but also his long-suffering family, including three young children. “My kids don’t know any better but my wife gets to see everything. Doing these things definitely puts stress on my marriage because they can be a major pain in the ass. She becomes my control subject.”
Pretending to be his pretty young nanny on a dating site massaged Jacobs’ ego – “I got 50 emails a day telling me how hot I was. It was sleazy, heart-breaking and wonderful at the same time.”
Attempting to always tell the truth shocked him into realizing how much we lie – “I’ve actually tried to keep some of this experiment and eliminate some of the lies I tell.”
Focusing on a single task – “This one really changed my life. I think the culture of distraction has hurt us. Right now, I’m just talking to you and doing nothing else – that’s good.”
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, published in 2001, is his favorite example of other similar books from this genre. Ehrenreich endured life as a waitress, cleaner, nursing home assistant and Wal-Mart employer to experience low-wage life in America.
However, these type of books have been around for a long time. In 1903, Jack London published The People of the Abyss after he had lived for several months in the slums of London’s East End to experience turn-of-the-century poverty. Pioneering journalist Nellie Bly went undercover and got herself confined to a mental institution, which resulted in the book Ten Days in a Mad-House.
In 1961, John Howard Griffin wrote Black Like Me. Griffin, a white journalist, disguised himself as a black man and spent six weeks travelling through America’s segregated South. In 1963, George Plimpton – the founder and editor of the Paris Review literary journal – persuaded the Detroit Lions to let him become their third-string quarterback during training camp. He published Paper Lion in 1966 and it remains the benchmark for countless sports-participation books.
My personal favorite book from this genre is Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. Cooking doesn’t sound like an exceptionally challenging task but Buford, an editor at the New Yorker Magazine, attempts to make it in one of New York’s finest restaurants. I knew I could never work in a professional kitchen after reading his no-knife-cuts-pulled account of cooking under pressure.
And we must also tip our hat to Hunter S. Thompson, although ‘Gonzo Journalism’ stands apart from so-called stunt journalism because a hefty dose of fiction is combined with the first-person narrative style.
ANNUALISM & STUNT JOURNALISM BOOKS
The People of the Abyss
Black Like Me
John Howard Griffin
Nickel and Dimed
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
The 100-Mile Diet
Alisa Dawn Smith & J.B. MacKinnon
Julie & Julia
The Year of Living Biblically
Ten Days in a Mad-House
Charla Muller; Betsy Thorpe
Bonfire of the Brands
A Life Stripped Bare
How I Lived a Year on Just a Pound a Day
Just Do It
A Few Seconds of Panic
Among the Thugs
The Unlikely Disciple
My Jesus Year
No Impact Man
Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure