There must be a book in that

Showing up on bookstore shelves and best-seller lists are accounts of a year's commitment to unexpected, even bizarre, behavior

October 09, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

One stopped shopping. Another ate weird things. A couple spent a lot of time around goats. A girl said yes to everyone who asked her out. A guy read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. A family gave up toilet paper, television and toothpaste.

All of these people not only did all of these eccentric things for one calendar year, each of them also found a publisher who thought their endeavor was so fascinating it ought to be recounted in a book.

And they aren't the only ones.

Ever since filmmaker Morgan Spurlock found fame, fortune and a serious potbelly by eating nothing but McDonald's for 30 days, tales of people's personal projects have crowded bookstore shelves. A few have made it onto best-seller lists.

Of course, writers have long woven diary-like books from their adventures - Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, for one; Alexis de Tocqueville's exploration of America, for another - but Spurlock's success has inspired an unprecedented wave of creative contrivance.

Today, a heavily hyped book comes out in which A.J. Jacobs (the fellow who read the encyclopedia) follows the rules of the Bible for the requisite 365 days. Unable to shave, much to his wife's dismay, he finds his stubble evolves into a Unabomberian beard. He forsakes mixed-fiber cloth and pins tassels onto his all-cotton threads. He stones sinners - with pebbles.

Praised and panned, these one-note everyman memoirs have wannabe authors wishing they had come up with the idea first, culture watchers wondering why people find them so fascinating, and critics questioning whether the authors are discovering deep insight or merely a marketable form of navel gazing.

"The yearlong thing, especially if it includes a New Year's resolution - which most of them do - appeals to our self-improvement, calendar-focused selves," says Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, who recently documented her own attempt to read a book a week for a year in So Many Books, So Little Time.

"Like any gimmick," she says, "it can be flimsy, but if the material that's being funneled into the slots is good and interesting and is written in a pleasing or provocative voice, it can work perfectly."

The past few months have seen the release of :

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man.

The Year of Eating Dangerously: A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes (written by Camilla Parker Bowles' son).

The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese.

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. (This Barbara Kingsolver ode to home-grown eating rested at No. 32 on The New York Times best-seller list months after its May release.)

A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy.

And who could forget Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper?

J.B. MacKinnon and his longtime companion, Alisa Smith, spent a year eating nothing that wasn't raised or grown within 100 miles of their Vancouver apartment. Their book, Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, came out in April to kind reviews and a seemingly unshakable position on Canada's best-seller list. MacKinnon says the project started as a personal experiment that the couple logged on the Internet. Even though both are writers, the book happened only after a publisher who noticed the online attention made an offer.

MacKinnon, an outdoorsy, athletic and earnest type with a Canadian lilt, is a little embarrassed.

"It didn't feel like a trend when we were launching ours, though since then it certainly has," he says, adding that, unlike Candy Girl's desire to shed her clothes in public, all that he and Smith really wanted was to inspire people to reduce their carbon footprints.

"The one about being a stripper for a year in Minnesota - that's just exploring fantasy," he says. "Books like ours, I think, are fantastical in a way, but we're pretty clearly hoping that our fantasies will turn to reality."

Aware that the one-year-about-me form can come off as self-indulgent, MacKinnon says he and Smith tried to leave out the more soap-operatic details of their relationship concentrated on what it was like to sustain themselves on local food.

"The advantage of the form is you give a reader a chance to sit on your shoulder and walk though a process with you.

"I'm hesitant to go down the memoir road," he said. "But if people are going to bother taking the journey with you through your year, they want to know who you are, they want to know you're a real human being."

Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible cracked Amazon's top 30 - even before its release.

It's the New York writer's follow-up to The Know-It-All, One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, which enjoyed eight weeks on The New York Times paperback best-seller list. The new book has been optioned by Paramount Pictures.

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