Immersion Books: Authors Test Weed, Weight Loss Methods and More
There are certain insights and depths of experience available only to those willing to submerge themselves fully in an area of investigation; for some dedicated writers and journalists, observing from the sidelines doesn’t cut it. Whether it’s the black-market marijuana trade, the world of memory competitions, the search for happiness or the contemporary relevance of the Bible, the authors of these immersion books will go to any extremes to get the answers they’re looking for.
Gaining weight to gain insight
To better understand how to help his clients achieve their weight loss goals, personal trainer Drew Manning wanted to experience the process of shedding fat for himself. So, over the course of a year, he gained—then lost—a total of 75 pounds. Manning's primary purpose in conducting the experiment was to put himself in the shoes of his overweight clients and prove once and for all that major, life-changing weight loss isn't impossible. In the book, he also provides an entertaining account of what it was like pack considerable poundage onto his previously well-honed figure (don’t miss the before, after and after-after photos). Perhaps the most telling account, though, comes in a chapter written by his wife, who found it difficult to adjust to Drew’s transformation. "One evening Drew and I came to the realization that the physical attraction and connection that had been so strong for us had somehow splintered through his journey," she writes. "That night, after he turned off the lights and climbed into bed, I had gently asked him to turn off the night-light too."
Getting down to the roots
In Humboldt County, Calif., the black market marijuana trade is one of the area's biggest employers, paying for things such as fire departments and school transportation. It’s also notoriously secretive: In order to get the full story on this famous ganja haven, journalist Emily Brady had to win the trust of the residents and become a member of the community herself. “Humboldt” is the story of her year living side-by-side with some of the country’s most devoted growers and dealers at a time when the looming prospect of legalization threatens to forever change their way of life.
No money, no problem
How much money we have determines, to a large extent, who we are: where we live, who we associate with, what we do in our free time and much more. So, what happens when you eliminate it from your life altogether? How do you survive? Can you lead a life without commerce? This was the question Mark Boyle, a former businessman, set out to answer when he lived for a year without spending or taking in a single cent. His experiment challenged him to be creative in ways that would impress a college student on the dole—he made paper out of mushrooms and built a stove from discarded catering equipment—and showed him how wasteful Westerns can be in the course of their daily lives. Even if you never take a similar pledge (though, if you did, you wouldn’t be alone: The book has spawned a “Freeconomy Community” with over 17,000 members), you’ll benefit from Boyle’s wisdom on minimizing waste and maximizing resources.
An unforgettable competition
Joshua Foer (the younger brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer) first became fascinated with the U.S. Memory Championship—an annual competition in which the country’s sharpest mnemonics wizards go head-to-head in various memorization challenges—when he covered the event as a science journalist in 2005. The following year, in order to get the inside scoop (and as a personal challenge to his “chronically forgetful” self), he decided to compete in the championship himself. In “Moonwalking With Einstein,” he describes his year of rigorous training and sheds light on a zany, dedicated community that most readers have never witnessed, if they’ve heard of it at all. “The scene I stumbled on,” he writes, “was something less than a clash of titans: a bunch of guys (and a few ladies), widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep, poring over pages of random numbers long lists of words. They referred to themselves as ‘mental athletes,’ or just MAs for short.”
Boiling down the big question
It’s probable that, not long after man invented the wheel, he grew bored of it and began to seek joy and satisfaction elsewhere. Tens of thousands of years later, we are still chasing that slippery thing—happiness—and, judging by the volume of books, blogs, classes and speeches produced on the topic each year, we have yet to get a lock on it. In “The Happiness Project,” one of the runaway nonfiction hits of the last few years, Gretchen Rubin recounts her year of learning how to be happier. Culling wisdom from an epic range of sources—we’re talking ancient philosophy, cutting-edge neuroscience and everything in between—Rubin boils down the fundamental principles to be found throughout. Is there, ultimately, a single secret to happiness? Maybe not. But, like the best immersive journalists, Rubin’s done all the obsessive research for you.
Life on the inside
If this list has given you the impression that immersion journalism is always a lighthearted affair, let Ted Conover’s unapologetically gritty memoir, “Newjack,” put that misconception to rest. Seeking the real story behind America’s penal system, Conover, a journalist, got a job as a prison guard at Sing Sing, one of the nation’s most notorious maximum-security facilities. Over the course of a year, as Conover witnesses unimaginable crime and corruption—both among Sing Sing’s inmates and its administration—his quest for truth about America’s criminal justice system becomes, inevitably, a test of his own mental and emotional endurance.
No room for interpretation
There are many people who try to live according to the principles laid down in the Bible, and more than a few sociopolitical debates hinge on how literally we’re supposed to take the passages within. In “My Year of Living Biblically,” A. J. Jacobs—who’s created something of an immersion-journalism empire—shows what it means to take wisdom and mandates of the Good Book at face value. For a year, he lived according to the rules of the Bible, some of which are well-known—pray every day, follow the Ten Commandments—and some of which are more obscure: don’t shave your beard, don’t mix wool and linen in fabrics and kill magicians. (Understandably, he makes a few exceptions.)
The 365-book reading list
After Nina Sankovtich lost her older sister to cancer, she sought a project that would help her to "absorb" her loss. Books, she believed, would offer her a way to not only escape her pain, but, though reading about the losses of others, find companionship in her struggle, as well. For an entire year, she read a book every day, from classics such as Richard Adams' "Watership Down" and Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to contemporary hits such as Nicole Krauss' "A History of Love" and Chris Cleave's "Little Bee." Throughout the memoir—which is divided into chapters on the various lessons books taught her, such as “To Welcome the Interloper” and “Sex by the Book”—she describes the challenges and rewards of the project and reveals the many ways literature helped her heal.
It stands to reason that we might not have any of the books on this list—no happiness projects, no years of living biblically—were it not for Henry David Thoreau, arguably the pioneer of the immersion genre. For two years, the Transcendentalist writer lived in a one-room cabin in rural Massachusetts, subsisting off the surrounding land and forgoing companionship of any kind. His account of his bare existence and the truths about self and nature that it taught him remains a shining example of the extremes some brave thinkers will go to in search of revelation.