There are lots of rules in the Bible. A. J. Jacobs decided to abide by them all. He followed the Ten Commandments. He strove to refrain from gossiping, lying and coveting. He stopped shaving and avoided wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. Did he choose this arduous path to be closer to God? No, he did it to sell a book. Because, if the publishing industry is right, deprivation is hip.
"The Year of Living Biblically," Jacobs's forthcoming chronicle of his yearlong quest to follow every mandate in the Bible, is just one of a recent flurry of "year of" books. Sara Bongiorni gave up buying Chinese products for "A Year Without 'Made in China'." Judith Levine gave up shopping altogether for "Not Buying It." Barbara Kingsolver fed her family with what they could grow or source locally for "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." Ellen Currey-Wilson banned TV from the house for "The Big Turnoff." And Colin Beavan swore off luxuries like toilet paper, disposable cups and air conditioning for his blog No Impact Man.
These experiments in doing without often result in paydays for the authors: "The Year of Living Biblically" is being made into a film by Paramount, "No Impact Man" will become both a book and a documentary film, and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" has been a New York Times best seller. So why is this a year of year-of books? One answer is that the more ethically motivated projects, like Kingsolver's and Beavan's, tap into growing concern about protecting the environment. (NEWSWEEK's Raina Kelley has just finished living as a freegan for a month, and chronicled her experience on Newsweek.com and in this issue of the magazine.) Reading about their sacrifices makes us feel vicariously virtuous—we may not have the discipline to live without olive oil and spices, but at least we know we should. Moreesoteric projects, like Jacobs's, provide a sheer rubbernecking thrill while supplying easily digested information on a subject of common interest. And the domestic strife that results from the project can be very funny. In "The Year of Living Biblically," Jacobs's wife suffers through her husband's ever-growing beard, increasingly strange dietary requirements and injunction against touching her, or any chair she may have sat on, while she's menstruating. (As revenge, she purposely sits on every chair in the house, forcing him to perch on his son's six-inch wooden bench.)
But the real appeal for readers may be in the way the writers, by saying no to so much of modern life, impose strict parameters on the abundance of choice facing the rest of us. By limiting their options, confining their experiments to a year and clearly defining their goals, these writers organize the messiness of life.
The recent vogue for year-of memoirs can be traced to Peter Mayle's 1990 "A Year in Provence," in which he moved to France with his wife. Next came 2005's "Julie and Julia," followed in 2006 by Maria Dahvana Headley's year of saying yes to every man who asked her out for "The Year of Yes," and Norah Vincent's year-and-a-half of cross-dressing for "Self-Made Man."
By contrast, many recent year-of books are about the writer's staying home and not doing something. "We're such a hyperaffluent society, what else is left for us to do than take things away from our lives?" says Ron Hogan, author of the publishing-industry blog Galleycat.com.
"Part of the idea of saying no is a little old-fashioned," says Judy Clain, the Little, Brown editor who bought "Julie and Julia," a year-of memoir in which writer Julie Powell made every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." "We are so overwhelmed by technology, we have so much access to so many choices, these books offer a way to deprive or limit ourselves."
Perhaps, in following the writers' attempts to lead lives pared down to the essentials, readers may be reminded of the necessity of finding a way to give their remaining years meaning, whether by not buying tropical fruit in February or letting their beards grow to their knees. "All of the possibilities in a life happen in a year," says Lorin Stein, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "The idea that the year is going to be a productive year, that it will not go unmarked, is really soothing." And what could be more soothing than a year in which your options are so limited as to almost not exist? As Kingsolver's daughter Camille, who contributes recipes to the book, discovered, limiting her shopping list to local, organic produce was "actually easier. When you peruse the farmers' market for fresh produce, the options are clear. You don't miss what's not there." Similarly, Jacobs finds himself longing for the simple, Biblical life once his experiment ends: "The first day was the worst. I felt unanchored. Too many choices." However, if the fad for deprivation memoirs continues at its current pace, readers considering a packed shelf in a bookstore may not enjoy that same luxury.