Book Corner: Life-as-Experiment Books Inform and Entertain

Cheers to the New Year, when Facebook feeds are filled with inspirational quotes such as “365 new days, 365 new chances” and “This is the beginning of anything you want.” And we eat these cheesy quotes right up, don’t we? Why does a simple date change result in a burst of new gym memberships and the purchase of a gold-embossed, leather-covered bullet journal? By January 14, the gym bag is moldering in the corner, and the dog has torn your pretty journal to pieces (never mind you only filled out the first page). 

But not to worry. This is not one of those articles that tells you the right way to hack your new year - because I have no idea. This article does, however, tell you what to read if you want to see how others are living their best lives (or not). I’ve always had a fascination with books in which the author spends one year on a personal experiment. Often these experiments are to help spark a change in habit, some are to learn about other perspectives, and some are done out of plain curiosity. Reading a little about experimental journalism and falling into the rabbit hole of the Internet, I discover that designing your life like an experiment might just be the key to positive change. Rather than doggedly sticking to a resolution for a week before giving up, you can treat life as a series of fun (or not so fun) experiments. Or, you could just sit back and let someone else do that while you read about it. 

My favorite life-as-experiment books are either travel or self-help. Often, they are one and the same. Frances Mayes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, tantalizes with her year of travels from North Africa to Britain, delighting in the cuisines, cultures, and architectures of different lands. David Cohen took a year off of work (!) to take his family on a year-long journey around the world. These are the experiments I long to replicate someday. On the self-help side, I get to observe adventures in saying yes to everything, such as a shy introvert doing improv comedy, without actually having to do them myself. This includes overcoming anxiety by doing anxiety-provoking things, such as booking a session with a professional cuddler and spending an afternoon in a sensory-deprivation tank.

Some “year of” books investigate issues of social justice first hand and seek to reveal different perspectives, as Gabriel Thompson did in working for a year among the “invisible poor” of America. Then some authors, such as A.J. Jacobs, turn themselves into “human guinea pigs” just to see what would happen if they outsource their entire lives or spend a month practicing “Radical Honesty.” I firmly believe it’s better to experience these things vicariously than to try them yourself. Ask Jacobs’ wife - she’d probably agree.

Here are 12 books - one for each month of this year - to entertain, shock, and amuse you:

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Okay Fine Whatever by Courtenay Hameister

One Year Off by David Cohen

Our Black Year by Maggie Anderson

Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come by Jessica Pan

The Tao of Martha by Jen Lancaster

Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson

A Year in the World by Frances Mayes

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Earn a limited-edition travel mug when you read four books as part of Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Adult Winter Reading Challenge. Sign up at

Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.