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Sabbatical-Lit: The year of living vicariously

In his new book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer explores the art and science of memory. But there is something very familiar about its formal structure— writer visits memory championship; writer decides to train for a year to become a memory champion; writer returns to memory championship for the ultimate challenge.

Moonwalking with Einstein fits neatly into a genre sustained by their authors’ inclinations to take a year off, do something odd, and write a book about it. Over the last few years, a curiously large number of these books – some very good, some downright regrettable – has been published. On a visit to a bookstore a week ago, I counted four titles on the “New and Noteworthy” table alone; without exerting myself, I could recall another dozen.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The mother of all such books is undoubtedly Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 post-divorce memoir that spreads over a languorous year in Italy, India and Bali, and that best demonstrates the vicarious appeal these books contain. More often, though, the appeal seems to lie not in exotic locations but in the sheer freedom of being able to snatch a year out of our frenzied lives to devote to an eccentric objective. A laundry list is possibly in order here, if only to present, en masse, a clutch of exhausting, often-absurd subtitles that tell us nearly everything we need to know about the books.

So we have: A. J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World; Jasper Rees’ A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument; Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany; Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love; John Marchese’s The Violin Maker: Finding a Centuries-Old Tradition in a Brooklyn Workshop.

In my mind, there is even a winner for the most ridiculous subtitle, and happily it fits the most ridiculous of these books I’ve read: Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.

I was an enthusiastic reader of this genre when it first started to appear on bookshelves, viewing the books as exercises in participatory journalism. In time, though, I found myself growing cynical about these projects disguised as books, partly because many of the books themselves appear to be so cynically manufactured to formula. They are almost invariably wrapped around the trellis of one calendar year, a digestible length of time for the reader and a convenient sabbatical plucked out of the life of the writer.

There are sure to be dollops of the potted history of whichever arcane location or pursuit is under investigation, and only the writer’s craft can determine how readable and original this research is; Buford’s digressions into the history of Tuscan food go down as smoothly as terrine, but Nani Power’s parallel forays in Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking, Culture and Love stick powerfully in the throat.

The books feature a carefully considered admixture of anecdote, ruminations on Life or Art, and personal memoir. Above all, the narrative always scurries towards a climactic triumph— the memory contest won; the new romance; the complicated meal cooked; the B flat hit perfectly on the French horn— that hints at some form of personal redemption. “Did I prove to myself that there’s more to life than being young and not trying very hard?” Rees asks himself after his recital. “Oh yes. I did. I did indeed. More than that, I stood up. I took a risk and lived.”

How much a year’s worth of French horn lessons poses a risk to life is open to debate.  But collectively, Rees’ book and others – even the bad ones – tell us interesting things about our lives. Our conception of risk today, for instance, seems to involve threats to our professional rather than our physical well-being. This is, I shudder to realise, how central our careers have become to our lives; a vital juncture in many of these memoirs arrives when somebody calls the author crazy and wonders what will happen to their day job.

In reading these books, though, I also discerned a certain continuity in human nature— blessedly, because so many of our malaises are otherwise ascribed to the modern era.  Within the motivations of these authors, I could recognise our ancient predilection to think that true happiness lies only outside of the route that our lives are already taking—  that the grass, as the old saw informs us, is greener on the other side, at least for a year.

Samanth Subramanian is a contributing writer and the host of First Post’s literary salon. He is the Indian correspondent for The National and the author of Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast (Penguin, 2010).