Who hasn’t had a fanciful idea about upending their status quo and setting off on a life-changing adventure? I know I certainly have. While the idea of taking on such a radical endeavor is nothing more than idle fantasy for most of us, there just so happens to be an entire niche genre built for scratching this sort of vicarious itch: the stunt memoir. This particular brand of memoir sees the author engaging in a specific and sometimes outlandish activity for a set amount of time, and chronicling the highs, lows, misadventures, and sometimes life-altering effects. Occasionally there’s a journalistic underpinning, sometimes its simply curiosity, and others comprise a purely adventurous spirit – regardless of the impetus, there’s something undoubtedly captivating in reading about someone who totally turns their life upside down. Here are few of our favorites.
A. J. Jacobs
If there’s a patron saint of stunt memoir, it’s A.J. Jacobs. He perfected his shtick conducting what he calls “lifestyle experiments” for Esquire. He’s spent a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z, and went on a quest to become the healthiest man in the world. And then there’s the time he spent a year trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible. This one is wickedly funny.
A Strange and Terrible Saga
Hunter S. Thompson
While this one is not technically a stunt memoir, a pretty convincing argument can be made that Hunter S. Thompson and the New Journalism movement set the stage for this particular subgenre. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson recounts the nearly two years in the 1960’s that he spent embedded with the notorious biker gang. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading Thompson in all of his incisive, sardonic, brutally honest glory, this is the place to start.
Stuck at dead-end job with her thirtieth birthday looming, Julie Powell felt the need to shake things up. Her plan? Spend a year cooking through the entirety of Julia Child’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With a tiny apartment kitchen and fair amount of determination, Julie tackled the project and lived to tell the tale in this bestselling memoir.
David Foster Wallace
Harper’s once commissioned David Foster Wallace to spend one week on a Caribbean cruise and write about the experience. The result is a hilariously Wallace-like examination of not only the entire cruise but also of the uncomfortable introspection and existential despair that resulted from a week on the high seas. I’ve always thought that Wallace’s verbal gymnastics and artistry were best consumed in smaller bites; this is a perfect example. Although not technically a stunt memoir, I just couldn’t leave it off this list.
A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania
Warren St. John
While it’s no secret that college football fans are notoriously devoted to their teams and the game itself, journalist Warren St. John had a simple question: Why? To figure it out, he set out with a traveling community of RVers dedicated to the Alabama Crimson Tide. What follows is a descent into extreme fandom that is both hilarious and surprisingly moving.
A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater
In this memoir, Nigel Slater brings readers along for a year of cooking, dining, and entertaining. It’s a fascinating dive into a world of culinary delights. Whether prepping for a dinner party, exploring a local market, or simply cooking for one, Slater’s love of food is infectious and fascinating.
This beloved bestseller sees Barbara Kingsolver move her family from suburban Arizona to rural Appalachia for a year of eating a hyper-local diet sourced from food largely grown on their own farm. Humorous, informative, and thought-provoking, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle proved an instant classic and continues to resonate with readers.
My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend
There’s just something odd about finding friends as an adult, particularly outside of work. Just think about how many of your friends come from some sort of mandatory group experience (school, job, etc.). Rachel Bertsche dove into this topic firsthand after making the move to Chicago. With a host of websites, apps, and the occasional class or two, Bertsche racks up a year’s worth of friend dates in her search for that ever-elusive new BFF.
A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste
It takes a particular sort of obsession and dedication to become a sommelier – a wine steward. These wine experts understand the delicate interplay between the palate and the nose, and often seem to possess almost superhuman sensory powers. Intrigued by both the skill and the obsessive devotion to a craft, professional journalist and amateur drinker Bianca Bosker set about the daunting task of becoming a sommelier herself. Cork Dork recounts her hilarious and surprisingly life-affirming journey.
Poker, Beef Jerky and Death
Well before Colson Whitehead took home the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, Grantland gave the novelist $10,000 to play at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and write about the experience. There was just one problem – Whitehead had never played in a casino tournament before. The Noble Hustle chronicles Whitehead’s entertaining, oft-hilarious, and surprisingly profound journey to the World Series of Poker.