Wondering what you can do about global warming? The literary world has an answer: Buy a book.
In a gimmick one might call Walden Redux, a number of authors have gone off the grid for a year, reducing their consumption and carbon footprint. They document the experiment, and then, in a slightly atavistic gesture, their publishers deliver it in traditional dead-tree form for you to consume.
The trend includes Barbara Kingsolver's best-selling "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," in which the author's family pledged for a year to eat only food produced on its farm; Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon's "Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally," and Colin Beavan's forthcoming book about his yearlong pursuit of a "No Impact" lifestyle. A similar subtrend focuses on reducing one's consumption generally: Judith Levine's "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping," Sara Bongiorni's "A Year Without ‘Made in China': One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy," and Mary Carlomagno's "Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less."
Editors and agents say the appeal of these books is their authors' humility and everymanness. The parameters of their projects — individual and temporally limited — suit an age that distrusts both ideological fervor and collective action.
"People get scared off by extremism," the editor of Mr. Beavan's "No Impact Man" book at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Denise Oswald, said. "Colin is not proposing that everybody do what he's doing for a year," she continued. "The whole point of the project is to educate himself."
Mr. Beavan said he didn't know yet how much of their "No Impact" lifestyle he and his family would maintain over the long term, but he expects it will be more than if they'd tried to reduce their consumption incrementally. "In a way, the year is like a detox diet — when you're done, you're hopefully not going to go back and eat a lot of cookies," he said. Speaking of himself and his wife, he added: "Neither of us wants to go back to where we were."
Ms. Kingsolver's agent, Frances Goldin, said her client "would really stress that she doesn't expect anybody to spend a year growing their own food. … She thinks if you can put parsley in your window box you're making a good start." Nor, she claimed, did Ms. Kingsolver extend her eat-local pledge beyond the allotted year. "She grows her garden, and they eat from their garden, [but] this was an experiment," Ms. Goldin said. "It was a gimmick, and it made a great story."
However, Ms. Kingsolver, tracked down by her assistant in the potato patch, put things differently. "It's no longer an experiment," she said. "It's the way we live. We couldn't go back to eating jet-lagged food."
For Ms. Kingsolver, at least, the exercise paid off. "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" has sold 120,000 copies since it was published in May, according to Nielsen Book-Scan, and word of mouth continues to drive sales: This coming Sunday, the book rises to no. 9 from no. 13 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list.
The other authors, who lack Ms. Kingsolver's large following, have not been so lucky. "Plenty" has sold 5,000 copies since it was published in April. "Give It Up!" and "Not Buying It" have each sold a modest but respectable 10,000 copies — suggesting that their anti-consumerist message is being listened to, if not exactly heeded.
The editor of "Plenty" at Harmony Books, an imprint of Crown, John Glusman, said he didn't think the similarity to Ms. Kingsolver's book had hurt sales. "We see James and Alisa's audience as slightly younger [than Ms. Kingsolver's], and we think the real life of the book will be in trade paperback," he said.
But how many would-be Thoreaus can the market bear? Mr. Beavan's book won't be out until 2009, at which point he may find himself late to the locally grown feast. Ms. Oswald said that when she acquired "No Impact Man" last fall, the trend hadn't yet presented itself.
"If I was looking at this project now, I would be more concerned and forced to think in those ways about it," she said. "But the fact is that Colin, in a way, is helping to create the trend." Through his blog, "No Impact Man," and appearances on "Good Morning America," "He is building an audience and becoming an authority, so by the time the book comes out he [won't be] an unknown quantity."
That these authors have all chosen to maintain their Spartan lifestyles for the same length of time raises the question: What is so magical, in publishing terms, about a year? Amazon teems with "year" titles, from the romantic (Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence"), to the political ("My Year in Iraq," by Paul Bremer), to the ridiculous (A.J. Jacobs's forthcoming "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest To Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible").
Even Thoreau found the 12-month frame a useful contrivance. He lived on Walden Pond for two years, and the process of writing the book stretched over several more, yet in "Walden" he claimed to recount the occurrences of one year only.
The "My Year of X" format reflects the memoir's origins in journals or, today, in blogs. Ms. Smith and Mr. Mackinnon's book began as a blog, 100milediet.org, as did Julie Powell's less ecological, more epicurean food odyssey, "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen" (or, as the paperback is titled: "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously").
The one-year experiment also appeals to a culture that believes in (or at least wishes for) spiritual renewal on the cheap: the idea that you can take a sabbatical from your investment banking job to be a yak herder in Nepal, then return to your life rejuvenated, with a new Zen perspective on your 90-hour work week. We change our minds, so that we don't have to change our lives.
The message of the eat-locally books is similarly seductive, and unthreatening: All we need to do to change the world is to educate ourselves, to cultivate awareness of our role in the environment. Which you can do by growing a garden, or giving up toilet paper — or, for $19.95, just buying this book.