On a Monday in January I walked through the bitter evening chill, across the Thames and up into the familiar streets of Holborn to meet the London chapter of the Podcast Brunch Club. Across a pub table of friendly faces, excellent jumpers and dry January drinks, we spoke about memory – the topic of the evening – before falling in to chatter about many other things.
I can’t remember which conversational thread we tugged on, but somehow the podcast, By the Book, was mentioned by our brilliant host, Sirena, and as soon as she described it, it was on my to-listen-to list. Knowing my shamefully pure and earnest hunger for information about peoples’ lives, it was a surefire binge listen.
I most want to know about how people navigate and transform their lives, how it feels to be them, and the issues that trouble them. At least, I think the must be why I find agony aunts, advice columns, transformation TV and self-help books so endlessly appealing – Dear Sugars, Esther Perel and Dear Prudence already filled my Overcast feed, feeding my fascination for the different rules and tricky issues that affect people’s lives
‘By the Book’ is a podcast following two women as they choose and read a self-book, then live by the rules for two weeks, recording their varied experiences, tasks, outcomes and ultimately their verdict – is this book life-changing? More particularly, is it life-changing in a good way? Or is it just terrible? Have their relationships, their jobs and their friendships survived that fortnight’s experiment?
They carry the rules, and microphones, into every area of their lives – their homes, their relationships, their diets, their sleep, and even their showers, as they take part in tasks of varying perversity, revealing as they do their own hopes, cynicisms, and particular vulnerabilities.
Choosing a self-help book is a perculiarly revealing act, showing as it does, what you wish you could change most about your self – could you be a little thinner, a little more confident, more productive? Why can’t you stop buying so much shit, or sleeping in so often? What particular moral failing do you feel so strongly that you’ll hand over £8.99 and hours of your life trying to fix it?
For Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer, the excellent hosts, covering such a range of self-help books means that they’re constantly in this process of revelation, not always through the books picked, but by the range of ‘issues’ the books are supposed to tackle – even a dry book on how to improve memory can become emotional if memory tricks are something you excelled at as a kid, or conversely you’re unable to recognise people even after spending hours in their company. So it’s of no wonder that books that try to define how different genders should behave in a relationship, how you should eat, or that ask you to recall your earliest moments induce anger, rage, pain or despair.
This is a podcast that thrives on the personalities and the very funny interactions of the hosts. Although the blurb on their website suggests Kristen as the cynic, due to her distrust of the bullshit pseudo-science cited in the books she’s asked to follow, her warm-hearted affectionate joy in the world and in people is the perfect foil for Jolenta, whose soft spot for crystals has her pegged as the believer, but her perfectly pitched eye-rolling at anything too twee or idealistic means that’s not quite the case. Their husbands, living through these fortnightly life changes along with the women, become drawn further and further in, walking the tight line of, ‘I’ll totally support you’ and ‘what the absolute fuck are you doing?’ that might be familiar to anyone in a relationship.
Each book is covered in two episodes – one tracking the two weeks where they followed the rules, and another episode a week later, a follow up epilogue for further reflection as well as feedback from listeners.
The podcast thrives the two women experiencing the same book completely differently, and how different aspects of their lives suddenly appear – Kristen integrating her home and things with her husband’s in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, how Jolenta’s experience of wealth changed throughout her life and how that’s resulted in her ignoring the numbers in the bank account (or the bank account altogether) in America’s Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money.
With that in mind, I’d recommend starting the podcast at the beginning and really getting to know the two as the episodes unfold.
I personally started with the episode that came up in conversation that January night in a London pub, ‘Why French Women Don’t Get Fat‘, and it seems to be the episode that has sparked most conversation online too – advice about eating will do that though, right? If we know that self-help books can remind you of your vulnerabilities, it shouldn’t come as any wonder that the book about food and the ‘best’ way to eat is inescapably mixed up in a host of societal pressures, personal struggles and an utterly skewed morality assigned to food choices, and it ultimately leads to Kristen tears over lettuce and pickle slices – somewhere where most women, myself included, have been. Kristen referred to the first part of the diet as ‘an author-prescribed eating disorder’, so do listen with care to that one, as much as I enjoyed it.
I have a personal soft spot for the episodes that take the books or authors down in fantastic style – the author of The Miracle Morning and How to Write an Ebook in Less Than 7-14 Days That Will Make You Money Forever do not get off lightly, nor should they. The furious outrage caused by Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is reassuringly wonderful, and even though The Little Book of Hygge is tolerated a little more, its highly privileged and exclusive kind of comfort is deftly noted.