Looking for immersion journalism books
February 7, 2008 6:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books where the author immerses himself in an experience and then writes about it

I've been reading these books for years, but I recently found out that the term for them is immersion journalism. I'm talking about books where an author tries something or goes somewhere and becomes completely enmeshed with the subject.
Some of my favorites in this area are:

Stuart Stevens- Malaria Dreams
Danny Wallace- Yes Man, Join Me
Henry Alford- Big Kiss
Bill Buford- Heat
A.J. Jacobs- The Year of Living Bibilically
J. Maarten Troost- The Sex Lives of Cannibals

Any more suggestions? Bonus points if it's a funny book.
posted by reenum to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer is excellent, but far from funny.
posted by Grither at 6:56 AM on February 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

There's one about a woman (scholar, not journalist) who goes to Kerala in India and becomes totally immeshed in the local religious life, which is dedicated to the worship of the goddess Kali. Oh Terrifying Mother. I read it in a college religion class and the most interesting thing about the book is how she goes from scholar/researcher to worshiper and complete participant. I'm not sure if that's exactly what you're looking for, but it's an interesting book nonetheless. There's lots of sex and intrigue and religion and things like that.
posted by ohio at 6:58 AM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

George Plimpton wrote several books like this.
posted by caddis at 7:02 AM on February 7, 2008

Participatory journalism has a huge overlap here. George Plimpton is famous for it. And a fine writer.
posted by fidelity at 7:02 AM on February 7, 2008

Nickel and Dimed is a popular book that seems to fit your description.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:03 AM on February 7, 2008

Some of the old, great classics of the genre: Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years In Tibet and The White Spider, awesome climbing and adventure stories that are well worth reading.
posted by koeselitz at 7:03 AM on February 7, 2008

Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods (very funny)
posted by bondcliff at 7:04 AM on February 7, 2008

I think another form of this is referred to as gonzo journalism if that helps any.

For gonzo journalism, a book that comes to mind is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
posted by samsara at 7:07 AM on February 7, 2008

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson should fit your criteria.
posted by Ostara at 7:08 AM on February 7, 2008

Best answer: Newjack - Ted Conover becomes a prison guard
Keep the River on your Right - Tobias Schneebaum moves in with some cannibals.
posted by shothotbot at 7:12 AM on February 7, 2008

Skipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage. He immerses himself in the seven sins. And it's hilarious.
posted by nursegracer at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2008

Most of Bill Bryson's books. And I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're looking for, but Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks is a great (and funny) book where the author makes a bet he can "hitchhike round the circumference of Ireland, with a fridge, in one calendar month". This book is the result.
posted by inigo2 at 7:15 AM on February 7, 2008

Best answer: Word Freak by Stephen Fatsis- The author becomes involved in the competitive Scrabble scene

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean- The book that was a plot point of "Adaptation", but it's an interesting book in itself

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz- exploring America's (the South anyway) obsession with the Civil War

The Genius Factory by David Plotz- the bizarre story of the Nobel Prize winners sperm bank, and the children it spawned. The author becomes involved in the reuniting of some of these children with their donors.
posted by kimdog at 7:25 AM on February 7, 2008

Ian Frazier's On the Rez is excellent. If you read Bill Bryson and like his works, chances are you will like Ian Frazier as well.
posted by Ostara at 7:27 AM on February 7, 2008

The Roads to Sata
posted by trig at 7:28 AM on February 7, 2008

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
any American Civil War diary
posted by XMLicious at 7:28 AM on February 7, 2008

Bill Buford's previous book, Among the Thugs - in which he spends a year with British football hooligans - is riveting and fantastic.
posted by googly at 7:29 AM on February 7, 2008

If you like sports, check out The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy
posted by tiburon at 7:29 AM on February 7, 2008

The classic one of these before gonzo stuff was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in which James Agee and Walker Evans go live with some sharecroppers in desperately poor Alabama. It is not at all funny. Ted Conover has written some more books along the line of Newjack including Riding Nowhere and Coyotes. Other good books along these lines include
  • the Bookseller of Kabul
  • Word Freak by Stephen Fatsis (about Scrabble, funny)
  • The Old Patagonia Express by Paul Theroux
  • Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss
  • The Hippie Ghetto : The Natural History of a Subculture William L. Partridge (inadvertently funny)

posted by jessamyn at 7:31 AM on February 7, 2008

Hell's Angels
posted by Otis at 7:36 AM on February 7, 2008

A lot of William Vollman's nonfiction works fit the bill.
posted by Falconetti at 7:37 AM on February 7, 2008

Not sure if if fits, but it's pretty funny:

The Smartest Man in the World by A.J. Jacobs is about a guy who reads the entire encyclopedia Britannica, and becomes one of those obsessed with Encyclopedia stuff. There are apparently groups that are obsessed with it, so I thought it might fit here.
posted by Grither at 7:37 AM on February 7, 2008

500 Mile Walkies was similar to 'A Walk in the Woods' - the author goes on a long walk, with his dog, who is is mildly insane.

Would this cover long-form autobiographies? I mean, James Herriot's books might meet the label of "immersion journalism" except that it's just his regular life he wrote about. They're classic books regardless.
posted by GuyZero at 7:43 AM on February 7, 2008

Also, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain . There's another book about Einstein's brain that I have but I forget the title.
posted by GuyZero at 7:44 AM on February 7, 2008

Seconding "Among The Thugs."

And I'll add Down To This by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. Bishop-Stall lived in Toronto's Tent City for the good part of a year (before the cops came and tore it all down) and then wrote this book.

"A truly amazing book, wonderfully written. All the time I was reading, I was either choked up or grinning from ear to ear. When I wasn't either choked up or grinning, I was weeping or laughing out loud. This is a stunning debut." -- Paul Quarrington
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:54 AM on February 7, 2008

"John Howard Griffin (June 16, 1920 - September 9, 1980) was a white journalist and author who wrote largely in favor of racial equality. He is best known for darkening his skin and journeying through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to experience segregation in the Deep South in 1959. He wrote about the experience in his critically acclaimed Black Like Me."
posted by pracowity at 7:58 AM on February 7, 2008

So I'm not sure where the line is with what you're interested in, some of these books are by people who had an experience and then wrote about it, they didn't have the experience to write about it. I think the books tend to be subtly different, often, when that's the case.

I recently read "Meditations from the Breakdown Lane" by James Shapiro, which is just an excellent book about running across the US. He had a book contract, but he was an ultrarunner before that, and just got the contract to pay for the trip. (I got it from the library.)

The Snow Leopard by Peter Maithesson is this kind of thing.

Anapurna and Touching the Void are other mountaineering books that recount intense experiences from the first person.

Many of John McPhee's books and essays are almost like this. He often participates, but he's not often the primary focus of the narrative. I can't say enough good things about his writing. Coming into The Country is excellent, as is Giving Good Weight.

First Person Rural, Second Person Rural, etc are about learning to be a gentleman farmer in Vermont. Noel Perrin has written those.

Why We Run is an excellent partial autobiography, partial (lay) scientific treatise on endurance, partial account of pursuing the American Record for the 100km distance, by Bernd Heinrich, who was successful in his quest! (It's also published as Racing the Antelope. I can't remember which is the current title.)
posted by OmieWise at 8:01 AM on February 7, 2008

If you liked Heat by Bill Buford then you may want to try The Making Of A Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute by Michael Ruhlman
posted by blast at 8:02 AM on February 7, 2008

I'll second the John McPhee books. Uncommon Carriers and The Control of Nature are particularly good.
posted by sulaine at 8:04 AM on February 7, 2008

Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception
posted by daksya at 8:04 AM on February 7, 2008

I read these a lot. The last one that I read and would recommend is
The Devil's Teeth-- "A journalist's obsession brings her to a remote island off the California coast, home to the world's most mysterious and fearsome predators — and the strange band of surfer-scientists who follow them."
posted by CAnneDC at 8:05 AM on February 7, 2008

Bury me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca. The author lived with groups of gypsies and writes about the experience. It's a really good read.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:07 AM on February 7, 2008

Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma fits this criteria. The author tries to get as close as possible to three different sources of food: factory farms (both commodity corn and cattle operations), sustainable/organic farms, and hunting/gathering. After immersing himself in each process, he prepares a meal based on the food that has been created. It's fascinating, funny, and horrifying depending on which page you're reading.
posted by vytae at 8:11 AM on February 7, 2008

An older great example is George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, in which Orwell describes his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

A newer great is H. G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights; Bissinger spent a year with the Odessa High School football team.

I can't speak highly enough of either one of these books.
posted by General Malaise at 8:16 AM on February 7, 2008

Yes, Homage to Catalonia is fabulous, as is Down and Out in Paris and London also by Orwell.
posted by OmieWise at 8:20 AM on February 7, 2008

Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent. Female author who lives as a man for a while, and writes about it. Haven't read it, but it got interesting reviews.
posted by rtha at 8:28 AM on February 7, 2008

Will Storr versus the Supernatural. Very much in the style of Jon Ronson and Danny Wallace. At turns hilarious and terrifying. Can't recommend it enough.
posted by oh pollo! at 8:40 AM on February 7, 2008

I'd suggest Island Sojourn by Elizabeth Arthur. The author and her husband buy an island off the coast of Canada and build their own cabin and live there for a year. Good stuff. May be hard to find but check the library or Amazon.

Them by Jon Ronson is an interesting book of interviews with various conspiracy theorists. In the end, the author decides that the conspiracy theorists are at least partly right. Very funny, very good. Perhaps not totally immersion but comes close and is very entertaining.
posted by jenfu at 9:02 AM on February 7, 2008

Neil Strauss, "The Game". Discussed before on mefi, I think.
posted by primer_dimer at 9:06 AM on February 7, 2008

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia
posted by gyusan at 9:08 AM on February 7, 2008

Seconding Word Freak - it's an absolutely hilarious account of the author's ascent into competitive Scrabble.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 9:30 AM on February 7, 2008

Best answer: The Devil's Picnic follows the author as he travels to various countries and violates food laws in those countries. He hunts down Norwegian moonshine, eats poppies in Singapore, finds underground smoking bars in New York. All the while pointing out how silly some food safety are.

Read it with the Omnivore's Dilema mentioned above.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:43 AM on February 7, 2008

How about Wandering Home. Bill McKibben as he hikes across Vermont and New York.
posted by pilibeen at 10:22 AM on February 7, 2008

Ted Conover's New Jack, in which he spends a year working as a prison guard, is mentioned above, and I'd second that, along with three of his other books:

Coyotes, in which he immerses himself in world of US-Mexico illegal border crossings, posing "as an immigrant, crossing the border twice and learning first-hand about "coyotes"those who sneak Mexicans and other Latin Americans across the border, often under murderous conditions. Menaced by hoods, arrested, freed, forced to dodge spotter planes, Conover spent a year, as he puts it, "working, drinking, smoking, driving, sleeping, sweating and shivering with Mexicans."

Rolling Nowhere, in which he hops freights and immerses himself in hobo culture.

Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, in which he spends a couple years as part of Aspen's service-industry underclass. "Working [there]for two years as cabbie, caterer, and newspaper reporter, Conover serves up an enticing melange appropriate both for stargazers hooked on the lifestyles of the rich and famous and pop sociologists. Rubbing shoulders with people as diverse as John Denver, Hunter S. Thompson, New Age cultists, and a 1980s miner, he offers intriguing commentary on modern Aspen's change from a planned utopia, combining skiing with high culture, to a sybaritic playground."
posted by dersins at 10:32 AM on February 7, 2008

Thirding Word Freak and recommending solidly against anything by A.J. Jacobs, especially Smartest Man..., which is disjointed and sloppy.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:53 AM on February 7, 2008

Cand Girl by Diablo Cody is her memoir of her year as a stripper.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:55 AM on February 7, 2008

Rachel and Her Children, by Jonathan Kozol, is a great book that deals with homelessness in American and the flawed structure of government assistance. The auther personally sought out hundreds of homeless and immersed himself in the culture.
posted by lukeklein at 1:28 PM on February 7, 2008

Dishwasher : One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States by Pete Jordan.
posted by apartment dweller at 1:40 PM on February 7, 2008

Best answer: Conservatize Me: How I Tried to Become a Righty with the Help of Richard Nixon, Sean Hannity, Toby Keith, and Beef Jerky by John Moe.

One of my favorite books from last year.
posted by Number27 at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2008

Sorcerer's Apprentice by Tahir Shah - he goes to India to study with a stage magician and learn the tricks of the trade of being an indian god-man, or fakir. Filled with skeleton theives, boy fakirs, gods (one of which worked in a bank), baby renters, it is one of my favourite books.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:27 PM on February 7, 2008

Robert Eisenberg, "Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground"
Any of Cleo Odzer's books: "Goa Freaks"; "Patpong Sisters"; "Virtual Spaces"
posted by candyland at 6:13 PM on February 7, 2008

I loved both Word Freak and A. J. Jacobs's books (btw, the actual title is The Know-It-All, not The Smartest Man in the World, and I believe the disjointedness is part of the experience; after all, being bombarded with really disparate bits of knowledge is nothing if not disjointed).

I also second Confederates in the Attic, which I would go so far as to call my favorite book. It's very funny in parts but is also very thoughtful.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:47 PM on February 7, 2008

Maximum City- Bombay Lost and Found by Seketu Mehta... man goes back to mumbai delves into the city. Meets gangsters, film stars, political leaders.
posted by stratastar at 9:23 PM on February 7, 2008

I'm surprised no one's mentioned the excellent and hilarious Positively Fifth Street by James McManus. Writer goes to cover the World Series of Poker, enters the tournament, and [SPOILER ALERT] finishes fifth, an astonishing result for a newcomer.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:14 PM on February 8, 2008

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