'By The Book' Podcast Is Taking On The World Of Self-Help Books, One Experiment At A Time

If you’ve ever wandered through the self-help section of your local bookstore, it probably didn’t take you long to realize that if you’ve got a problem, there’s a book for it. Several books, in fact, all claiming to be the latest and the greatest, the most results-yielding and the quickest success, Oprah-rated and Gwyneth Paltrow-endorsed, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. If you found yourself wishing there were a simple way to narrow down your self-help book prospects (dare I say, maybe even someone to test-drive a title or two for you?) then there's a new podcast you've got to check out.

It’s called By The Book — a self-described “half reality show, half self-help podcast, and one wild social experiment” hosted by comedian Jolenta Greenberg and self-help book skeptic Kristen Meinzer, and broadcast by Panoply Media. In each episode, Greenberg and Meinzer live by the rules of a different self-help book, offering listeners plenty of laughs, maybe a tear or two, and a whole lot of firsthand advice on what works and what definitely doesn’t in the world of self-help reads.

Now in their second season of By The Book, Greenberg and Meinzer have discovered how to live “Danish-ly” with Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge; worked on developing their inner-panache with Countess LuAnn de Lesseps’s Class with the Countess; explored their views on feminism, masculinity, and modern relationships with self-help classic Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus; decluttered their homes and their souls with Marie Kondō’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (you should already have at least one copy, because it was in every single holiday gift basket of 2014, yes?), and lots more.

But, you might be wondering: how do these two self-help aficionados narrow down their own TBR piles? “We try to stick to books that have some notoriety,” Greenberg tells Bustle. “The ones you’ve always heard about and meant to read, but never did. We also pick books based on popular listener suggestions.”

“And, of course, we try to make sure we cover a wide variety of books,” Meinzer says. “Books that approach betterment through home decorating, books that approach betterment through romantic relationships, books that approach betterment through technology cutbacks. Variety keeps the show fresh and keeps us on our toes.”

Photo of Jolenta Greenberg, courtesy of Zachary Zirlin

On their toes they definitely are. The self-helpin’ duo only give themselves two weeks to implement the tips and tricks of each book before putting together their podcast and moving on to the next lifestyle revolution. “It’s overwhelming to learn the new rules,” says Greenberg, “but I find after a few days of living by a new book I’ll get completely absorbed in what I’m doing and totally forget what I was living by last week. So I’d say it’s mostly exciting with hints of overwhelming right at the beginning of a new book.”

Don’t think these intrepid podcasters are turning themselves into self-help guinea pigs in a vacuum either — they both conduct their experiments in the midst of their friends-and-family-filled lives, and often in full view (and complaining earshot) of their partners. “Most people are super supportive and encouraging,” Greenberg says. “My husband has to hear the brunt of my complaints and he’s a champ who somehow doesn’t mind the fact that I constantly take my work home with me, and record his reactions to it.”

Meinzer — the self-help skeptic of the two — agrees. “Jolenta and I are very lucky to have an incredible circle of friends and family. And our partners hit it out of the ballpark with their willingness to play along with just about anything we do. I think the fact that the people we’re closest to have a great sense of humor really helps.”

But the number one question I’m sure listeners (and readers) are dying to have answered: do the books really work? As it turns out, some of them do.

“I loved Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Stephen G. Post and Jill Neimark,” says Meinzer, of a title the two tackled back in December. “It wasn’t a perfect book, but it did reaffirm my belief that kindness and happiness are intertwined.”

Greenberg, on the other hand, says she got the most personal growth from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — and even continued incorporating some of the tips into her post-experiment life. “Living by that book totally changed how my apartment is organized and it has stayed that way for about a year now. The book has even changed how I fold all of my clothes. I swear by it.”

Photo of Kristen Meinzer, courtesy of Panoply Media

There were also some titles that totally surprised them — especially those they may have suspected were just nonsense, but which actually ended up helping them in positive ways. “I was surprised by how much fun I had with Past Lives, Future Healing by Sylvia Brown,” says Meinzer. “Yes, it was a crock of hooey, but I just threw myself into it, and it actually got me to think about some serious issues and have a good time.”

Greenberg picked another title, Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. “It’s about disconnecting from technology and allowing yourself to get bored in order to spark creativity,” she says. “I love my phone and social media and wasn’t looking forward to spending time away from either. But the book was surprisingly simple and straightforward, and full of totally doable steps to help you subtly unplug. I found the whole process to be really refreshing and freeing, it was great.”

But every experiment hasn’t been a success. Meinzer describes struggling with a book their By The Book listeners felt passionately about, but that didn’t resonate quite as well with the podcasters. "The Miracle Morning [by Hal Elrod] was the most nominated book we ever lived by and the book’s supporters felt very strongly about its merits. Jolenta and I, however, struggled with the book,” Meinzer says. “Part-way through week two, Jolenta had a 101 degree fever and had to stay in bed. Also part-way through week two, my late work nights and early mornings meant I was only getting four hours of sleep a night, so I began doing the book in a very abbreviated way (a few minutes a day, versus over an hour). Some listeners thought we were copping out, when in actuality, we were taking care of our health. As much as we love the show, we won’t allow any book to hurt us.” (A definite pro-tip for anyone ready to dive into the self-help book world themselves.)

Speaking of which, both Greenberg and Meinzer have some advice for readers who sense they’re in need of a self-help book, but don’t know how to narrow down the pool of books to choose from.

“There are a lot of charlatans out there schilling their products, not your well-being,” says Meinzer. “They’ll convince you they’re they 'one way' to fix yourself and then leave you failing and buying more of their products. Remember: if they use words like ‘guaranteed’ or have you do things that are dangerous, step away from the book.”

At the same time, Greenberg advises, “Be open to trying new things, but don’t forget to trust your gut. You are the ultimate authority on yourself and what works for you. Just because it’s in a book and works for some people doesn’t mean you’re broken if you aren’t enlightened by every self-help book you read.”

You can subscribe to By The Book on Panopoly and iTunes. Maybe you'll even be inspired to embark upon a little self-help experiment of your own.