Friday, May 11, 2012

Nonfiction: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

With A.J. Jacob's most recent book, Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, now available all over North America, I decided to post on another one of his contributions to what is often referred to as "stunt journalism." I actually decided to read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible thanks to my mother who highly recommended. And as usual, mom did not let me down.

The Situation: As a sort of follow-up to The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, another experiment of Jacob's that he turned into a book, where he read all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Jacobs decided to take on the Bible. After reading it, he decided to devote a year of his life to following every law and moral code inside of it. To do this he consulted many religious experts ranging from rabbis to snake handlers. He also consulted many religious texts and did not skimp at all on the research. Pretty ambitious.

The Problem: This may have been too ambitious. To follow every single law and moral code in the Bible is one ridiculously difficult task. I mean...this is one of those things that human beings just naturally fail at over and over again (kind of the whole point of God giving up his Son for us and all). And not only does Jacobs have his work cut out for him, but he also has a wife and son to consider. Oh yeah, and his wife becomes pregnant during the course of the year...with twins (he's got the be fruitful and multiply part down). Also, he is still writing for Esquire magazine which requires him to talk with celebrities and other personalities who do not know (and maybe wouldn't care) about what he is trying to do. There is one part of the book where he interviews one particular actress that he describes as "the single most raunchy actress in Hollywood." If you want to know who it is, you'll have to read the book (or at least skim it while standing in a local bookstore) as I won't tell you and Wikipedia doesn't have the answer. But I will say the answer will surprise you.

Genre, Themes, History: I have already stated that this genre is commonly referred to as "stunt journalism," which does make sense. Jacobs has four books now in which he takes on a seemingly impossible task and writes down what happens. This one of course is going to have biblical themes, and while Jacobs doesn't stick with just one type of Christianity (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, snake handling, etc.), or even Judaism, he does lean heavily on the traditional Jewish side of things, which does make sense given the Old Testament of the Bible and Jacob's own Jewish heritage.

My Verdict: While this subject matter has the capacity to become extremely heavy and volatile extremely quickly, Jacobs manages to keep it light, while still making the reader think. The book is funny without being least I think so. There are moments that are truly profound and will cause even the most devout follower of the Bible to think about their own spiritual lives and the how and the why of the "rules" they follow. And while someone else may come out of an experiment of this sort with totally different findings, Jacob's journey has a note of universality that I think many readers can identify with. I believe many readers in this modern world will get something out of this book.

My only real bone to pick with the book is that it seems to me, and maybe I missed something, that Jacobs doesn't make it a point to regularly attend a house of worship. Sure, he visits synagogues, he consults with rabbis, he goes to various types of services, but for the most part it seems to be ignored. To be fair though, Jacobs had a lot to cover, even with a whole year to do it.

Favorite Moment: Because Jacobs is not to sit on anything that an impure woman has sat on, his wife, who is currently menstruating (this is before she becomes pregnant), proceeds to sit on every couch and chair in the house before he gets home. She is not a fan of the rule.

Recommended Reading: Paradise Lost by John Milton. I know, I know...but given the nature of Jacob's book I feel it is pretty appropriate to turn to classic and well-known interpretation of the biblical story of the fall of man. Even so, I do not in any way judge anyone for not following this recommendation.

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