Book Report: The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

June 24, 2008 at 11:42 pm 4 comments

It’s possible you know A.J. Jacobs from his previous project- to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica in a year. It ended with an ill-fated stint on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and a pretty successful book deal. In this book, the self-described agnostic takes on an arguably more difficult challenge- to follow all of the rules in the Old and New Testaments, to the letter, for one year.

He starts with the basic ten commandments (you know, no killing, no adultery, and so on), but it rapidly becomes more complicated. He invites a rabbi to his apartment who specializes in identifying mixed fibers in clothes, because to mix fibers (specifically wool and linen) isn’t kosher. He has to radically change his diet, and, in the most visible consequence of his quest, he isn’t allowed to trim his facial hair. This earns him more than a few odd looks on the subway.

His coworkers tease him, his family thinks he’s lost his mind, but the most dramatic repercussion has to be the stress it puts on his marriage. For a couple of liberal New Yorkers, some of the rules come across as pretty sexist, something his wife doesn’t take kindly to. For example, the Bible states that when a woman is menstruating, a man can not only not touch her, but he can’t sit in a chair she has sat in. Jacobs comes home from work one day, about to collapse onto the couch and relax. Without looking up from her book, his wife says, “I sat there.” He moves to a different seat. “I sat there, too.” While he was at work, his wife sat on every chair in their apartment, relagating him to the floor.

Obviously, a lot of the rules seem antiquated or ridiculous in the 21st century, but Jacobs takes care to treat everything with an open mind. For just about every incredibly specific, absurd law in the Bible, whether it’s blowing a horn at the first of every month, or handling deadly snakes, there’s a sect somewhere devoted to seeing that rule out. Jacobs visits and interviews dozens of these people, examining why their faith is important to them without prejudice.

While he uses the King James Version as his main reference, Jacobs also recognizes the endless translations and interpretations that shape how he should follow these rules. He talks to clergy of all faiths, gathering different opinions and using the bits that seem to make the most sense. Even stories or rules that seem offensive- like that menstruation rule up there- aren’t necessarily as barbaric as they seem. He’s careful to keep things balanced and reasonable, and while his own sensibilities inevitably come into play, he remains pretty pleasantly unbiased throughout.

The book easily could have been snarky, an intellectual lording his knowledge over the supposedly less educated. In truth, though, it’s a book about a guy honestly exploring the most-read book in the world, and trying to figure out what it means to other people, and to himself. It is, by turn, sweet, sad, and pretty damn funny. Discussion and education are key to understanding, and Jacobs makes a giant step in the right direction.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. totaltransformation  |  June 25, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Sounds like an interesting read.

    “For a couple of liberal New Yorkers, some of the rules come across as pretty sexist, something his wife doesn’t take kindly to. For example, the Bible states that when a woman is menstruating, a man can not only not touch her, but he can’t sit in a chair she has sat in.”

    While the rule might seem sexist to our 21st century sensibilities it is actually part of a larger distinction found in Old Testament laws- dividing the symbols of death and life. When a woman is menstruating it is seen as a symbol of death as her womb sheds its lining and an unfertilized egg. This same distinction is seen in other OT laws like the separation of milk (life) and meat (death).

    Thanks for writing the review. Well done.

    Reply
  • 2. Betty  |  June 25, 2008 at 8:10 am

    Yeah, he actually makes that point in the book. Not touching the woman is a sign of respect and mourning for the lost life. He does a good job of delving into the history and context of everything he mentions. You should definitely check it out.

    Reply
  • 3. moxey  |  June 25, 2008 at 10:47 am

    I have to admit, I read this book hoping that at the end he would experience a profound spiritual shift. I never got the sense that that had happened, though I did feel he developed a larger sense of respect towards the faithful.

    As a (non-practicing) Jew he naturally felt a deeper affinity for the Old Testament, and his research and presentation of the rules and laws in their historical and biblical context was very interesting and enlightening. Towards the end I felt like he just barely scratched the surface of the New Testament. I don’t know if it’s because his wife was due to deliver their twins around the end of his year-long experiment and he was preoccupied with that, or if it was something of an unconscious aversion to the NT. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

    All in all, though, a fascinating read.

    Reply
  • 4. Tim Cameron  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    I thought The Know-It-All was an excellent book, perfectly weighing the flood of information with the narrative on Jacobs’ own life. This book sounds just as great, and your review has made me really want to read it.

    Reply

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