Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: The Year of Living Biblically

Title: The Year of Living Biblically
Author: A. J. Jacobs
Genre: Humor, Religion
Published: 2007
Pages: 388
Rating: 10 / 10
Challenges: N/A
Awards: none (yet!), but it has been optioned for a movie

Synopsis (from the back cover):
Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. He vows to follow the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love his neighbor. But also to obey the hundreds of less publicized rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers.

The resulting spiritual journey is at once funny and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal, and will make you see history's most influential book with new eyes. The Year of Living Biblically will charm readers both secular and religious. It is part CliffsNotes to the Bible, part memoir, and part look into worlds unimaginable. Thou shalt not be able to put it down.

My Review: This is one of my favorite books I've read this year. I read it fairly quickly, but due to time I'm just now getting around to reviewing it. Basically, the book is a series of stories about Jacob's year-long attempt to live according to the rules in the Bible. So many times while reading this, I laughed out loud. I also dog-eared quite a few pages, because there were so many quotes I wanted to repeat to other people or mention in this review. This could get long - and it's not even all the passages I marked!

On avoiding "unclean" women during their menstruation:
It's one thing to avoid handshakes during flu season. But to give up all physical contact with your wife for seven days a month? It's actually quite exhausting, painful, and lonely. You have to be constantly on guard - no sex, of course, but also no hand holding, no shoulder tapping, no hair tousling, no good-night kissing. When I give her the apartment keys, I drop them into her hand from a safe height of six inches.
"This is absurd," she tells me, as she unlocks the door. "It's like cookies from seventh grade. It's theological cooties."
I tell Julie that I can't pick and choose what I follow in the Bible. That'd negate the whole point of my experiment. If I'm trying to get into the mind-set of the ancient Israelites, I can't ignore even the most inconvenient or obscure rule. I also point out that I didn't send her to a red tent.
She's not amused. "I feel like a leper."
"Actually, leprosy in the Bible is a mistranslation. It's more likely a generic name for skin disease. Some even claim it's syphilis."
This is the wrong response. It's a vestigial reflex from my days as an encyclopedia-reading know-it-all: Whenever I run out of things to say, I crowbar random facts into the argument.
Coincidentally, this passage is the reason I put The Know-It-All on my wishlist.

On cheering up a friend who's been having a rough week:
Next time I'm at Esquire, I stop by his office with a bottle of Kendall-Jackson red wine.
"Here," I say, handing it to him over the desk.
"What's this?"
"It's because you're depressed. The Bible says to bring wine to the heavy of heart."
"The Bible says that?"
"Yes. It also says that you shouldn't sing to people with a heavy heart. That'd be like rubbing vinegar in the wound."
"So you're not going to sing to me?"
David seems grateful for the wine, and no doubt for the lack of singing as well. I love it when the Bible gives Emily Post-like tips that are both wise and easy to follow.
On stoning adulterers and Sabbath violators:
My plan had been to walk nonchalantly past the Sabbath violator and chuck the pebbles at the small of his back. But after a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea. A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed.
My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on his shoe. So I did.
And in this way, I stoned. It was probably the most polite stoning in history - I said, "I'm sorry," and then leaned down to pick up the pebble. And he leaned down at the same time, and we almost butted heads, and then he apologized, then I apologized again.
Highly unsatisfying.
Today I get another chance. I am resting in a small public park on the Upper West Side, the kind where you see retirees eating tuna sandwiches on benches.
"Hey, you're dressed queer."
I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-seventies, I'd guess. He is tall and thin and wearing one of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the forties.
"You're dressed queer," he snarls. "Why you dressed so queer?"
I have on my usual tassels, and, for good measure, have worn some sandals and am carrying a knotty maple walking stick I'd bought on the internet for twenty-five dollars.
"I'm trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The Ten Commandments, stoning adulterers..."
"You're stoning adulterers?"
"Yeah, I'm stoning adulterers."
"I'm an adulterer."
"You're currently an adulterer?"
"Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?"
"If I could, yes, that'd be great."
"I'll punch you in the face. I'll send you to the cemetery."
He is serious. This isn't a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him.
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket.
"I wouldn't stone you with big stones," I say. "Just these little guys."
I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then flinging it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn't expected this grizzled old man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye.
I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
"I'll punch you right in the kisser," he says.
"Well, you really shouldn't commit adultery," I say.
We stare at each other. My pulse has doubled.
Yes, he is a septuagenarian. Yes, he had just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue. But you could tell: This man has a strong dark side.
Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.
Long passage, I know, but I can totally see that as a scene in the movie.

On forbidden foods:
"Do you know if the piecrust is made with lard?"
"I don't think so, but I'll check."
"Thanks. I can't eat lard."
"No, Leviticus."
On praying:
"I love saying prayers of thanksgiving," I say, "because it makes me more grateful for life. But I still have trouble with the prayers where you're glorifying God..."
"You're on thin ice there," [Yossi, Jacob's spiritual adviser] says.
He told me: Stop looking at the Bible as a self-help book. That is the way I view it a lot of the time. I ask myself, "How can religion make me more joyous? How can it give my life more meaning? How can it help me raise my son so he won't end up an embezzler or a racketeer?"
But religion is more that that. It's about serving God. Yossi tells me this story:
Two men do their daily prayers while at work. One spends twenty minutes in his office behind a closed door and afterward feels refreshed and uplifted, like he just had a therapy session. The other is so busy, he can squeeze in only a five-minute prayer session between phone calls. He recites his prayers superfast in a supply closet.
Who has done the better thing?
"The first," I say.
"No," says Yossi. "The second."
The second guy was doing it only for God. He was sacrificing his time. There was no benefit to himself.
I think: That's interesting. Prayers are a good way to teach me the concept of sacrificing my time for the higher good. I'll become a more selfless person. A better person.
And then I realize: I'm back to self-help again. I can't escape it.
Jacobs later realizes that praising God also acts as a way to keep egos in check: if He created the universe, what right do you have to boast about your own, meager-in-comparison, accomplishments?

There are tons of other stories I'd love to share. Jacobs visits a variety of sects to learn about their take on Christianity and Judaism, which (as a Religious Studies minor and roommate to a Jehovah's Witness) I found very interesting. He also takes on a "slave" (unpaid intern), something that was copacetic in Biblical times. The whole book is amazing, no matter your religious affiliation, and I highly recommend it.

Other Reviews:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Bookish Bent (A. also discusses the book here and here)

If you have reviewed this book as well, leave me a message in the comments and I'll link to your review.


Ali said...

Ooh. I'd heard of this one, but the passages you posted convinced me that I need to read it. Thanks!

Hey, this would make a great gift along with Christopher Moore's "Lamb." If I was buying any more gifts.

N.Vasillis said...

I have this one my wish list.The Know-it-all is one of my favorite books! Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

hehehe! it is kinda funny :D
i really need this one :D :D

Anonymous said...

This is on the BuyOneGetOneHalfOff table at Borders. You can usually find me there picking up and putting books down... I almost got this and do want to read it someday.

LOVE that you mention pie in a post. :)

Eva said...

I loved this one too, and if I had done a review I totally would have ended up quoting half the book! :)