"The Year of Living Biblically" | So, do locusts taste like chicken?
Norman Mailer noted last year that the popularity of memoir has climbed as belief in God ebbs. He suggested that the bedrock deism of 19th-century...
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Author appearanceA.J. Jacobs will read from "The Year of Living Biblically" at 3 p.m. Sunday, Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com); and at 7 p.m. Monday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Norman Mailer noted last year that the popularity of memoir has climbed as belief in God ebbs. He suggested that the bedrock deism of 19th-century America underscored its ability to embrace third-person omniscient narration: the voice of classic literature. As the "Me" generation has swelled and spread, so has our receptivity to first-person storytelling.
Mailer's comments to Kurt Andersen on "Studio 360" leapt immediately to mind as I cracked the delightful, self-deprecating memoir "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible" (Simon & Schuster, 388 pp., $25).
A.J. Jacobs, an Esquire editor looking to top his quirky 2005 book, "The Know-It All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World," about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, decided the "only intellectual adventure that seemed a worthy follow-up was to explore the most influential book in the world, the all-time best-seller, the Bible."
Instead of merely studying religion, he resolves to live it, by a marathon 12-months striving to keep the rules of the Hebrew Bible, then the New Testament. It's a gimmick, of course, but a fascinating one. Jacobs consults a first-rate kitchen cabinet of biblical scholars, then sets out to eat locusts, play harp, tend sheep and keep the Sabbath so strictly that he tears off his sheets of toilet paper in advance of his day of rest.
We keep tabs through Jacobs' diary-style entries, where his reports will appeal to those who regularly attend Bible study and to those curious to see how the strange experiment works itself out. Jacobs begins his adventure as an agnostic who lights out in the opposite direction of Christopher Hitchens:
"I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City," he tells us. "I am officially Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant." That gloss wears off, and Jacobs' observant alter ego enjoys more airtime, becoming, by day 181, "often the dominant one, quizzically observing my secular self."
This transformation is an example of Jacobs' major theme: "The outer affects the inner. Behavior shapes your psyche as much as the other way around." So a man who begins his prayer life "holding my arms outstretched like a holy antenna, hoping to catch God's signal" moves through his awkwardness, his weeks of frustration, to discover he has a buried aptitude for prayers of gratitude.
It ain't easy. As a well-paid smart aleck, "I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony." Throughout, Jacobs uses his good-natured wife, Julie, as a foil. He gives her good lines but shuns holding even her hand when she is "impure." As his beard becomes a wilderness, Julie must cover both her cheeks with her hands, leaving only her lips exposed, simply to kiss him. I suspect her memoir of this spiritual journey would read differently.
After eight months, Jacobs decides to switch his attention to complying with the New Testament, and his book loses steam. He's clearly not about to embrace Jesus as God, so he shifts from do-it-yourself exploration to more of a guided biblical tour. The downgrade is palpable but not fatal. Interestingly, Julie counseled against test-driving Christianity, too.
Still, I found myself nodding as Jacobs wraps up his year and shaves his foot-long beard. He surprises himself and us: "I didn't expect to, as the Psalmist says, 'Take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it.' "
Karen R. Long is the book editor for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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