[19 December 2007]
Reading The Year of Living Biblically is a bit like watching reality TV. In both cases, there are seemingly insurmountable challenges, unavoidable humiliations, and, of course, the requisite dose or two of small, crunchy insects (in this case, crickets). Unlike 99 percent of the people featured on reality TV, though, A.J. Jacobs is actually likeable. His likeability, in fact, is the main reason that The Year of Living Biblically is such an enjoyable book to read.
The book details Jacobs’s quest to follow every single rule in the Bible for a year. Although he is officially agnostic, he is also, as he notes, “officially Jewish.” So he decides to devote the bulk of his year to following all of the often-conflicting laws laid out in the Old Testament, including such obscure ones as the injunctions against wearing mixed fabrics and trimming one’s beard. (The photos of Jacobs’s beard at various points in the growth cycle constitute one of the highlights of the book.) He also seeks advice from various rabbis and ministers to make sure that he is, in fact, upholding the most common interpretations of the Bible’s Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. In addition to detailing Jacobs’s personal struggles with Biblical living, the book also recounts his experiences visiting specific religious groups. Although some of these groups, such as the Amish and the Hasidim, are obvious choices for someone exploring the nature of extreme faith, Jacobs largely resists the temptation to resort to stereotypes when discussing them.
I’ll confess that, before I began reading, I was instinctively wary of stereotyping—specifically, of how easy it would be for Jacobs to resort to doing so, given his subject. I worried that the book would consist of a series of cheap shots at the expense of unsuspecting people whose only crime was that of being devout—sort of a religiously oriented, Kazakh-free version of Borat. But Jacobs mercifully avoids such snarkiness. Instead, he uses himself, and the lengths to which he is driven by his project, as his primary target. He enumerates his various neuroses, including a phobia of germs that causes him to wipe down playground swings with anti-bacterial cleaner, while confessing that they make it easier for him to conform to certain Biblical restrictions.
He tells stories about the extreme awkwardness to which his Biblical literalism leads: to cite only the most egregious (and hilarious) example, his insistence on honesty causes him to insult a long-lost friend of his wife’s when he declines a dinner invitation with the words “I don’t really want new friends right now.” Similarly, he admits his mistake when, faced with a conflict between two Biblical commandments, he chooses the one that maintains his sense of self-righteousness (no negative speech) rather than the one that encourages him to sympathize with his wife (treat others as you wish to be treated).
Very quickly, we realize that the true narrative arc of this book is not the 12 months that Jacobs spends on Fear Factor: The Bible, but the extent to which he will change—or fail to change—as a result. A friend cautions him, early in the process, that the year will transform him whether he likes it or not. Indeed, Jacobs is transformed: from being a secular, garden-variety agnostic, he becomes what he calls a “reverent” one. Learning to notice “the thousands of little good things ... that go right every day,” he becomes, in a sense, grateful for his ability to feel grateful. He also learns to appreciate the respite from work afforded by the Sabbath, to admire the impulse to pray, and even to refrain from making cheap jokes at the expense of the various celebrities he covers in his day job as an editor at Esquire magazine.
But in what may be the most appealing aspect of the book, Jacobs is honest about the ways in which he also fails to change. In perhaps the most striking example, he never fulfills the pledge he makes early in the book to do a good deed for Nancy, his family’s friendly but reclusive neighbor. When she is found dead in her apartment near the end of the book, he muses, “I didn’t do so well with the Golden Rule and Nancy ... I never fulfilled my mission to do a mitzvah for her.” Even when he arranges for her dog to be adopted by a loving family, he questions his motives, asking himself, “Did I find the dog a new home as a pat and tidy way to quantify some moral progress for my book? Quite possibly.”
This endearing honesty is the chief virtue of The Year of Living Biblically. Rather than being an endless series of punch lines, on the one hand, or a sappy tale of moral redemption, on the other, the book offers a thoughtful, genuine exploration of the nature of faith. Jacobs is certainly a clever writer—any number of scenes in the book made me laugh out loud—but to his credit, the book ultimately transcends its own cleverness. Rather than simply mocking the rituals of the faithful, Jacobs attempts to understand the pleasure that they bring—and, in so doing, enables the reader to understand that pleasure as well. I’ll take that over an episode of Survivor any day.