Books

The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

Erika Nanes

The book details Jacobs's quest to follow every single rule in the Bible for a year.


The Year of Living Biblically

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743291476
Author: A. J. Jacobs
Price: $25.00
Length: 400
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-10
Amazon

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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