Friday, March 14, 2008

"The Year of Living Biblically" a review

There is an interesting genre' of book on the market right now. For lack of a better term I will call them "premeditated memoirs". Most memoirs are written retrospectively. The author lives through an amazing event or lives an amazing life. Then afterward they decide to right up the events as a memoir. Now if you reverse the process you come up with a "premeditated memoir".
You first decide to write a book and then you start to live your life in an interesting way. I haven't really been impressed with the genre' until now.
A few years ago I read a book of this type. The writer decided that we needed a book about him hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. So he started off on the trail and began taking notes. His hiking trip was a miserable failure and he ended up hiking less than a third of the trail. The only redeeming grace of the book was that he filled the book with loads of history about the trail and the land and people that the trail crosses through. All of this information was likely compiled after his return since he had to fill the pages that would have otherwise been filled with his personal stories.
Well I put aside my presumptions about the genre' when I started to read The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. In many ways he followed what I was expecting from the genre' but Jacobs' writing style and the subject matter made the book very enjoyable. With the A. T. book I expected the guy to succeed and he didn't but with Jacobs' book I was expecting him to fail and he did a remarkable job of completing his task.
As I said on a previous post I expected the book to be filled with his attempt to follow, to the letter, the bizarre rituals that are contained in the Bible. To this end it did not disappoint. He stoned a few adulterers, kept kosher, did not mix his fibers, animal sacrifices, tithing, stayed away from "unclean" women, grew a beard and even tried his hand at shepherding and snake handling. All of these provided for highly entertaining stories.
Jacobs also takes great detail to show how certain sects "literally" interpret specific scriptures. I'm probably going to check this out again just to cross reference my scriptures with his research. I'll put notes in the margin like, "this is why Jehovah's witnesses don't accept blood transfusions", "this is why some sects handle snakes" etc. etc. If for Jacobs' research alone I would have enjoyed this book.
The real soul of this book came out when Jacobs wrestled with the simpler yet ultimately the more important details and commandments in the Bible. He struggled with whether he was violating any commandments in his and his wife's efforts to conceive using a fertility clinic. He pointed out the complete harshness of the Old Testament when I came to raising his son and ultimately decided that he could not literally obey certain commandments without violating other big details like forgiving those who trespass against him. His efforts to eliminate carnal thoughts, like censorship, proved to be counter-productive because the caused him to put even more focus on them. Most enlightening was Jacobs' struggle to be completely honest. In retrospect he might say that this was one of the areas at which he failed. His journey really illustrated how pervasive the little white lie is ingrained in out culture.
Ultimately Jacobs' adventure pointed out the absurdity of a literal interpretation of most scripture. The Bible is a guidebook written by and compiled by imperfect men. The subject matter may be divine but the words are full of human interpretation, metaphor and perspectives. Focus on the literal takes meaning from the metaphor and belittles the deeper, yet more important doctrines. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

“It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.”
Mark Twain


  1. Thanks so much Michael -- you make me commit the biblical sin of pride. And I love the phrase 'premeditated memoir.' I'd never heard that before. It's a brilliant way to describe the genre.
    Thanks again for putting aside your presumptions.

  2. AJ,
    You're the first author to respond to the many reviews I have posted on this blog. Thanks for taking the time to read this and I look forward to your next book.

  3. Your review inspires me to read The Year of Living Biblically. I look forward to have the opportunity.
    How cool is it to have the author respond! Kudos