Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically eBook edition

Up front, you have to know that it is unlikely that any one but A.J. Jacobs could get me to pick up a secular book about the Bible. As a PK (Preacher’s Kid), all I can say is “been there; done that.” But a book by A. J. Jacobs is different.

I discovered him a couple of summers ago at the beach. My aunt Amélie handed me A. J. Jacob’s, The Know-It-All a charming and funny memoir about the author’s year of reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica – all 30-some volumes. She said, “You have to read this book!" No one argues with 'Auntie 'M'. . .

When I heard that Jacobs had written about a new set of books – the 60+ books of the Bible, I was intrigued. I read the advance reviews of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and decided to put aside my prejudice and give it a try. I read the whole thing over the weekend. And last night I called 'Auntie 'M' to tell her “You have to read this book!

First, I am convinced that Jacob’s is married to a saint! And frankly, I am inclined to recommend the book just so people will buy it to support Julie and their three kids. I’m not sure I could tolerate a living with a perfectly normal neurotic guy, never mind, a man who grows a bushy beard, starts eating strange things, builds tents in my living room, changes his diet and clothing and refuses to take photos. Julie, in my opinion, is the personification of tolerance!

But there are actually many other reasons to read this book.

It is a brilliant analysis of how an ancient book fares in the modern world. It might be easier to read if you know something about the Bible in the first place, but I doubt it is necessary. The fact that Jacobs is a secular Jew and modern agnostic gives this memoir a unique and refreshing perspective. His naiveté is integral to the experience; it saves him from a certain amount of cynicism.

Through out the books I was struck by the respect Jacobs gives the people he meets along his journey: the snake-handling preacher, the Gay Bible study group, a bunch of drunken Hassidic Jews, the curator of a creationist museum, his former uncle. Yes, he meets some off beat and unusual characters and yet he never gives into taking cheap shots, ridicule or judgment.

As Jacobs goes through the year he changes. The very act of trying to live biblically eventually transforms the way he thinks and acts. He faithfully chronicles this change with honesty and a degree of wonder.

There were three main things I carried away from the experience:
  • a whole new understanding of how impossible it is to be a true Fundamentalist
  • how easy it is to use the Bible to “prove” almost anything
  • a new appreciation for the profound and changing effects of spiritual rituals like prayer.

All I can say is: You have read this book!

From the publisher:

From the bestselling author of The Know-It-All comes a fascinating and timely exploration of religion and the Bible.

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. Jacobs's quest transforms his life even more radically than the year spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for The Know-It-All. His beard grows so unruly that he is regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. He immerses himself in prayer, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and tells the absolute truth in all situations - much to his wife's chagrin.

Throughout the book, Jacobs also embeds himself in a cross-section of Communities that take the Bible literally. He tours a Kentucky-based creationist museum and sings hymns with Pennsylvania Amish. He dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and does Scripture study with Jehovah's Witnesses. He discovers ancient biblical wisdom of startling relevance. And he wrestles with seemingly archaic rules that baffle the twenty-first-century brain.

Jacobs's extraordinary undertaking yields unexpected epiphanies and challenges. A book that will charm readers both secular and religious, The Year of Living Biblically is part Cliff Notes to the Bible, part memoir, and part look into worlds unimaginable. Thou shalt not be able to put it down!

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