A Good Book

3 Sep

I suppose it’s a little bit premature to be writing about A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically since it won’t be out for another month or so, but I’m now two-thirds of the way done with it, and I couldn’t wait to give a partial review. In short, the book is about how A.J., an editor at large at Esquire decided to spend an entire year living according to the Bible — both the Old and New Testaments. But the book doesn’t make a mockery of the Bible or those who do live their lives more religiously. Instead, A.J. takes the task seriously, obeying every little (and not so little) law. He doesn’t cut his hair or shave, he doesn’t wear clothes of mixed fibers, he prays, he blows a shofar at the start of every month, he respects his elders, he tries not to lie, and so on.

But don’t go thinking this is a book only about religion, or a serious examination of Biblical law. From the start, A.J. uses his sense of humor to explain that while he grew up in a Jewish home, it was Jewish “in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very.” As he did with his last book, The Know-It-All, A.J. also weaves in his personal life — in this case the challenges of being a new father and the difficulty (with his wife, Julie) in conceiving a second child (which, of course, makes it hard to “be fruitful and multiply”). But one thing I really like about the book is how unassuming and surprising it is. One second you’ll be laughing at A.J.’s unwillingness to take or be in pictures at family events, and then he’ll catch you off-guard with a Biblical passage or lesson. It’s this approach that makes some of what he writes more meaningful.

At its core, YoLB is an examination of what place the Bible has in modern times. Do all the laws translate or have the same meaning as when they were first written? I mean, if you work in an office, can you really not gossip? And in an age of constant advertising, how can you not covet? And which is more meaningful: fitting prayer into your busy schedule when you can, or reserving time for it? And even if the Bible says not to lie, aren’t there times when you have to lie? The book is filled with those kinds of questions. A.J. does his best to make the Bible as relevant as possible, and adapt some laws to fit modern life. But mostly he obeys them as written, and it’s really interesting how it plays out.

Also interesting are his trips — to Amish country in Lancaster County, Pa. (where he has to avoid making jokes about Intercourse), to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, to Israel, and to other places — where he is able to gain greater perspective on religion in general, beyond the standard Jewish/Christian world. And the insights from A.J.’s guides — pastors, rabbis, etc. and others he meets along the journey — further his quest to understand the Bible’s messages.

I’m really enjoying YoLB. I liked Love Is a Mix Tape and Cabin Pressure too, but with YoLB, I feel like I’m actually learning something, and that makes it feel like a more worthwhile read. Apparently, plans are already in the works to make YoLB into a movie. Not sure how that’ll work and still stay true to the book (likely, the movie will strip out the real serious stuff and maintain a tone of comedy; hopefully it’ll be better than Evan Almighty), but I hope it’s a good flick. For now, we have a great book. When it hits stores a month from now, go pick it up and read it for yourself.

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