The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs likes to do what is called “Immersion Journalism.” In his previous book, Know-It-All, he read the entire encyclopedia. This time around he does exactly what the title implies: he procures a bible (in this case it belongs to an ex-girlfriend), a team of counselors, and a number of reference materials.

This book could be boring. I anticipated not being able to finish it, and only picked it up because of the ludicrousness of the premise. How does one live the literal bible in twenty-first century America? Especially when one is, to quote Jacobs, “about as Jewish as the Olive Garden is Italian.” But then...with a great deal of humor, reverence, and the help of an understanding wife...he does. Remarkably so. He starts as all good researchers do - by reading the source material (in this case, several versions of the Bible) and then consulting with expert (everyone from retired pastors to Orthodox Jews to an Amish Farmer to one of Jerry Fallwell’s ministers) and making a game plan. He grows his beard, he removes profanity from his vocabulary, he tries to stop lying...he masking tapes over the images in his home which might cause lust.

Luckily for the reader, we see how his home life - wife, a toddler son, and the quest for another child - influences his Biblical life, and vise-versa. We also get a glimpse into what are generally considered lost traditions: those that aren’t generally practices since the destruction of the second temple (if you’re Jewish) or which were nullified by the Ultimate Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross (if you’re Christian.) I don’t want to spoil it because your rubbernecking needs to be untainted. But let me say that when I asked a Jewish friend if he had experienced a few of the particulars his response was a vehement “NO.” They left me in awe of the Orthodox...both for their strong stomachs and their reverence. Also - I won't be nearly as amusing as he writes it.

Jacobs also, as many do, took a pilgrimage to Israel. Ironically, this is not where he feels the most changed. Yes, the visit with the shepherd in the desert was moving, but Jacobs finds, like most of us, that his most altering moments happen during the simple times: disciplining his son, celebrating the holidays and life events. And he doesn’t just focus on the Old Testament. A good 40% of the book is strictly New Testament, which was equally interesting, if not quite so alien.

What struck me the most - and it is likely due to my place in my own life - was his relationship with his wife, and how she took his idiosyncrasies in stride. In fact, she starts to play with him - namely when she figures out that he can’t lie (it’s one of the commandments, you know.) That passage convinced me that if I could find her on Facebook, I would send her a friend request.

The big question: was he changed? You’ll have to read to find out. But ask yourself if you did what he did, a year of being literally biblical - the Best Possible You - would you be changed? I just spend a few days reading his book and I find myself changed...which is certainly a good thing. I look forward to his next quest. For Julie’s sake, I hope it’s about Eleanor Roosevelt.


Book Menu

Not a review, but this is pretty much how I view my reading material. I have magazines in the appetizer slot because it feels like a lie to leave them out. The list of authors is by no means comprehensive, it's just a taste of where I feel people fall. I'm going to add the "course" to my tags so you can more easily find what you're looking for. (Click to enlarge so you can actually read it.)


The Twilight Series, By Stephenie Meyer

"While sales at most stores plummeted last month, the teenage retailer Hot Topic enjoyed a 6.5 percent gain, thanks mostly to brisk sales of gear inspired by Twilight, the teenage vampire movie." [NYT]

So there’s that. And then there’s this:

“Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people …. The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.” -Stephen King [USAT]

I have to say that I agree - though not as vehemently - with Stephen King on this one. I just finished Breaking Dawn, the 4th in the series, and I’m not chomping at the bit for her elusive 5th book to come out.

That’s not because the fourth was so awful that I never want to read Meyer again. It’s because Breaking Dawn seemed to wrap up the story. Anything after this runs the risk of feeling like a gimmick to make more money. Like unplanned movie sequels and remixes of best-selling singles. Some things should be allowed to come to their natural end and then everyone should move on.

I started Twilight purely due to peer pressure and the fact that I like Kristen Stewart and have a strict Read The Book First Whenever Possible policy. I closed Twilight with a resounding “MEH” and made my way to the movie theater -- where I ranted about misused budgets and lost potential.

I picked up New Moon based on many many assurances (from friends and strangers) that the SECOND book is where it gets really good. And they were mostly right. It got “good.” Where Meyer’s literary prose falls short, she makes up with an intriguing plot and characters with whom you become truly invested. The second book fleshes out myths and histories and sets the stage for the third and fourth installments.

Book Three, Eclipse, gives us the “where they came from” stories that we did not get in the first two. This technique for catching up those who might be coming to the story in the middle is refreshing. That necessity, the “I’m Bella Swan and I’m in love with a Vampire,” is one of the few ways that Meyer shows her potential. There is also much more action in Eclipse...although I have to admit that by reading them marathon-style I’ve gotten foggy on where books pick up and leave off.

Breaking Dawn leads us down the path to the inevitable. I was warned (by thirteen year old girls, no less) that this book has parts in it that are “very inappropriate.” By this they mean sex. And lots of it. It is worth noting, however, that Meyer is MORMON. And since this is one aspect of herself that she has made clear from the beginning, it’s more a case of Sex Which Is Alluded To. Harlequin will not be knocking on her door any time soon. In fact, you get more racy sex - both in description and friendly teasing conversation - in most teen dramas.

Meyer has an emotional pull with her characters - her use of first person for Bella (and for Jacob in a section of Breaking Dawn) allows us to skip over the broken sentences and the stilted dialogue to focus on the action, of which there is plenty.

If you are looking for Young Adult fiction that is going to enlighten you, educate you, and make you wish you were a better writer...I can think of a dozen authors off the top of my head who will deliver better than Meyer. If you are looking for a fun, safely suspenseful, emotionally involving series of what I like to call Brain Candy - pick these up. They are certainly worth reading, even if my opinion leaves them somewhere short of great literature.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

That's right, kids, I read that this week. All 79 pages of it. One of the young ones that I'm staying with this week is having to read it for her 8th grade Honors English class so I thought I'd breeze through it and jog my memory...since my most frequent encounter with the story is As Told By Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

I know that if you look to the right you'll see that one of my requirements is that I will say nothing if I can't say something nice...but my feelings about the book are ambivalent at best so I'm going to try. Also this is going to be a bit shorter than normal, because I feel that 500 words is almost as long as the book itself.

It starts out nicely enough, a description of the town itself and of Ichabod the School Master. Irving has a knack for description that many modern writers lack. The downside of this is that he gets so mired in the describing of birds, food, clothes, etc, that he winds away from the story and has to bring himself back.

All of the suspenseful action (unless you find his courtship of the Van Tassle girl suspenseful) comes at the end of the story and leaves the reader to decide for herself what exactly happened to Ichabod. If we cared about his Ichabod at all, that might be a good thing. As it was, I feel like I now need to go watch Sleepy Hollow and allow the updated (and significantly creepier) version to wash the taste of the original away.

Respect is due, and given, to Washington Irving for dreaming up and recording this seed of an adventure...but unfortunately it stays just that - a seed. Or maybe I'm just jaded and spoiled. I'll leave that to you to decide. It really is 79 pages. That's an hour of your time to come to your own conclusions.


Jumping the Shark

But only slightly. Really, I'm posting a link to a shark-jump.

I've reviewed the new Lily Allen. You know you're curious.


And I am reading. It's just a very large book so it's taking a while. Maybe I'll break it up with something short...


The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike

As promised, a review. Note: I'm only halfway through, but since I'm leaving on a jet plane early Friday morning and I live in fear of SPOILERS, I felt I could give you 500 words on just the first half. If, at the end of the book I determine that I went astray somewhere then I will update it. But trust me on this so far.

It is 30 years later and the witches have spread across the continent. Alexandra, from whose viewpoint we see most of the story, is the first to be widowed. Unsure of what else to do, it seems, she take a reactionary, melancholy, tour of the Canadian Rockies. Months - a full year? - after her return she hears from Jane, who is newly widowed and living in the family home in New England with her aging mother-in-law. They take a reactionary, slightly less melancholy tour of Egypt. A few more months go by (as well as a full third of the book) when a newly widowed Sukie finally makes her appearance.

(Full disclosure, Sukie was always the one I identified with. Probably it was that she was a writer and I could understand that.)

The trio of them, distinctly less melancholy but still only sporadically happy, build on their previous tours and head to China.

These three trips seem to be only slightly about the girls, and read much more like travel articles. Luckily they are all three places I’d like to see, and Updike describes even the air in such an enticing way that I didn’t mind the diversion. It was very subtly that you pick up how the witches are now, as opposed to how they were thirty years ago when we last saw them - promiscuous and impetuously creating their new husbands after all the trouble the other men in their life seemed to bring with them - so that when they do start to move forward it’s as though you’ve known them all along and the thirty year absence falls away.

It is the following summer, not immediately as the blurb on the back of the book suggests, that they make their hesitant way back to Eastwick, to stay in a condo that has been fashioned out of the mansion where so many of their mischievous moments took place.

While they have moved away and the world has grown and changed around them, Eastwick has not forgotten them. They encounter old lovers and old enemies and Updike’s wistful descriptions of their reactions and memories leaves the reader to wonder if he isn’t revisting his own past - knowing what lies ahead for him. They are themselves too wistful, too full of guilt at the crimes of their youths that the trip back proves harder for them than anticipated. Even Alexandra, who resists the trip right up until there’s no backing out.

Though everyone is, on the surface, unperturbed by the return of the trio, they all seem to have designs, if you will, on what their own destiny with the witches will be. A few old lovers want to rekindle flames. Those who feel themselves scorned want reparations, children want to heal old wounds...our witches may be forced to tap into their “cone of power” again...and for more than just their own amusement.

update: It just gets better. Trust.
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