Friday, September 25, 2009

Memoir Review: The Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacobs’ second memoir, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, is at turns funny, inspirational, and sometimes just plain silly. As the subtitle explains, the book chronicles his efforts to live according to the Bible’s many rules, not just the Ten Commandments but all edicts in the text of the Bible. I read this book for one of my book groups.

To give you an idea of where Jacobs was starting from (and his sense of humor), he describes his own religious background as, “I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. “ Despite his Jewish heritage, Jacobs goes into his biblical year with a very open mind, following both the Old and New Testaments and investigating the beliefs of a wide variety of religious groups (and I do mean a wide variety).

Although Jacob’s writing is often very funny, he is also hoping to learn something from his biblical year. He’s the father of a young son, and he’s interested in exploring his own spirituality and figuring out what he should teach his son. I appreciated his honesty in sharing even his awkward moments:

So, now, I’m going to pray. Even though I’m not exactly sure how to pray. I’ve never prayed before in my life, not counting the few perfunctory uplifted gazes when my mom was sick.

For starters, what do I do with my body? The Bible describes a multitude of positions: People kneel, sit, bow their heads, lift their eyes skyward, put their heads between their knees, raise up their hands, beat their breasts. There’s no single method.

Sitting is tempting, but it seems too easy. I’m of the no-pain, no-gain mind-set. So I settle on holding my arms outstretched like a holy antenna, hoping to catch God’s signal.

At other times, his attempts to follow the Bible are just plain silly and seem senseless, set up only to go for a laugh, like when, in an attempt to follow the Bible’s command to stone adulterers, he goes to Central Park and tosses tiny pebbles at people. For some people in my book group, this artificial set-up of the book was just too contrived – he admits in the introduction that he did this year-long experiment in part so he could write a book about it – but most others were entertained and educated by his experiences.

In one of my favorite passages of the book, Jacobs tries to make sense of the varied and bizarre biblical rules he’s trying to follow:

My alter ego’s behavior points to one of the biggest mysteries of the Bible. How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It’s not like the Bible has a section called “And Now for Some Crazy Laws.” They’re all jumbled up like a chopped salad.

Admittedly, I know very little about the Bible myself (those few Sunday school classes were a looong time ago), though I do try to be a spiritual person. I learned a lot both about the Bible and about the beliefs of various groups that he met with during his year, and I also enjoyed Jacob’s humorous writing style. You might be familiar with Jacobs from his first memoir, The Know-It-All, in which he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year (see a pattern?). Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I’m glad I read it.


  1. I think this sounds like such a fun book. Thanks for the review. :-)

  2. Sue...this is one I'm really anxious to read after your great review. Before I just thought it was fluff.

  3. This book has caught my eye, but I haven't yet added it to my shelf.

    It's interesting that he admits to taking on this experiment for the purpose of writing a book!