By A.J. Jacobs
Published October 1, 2007
Reviewed July 20, 2009
While the concept of gonzo journalism is most regularly associated with excessive drug use and acts of mayhem while reporting, the founding ideas are a bit more serious. Hunter S. Thompson defined his creation as the pinnacle of engagement, comparable to “a film director who writes his own script, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action.” The driving principal is that in this deep level of engagement, the author cannot remove himself from the story and as such greater depth can be attained than through straight reporting.
From this technical perspective, it’s easy to consider A.J. Jacobs as some form of gonzo practitioner. Jacobs’ writing career regularly involves chronicling a series of social experiments he subjects himself to, ranging from outsourcing his daily life to India to striving for honesty in all cases to studying every last piece of information in an encyclopedia. Not content with these lengths though, he moved from the collected knowledge of man to the collected knowledge of God in his book “The Year of Living Biblically” – and the journey proves to be entertaining and surprisingly poignant.
The book’s title summarizes its intent perfectly: for one year, Jacobs strove to follow the Bible to the letter, ranging from its most basic commandments to the most obscure proverbs. Visibly, this meant donning all-white single-fiber garments and growing a beard resembling the brush outside a haunted house; and behaviorally it meant regular prayer, never lying and giving away 10 percent of his salary. He presents his findings in a journal format, tackling a new issue each day and recording his results.
Of course, the issue with following these rules is that many of them aren’t truly applicable in modern life, and therein lies the real humor of “Living Biblically.” Not eating fruit unless the tree is five years old, not wearing any garments that have more than one fiber, not touching any woman for a week after her period (his wife Julie is not amused) – Jacobs tries to keep to all of these and more, often going to great lengths and annoying those around him. He never betrays any frustration at the limitations, only an increasing curiosity at their origins and how he can work them into his daily life.
The real problem – from his perspective at least – comes up in the variety of instances where the Bible seems to contradict itself, especially when moving from Old to New Testament. A key instance comes in what should be one of the simplest rules, the Sabbath: “A friend of mine once told me that even observing the Sabbath might be breaking the Sabbath, since my job is to follow the Bible. That gave me a two-hour headache.” Jacobs come across as neurotic and yet likable, determined to find an answer no matter what crazy direction it takes him.
Jacobs doesn’t try to work these issues out alone, consulting with a wide variety of scholars and professors to seek interpretations of the Bible and interpretations of those interpretations. He runs the gamut from a sect of snake handlers to openly gay Christian fundamentalists, and even makes a pilgrimage to Israel where he herds sheep and speaks with his “spiritual omnivore” guru Uncle Gil. As with the proverbs he judges none of them beforehand, but simply admires and comments on the strength of their faith.
His neutrality is helped by his own lack of religious background – raised in a secular family and a self-defined agnostic – but as the year goes on he finds that immersion in faith is starting to rub off on him, creating an alter ego dubbed Jacob. Jacob scolds him for paying attention to Rosario Dawson’s sex life, puts olive oil in his hair and pays attention to every little moral choice made during the day. With every prayer or simple “God willing” he inserts into conversation, it’s clear as the book goes on that his journey has changed him, not dramatically but in very subtle ways of thought and appreciation.
At one point in the book, as Jacobs begins to show some frustration at why the Bible can be so contradictory or hard to understand, one of his spiritual advisers offers him a key piece of wisdom: “Life is a jigsaw puzzle. The joy and challenge of life – and the Bible – is figuring things out.” In many ways, “Living Biblically” is defined by this wisdom – a book that confronts hundreds of challenges, and winds up being a joy for the sheer fact that the journey is being undertaken.