Magazine article The American Conservative

Living Literally

Magazine article The American Conservative

Living Literally

Article excerpt

[The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A.J. Jacobs, Simon & Schuster, 400 pages]

Living Literally

By Peter Suderman

A.J. JACOBS HAS A PROBLEM with seriousness. No matter what his topic, he's compulsively glib. It's like a tic, a joker's Tourette's. Try as he might, he just can't help it.

In his latest book Ine Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, the paragraphs prance nicely along in prose as clean and efficient as a Crate & Barrel showroom, and nearly all finish with a droll remark, a pop-culture allusion, a snarky (though rarely cruel) observation.

For Jacobs, an editor at Esquire and a former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, the world-or at least his minor misadventures within it-is nothing if not amusing. Sometimes he tries to hold it in, but even when resisting he can't help but tack on a nudge and a wink. After taking a road trip with his wife, he writes, "I'm proud to say I had absolutely no urge to make a double entendre when we passed Intercourse, Pennsylvania, which I see as a moral victory." He might have avoided making a crude remark at the time, but in retrospect he couldn't let the moment go by without some attempt to exploit its comic potential.

The book opens with Jacobs describing the attention he received for the long, unkempt beard he grew while writing the book. "Strangers have come up to me and petted my beard, like it's a Labrador Retriever puppy or a pregnant woman's stomach," he writes. Before the first page is finished, he's referenced ZZ Top, Steven Seagal, and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, which is about as highbrow as the book ever gets.

Jacobs calls himself a memoirist and while that's somewhat accurate, it might be more apt to say he practices the journalistic equivalent of trick-shot pool. There's little at stake in any of his projects, and the situations are all carefully and purposefully designed, but they're entertaining all the same. For his first book, The Know It All, he read-and quipped-his way through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. This time out, he's chronicling a year spent following each and every rule in the Bible as literally as possible. Yes, that means every single rule, or at least all of those that are within legal bounds. (No homosexuals are put to death, but he does hire an intern as a slave.)

Each month of his quest is given a chapter, which is then divided into daily entries that tend to revolve around attempts to follow a single rule, like the obligation to play a harp or the commandment to wear tassels on his clothes. Like his first project, the concept seems designed to provide Jacobs with an opportunity to engage in silly antics, meet up with a sitcom-ready cast of oddballs, and, mostly, crack wise at the Bible's more peculiar passages.

Jacobs's penchant for frivolity might at first seem to make him an unsuitable candidate to explore the culturally fraught topic of Biblical literalism. As with any hot-button issue, views on the matter vary greatly, but it's a safe bet that few think of the topic as light-hearted. At a time when angry young men tum up on nationally televised debates demanding to know whether presidential candidates will swear that every word in the Bible is literally true, when Biblical interpretation comes up in deciding what to teach in schools, when political commentators cite Biblical authority on what limits the government should place on scientific research, it's not unreasonable to wonder what is to be gained from anyone so slavishly devoted to the flip.

Certainly, those expecting piercing insights into current political topics will be disappointed with the book Jacobs, a lifelong liberal New Yorker, goes to a creationist museum, attends a meeting of gay-friendly evangelicals, and visits Jerry Falwell's church, but these excursions, like almost everything in the book, are played as genial comic episodes. …

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