’Living Biblically’ can be funny

It isn”t often that I come across a book I actually can”t put down. Even more rarely does that book come in the guise of a bestseller. In the case of A.J. Jacobs” The Year of Living Biblically: One Man”s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, both of these rarities were realized. At first I was drawn to it by its ridiculous cover, which depicts the author in a long white shepherd”s costume (we learn inside that he got it from a costume shop and actually wore it around New York City for awhile), holding two tablets and a large coffee and staring up at the sky in an attitude of exaggerated reverence.

Usually, such overblown illustrations don”t bode well for a book”s content, but I, in search of some brain candy after weeks of literary fiction, decided to open it. For the next full hour I stayed in the bookstore, giggling to myself (after awhile I gave up even trying to be quiet). I could have brought home any number of books, but as it grew later and the saleswomen threw me glances, nearly tripped over me, etc., I decided to do the polite thing and splurge on the book. Even given its hardcover price of $25, I consider it money well-spent.

The book is a humorous, but not overdone, memoir: the author really did go for a year attempting to live by the literal word of the Bible. Jacobs did his research, too; he collected and read several versions of the Bible and spoke to spiritual leaders of several denominations, from rabbis to Red-Letter Christians to Jehovah”s Witnesses (he called and asked one to come over) to a group of evangelical Christians who see snake-handling during services as an expression of faith. He went to a Bible study session for gay fundamentalists and a Creationist museum. His treatment of what many of us, as students at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, probably see as rather “out-there” religious views remained respectful as well as humorous; what I loved most was that the main thrust of the comedy was aimed toward Jacobs himself.

After all, it wasn”t a “year of surveying odd sects”; Jacobs himself attempted to live Biblically, which meant, in his case, preparing a 20-odd-page list of commandments he gathered after carefully parsing both Old and New Testaments, which he attempted to follow to the letter. After a few days he decided it was impossible to focus on every rule at once, but he didn”t let himself overtly break any. He even followed the commandment about stoning adulterers: he used very small pebbles, which he dropped on a man”s shoe.

He didn”t allow himself to wear mixed wool and linen, either; he even got an expert to examine his clothes for mixed fibers. And soon he only wore white, as per another Biblical rule (oft-overlooked). He refrained from touching women who might be ’impure.”

As a rather humorous result, writes Jacobs, “a small but surprisingly vocal minority of Julie”s [his wife”s] friends have volunteered detailed information about their biological cycles. The photo editor at Esquire took the considerate step of e-mailing me her schedule. Did I perhaps want an Excel chart as well, she wondered?” Jacobs, in fact, also writes for Esquire, a rather interesting job given his Biblical restrictions. He also obtains a slave (otherwise known as an unpaid intern).

If I were to fully convey the humor of the book, I would have to reprint it all in this article, and not only do we not have space, I think that might violate some copyright laws. So I will say only, and unequivocally, that you really ought to buy it. Like his earlier book, The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically is a memoir, so it includes details from his personal life, such as his and his wife”s struggle to have more children.

Again, however, he treats even serious topics with grace, humor and aplomb. We”re never weighed down by didacticism, nor are we falsely buoyed by one-liners. He doesn”t sacrifice truth for comedy, nor comedy for truth. As anyone should know, this isn”t an easy juggling act. Jacobs succeeds resoundingly.