Monday, January 26, 2009

Review: The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs is exactly what it claims to be. I mean this statement in a way that goes beyond the simple aptness of the title. Say what you will about the merits of the project, but this is an excellent proposal for a book, and it is aptly executed by Jacobs. The seemingly simple concept is stretched for over 300 pages. After the first chapter or so, the reader pretty much gets the idea--but the book does remain interesting and entertaining for its entirety.

This journal of Jacobs's experiences and thoughts are relayed in a blog-like format. Each chapter, which corresponds to a month, consists of multiple sections ("posts"), corresponding to the events and reactions of the day. To ensure a complete experience, Jacobs will often set himself specific rules or behaviors to focus on for a set time. I was a big fan of the Blogging the Bible sereis by David Plotz, but there were several aspects of Old Testament law I was completely unaware (for example: I'd somehow managed to remain unaware of both shofar blowing and various bird egg rituals). Jacobs frequency admits his obsessions with his rankings, and the placement of his previous book at airport stores. There is very clearly defined target audience for this work. Jacobs consistently hits the target dead center, leading to the unsurprising popular success of the novel.

I feel a little odd about this. It is generally advisable to review the book you actually read, not the book you wish the author had written. And like I mentioned, Jacobs succeeded in writing an interesting and readable book. But it is clearly aimed at the airplane-reading/book-of-the-month level. But I am an inherently selfish reader, and this book often was not what I wanted it to be. Whenever there is the opportunity to expand in some detail on the historical basis or philosophical implications of some topic, Jacobs consistently demurs. Instead, a witty declaration is offered, and the narrative amiably advances onward. Two examples stand out, but there are many others.

First, the notion of the relationship between the first commandment and strict monotheism. Part of the goal of the project is for Jacobs to "get into the head" of the ancient Israelites. Here is the entire discussion of how many gods there really are (pg 183 of the paperback, Day 154):
Even more exasperating: If I do get to the bedrock, it may be such a strange bedrock that I won't be able to process it. In Karen Armstrong's terrific book A History of God, she says that the ancient Israelites weren't really monotheists. They believed in the existence of many Gods. Hence, the command "You shall have no other Gods before me." It doesn't say "You shall have no other Gods at all."

Could I ever hope to get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who beleved in several gods? Do I want to?
End chapter. End thought. That's as deep as we go on this point.

A second example: just who are the Samaritans and what is their religion? Pg 219 (Day 204):
On the cab ride back to the hotel, my mind keeps coming back to the Samaritan Bible. So similar, but so different, too. What if history had taken a left turn? What if the Samaritan Torah had become the standard, and millions of Semitic faithful flooded to Mount Gerizim every year to sacrifice lams, except for a few hundred people called hte Jews, who worshiped at an obscure site known as the Western Wall?
On these points Jacobs does offer some more details in a the appendix. But I would have preferred some more elaboration on the importance of historical contingency in what we now think of as the sacred. That seems like a relevant discussion if one wants to really get a grasp on religion and society.

I would have enjoyed a more fleshed out discussion of points such as these. But, then, those are the types of issues I'd find myself grappling with in such a project. Perhaps Jacobs simply had different concerns. Or, maybe he simply (and probably correctly), had a keener sense for what the audience really wanted.

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