Tag Archives: the year of living biblically

the know it all

knowitallThe Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A. J. Jacobs

i picked up a.j. jacobs’ “the year of living biblically” (my review) way after most people had read it, and totally loved it. so i decided to go back and read his first bestseller — the know it all.

“biblically” was about the author’s year of trying to live everything in the bible as literally as possible. seems jacobs likes these year long challenges as writing fodder, because “the know it all” is about his personal challenge of reading the entire encyclopedia britannica in one year.

as you can imagine, reading the entire encyclopedia is quite the daunting task. and jacobs attempted to not just skim it, but actually hold onto all that information (hence the subtitle). of course, this wasn’t possible.

the book is really an alphabetical collection of mini-essays — some on the actual stuff he was learning in the EB, and some on his life that year, using topics from the EB as jumping-off points.

jacobs is witty and narcissistic (in a way that works for a writer). and the book is generally a fun read. but it took me longer to finish than any book i’ve read in the past few years. seriously, i think i plunked along in it (while reading other books simultaneously) for about three months. crazy. and i think the reason it took me so pickin’ long is because, at the end of the day, it’s really just a very long collection of witty mini-essays — like an encyclopedia that’s fun to read. without a narrative arc (and, even most non-fiction books have a narrative arc), i just got… restless. i was going to say i got bored, but that wasn’t quite accurate. i just really wanted to finish the book.

so, fun read. but, ultimately, it wasn’t sustainable for me.

the abstinence teacher

The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta

straight to the point: this book was a disappointment.

i actually enjoy reading mainstream books that talk about christians. there’s an almost voyeuristic fascination with finding out how we’ll be portrayed. i’m often quite pleased with the depiction. a great example of this from my fairly recent reading was the young adult fiction book evolution, me, and other freaks of nature, which (like this book) takes place in a public high school and revolves (at least partially) around a conservative church’s efforts to pressure the school into their belief set. but, in freaks of nature, there were at least some of the christian characters who were portrayed in three dimmensions. another was the year of living biblically , which — i thought — was very generous and gracious, even while having some fun with the extremist tendencies of some christians.

the abstinence teacher centers on the story of a liberal sex ed teacher who is forced to teach an abstinence curriculum she abhors, as a result of the pressure of a somewhat fundamentalist church lobbying the school board. a second key character is a reformed druggie who is a recent convert to this church, and the soccer coach of the central character’s daughter.

problem is: the christians in the story are seriously two-dimensional. every single one of them is an idiot. well, that’s not quite true: the soccer coach is a two-dimensional jerk until he starts to lose his faith — then he becomes a fully-developed character.

i know there are idiots in christianity. i know there are churches who do the things portrayed in this book. but the book lacked because the author wasn’t willing to make any of the christians with a mix of good motives and bad behavior.

bummer. could have been such a better book with a bit more complexity.

the year of living biblically

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs

i bought this book, well after the buzz about it had subsided, because i’d heard such good things about it. and i was not disappointed. it was one of the more fun and thought-provoking non-fiction works i’ve read this year.

the author is a self-described secular jew, and has lived his whole life in new york. he’s an editor at esquire magazine. and, previously, he published a best-selling book about read the entire britannica encyclopedia, called The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (which i just ordered for my kindle). while reading through the encyclopedia, all the post about judaism and christianity caught his attention, and he thought it might be interesting to try a little experiment: live an entire year – as the subtitle says — with as literal an interpretation of the bible as possible.

jacobs spends 8 months of his year trying to live by the entire old testament, and his final 4 months trying to live a literal new testament interpretation.

of course, one person’s literal interpretation is another person’s heresy (or, at least, wackiness). so jacobs spends a good deal of real estate sifting through which literal interpretation to try to live by. the results are almost always interesting, often insightful, and occasionally hilarious.

here’s the thing that really surprised me: i expected this to be a book that would make me wince. it did — but for different reasons than i expected. i expected to wince as he mocked christians and observant jews. but jacobs turns out to be beautifully gracious. in a sense, that’s what caused me to wince! here was a non-believer, seriously trying to live “our way” (well, some of it is “our way”), and treating the entire thing with much more respect and grace and serious inquiry and thoughtful mind, heart and soul pursuit than a major slice of those who actually call themselves christians! ouch!

we also get a glimpse into jacobs’ own spiritual journey, as he genuinely tries to be open to the potential reality of god and the jewish/christian story of reality. and there is some movement, which he rejoices in and expounds on.

no, there’s no big conversion story at the end. but it’s a great romp through both the follies of literalism, the challenge of scripture, and the sometimes-positive implications of the book of God.

incidentally, i just noticed last week that jacobs is doing a seminar on this book at the national pastors convention in san diego, next february. i might have to try to check that one out!