This memoir is an agnostic’s journey to literally follow Biblical traditions for a year. It was often fun and humorous but at times it was overly melodramatic and obsessive: despite the pendulum from humorous to obsessive, it managed to present itself as a well written and thoughtful reflection on a unique project. Jacobs’ devout exploration of all things biblical delves far deeper than the Ten Commandments and prompted him to do some extreme things such as not shave his beard for a year, only wear clothing that did not mix fibers, take on a slave (an un-paid intern), and restrict himself from shaking hands with women for fear that he would be contacting an “unclean” woman who was suffering her menses. I found that the humor in this project wasn’t so much about the absurdity of some of the biblical laws and traditions that seem outdated and a burden to modern life, but that the project annoyed his very patient wife so much along the way. Jacobs talks a lot about his family during this project and the personal touch gives the memoir a very enjoyable flavor that heightens the impact of Jacobs’ revelations and frustrations during the year-long project.
I indicated above that this memoir is at times obsessive, and in a way this has a lot to do with A.J. Jacobs’ personality. He is the type of person that religiously checks the user reviews on amazon for all of his published books and his wife uses the term “helmet” as a code word that he is being neurotically obsessive about his son’s safety and well being. These personality quirks do lend to the overall nature of the book. It takes a special OCD type person to strictly follow biblical law and Jacobs is just that special type of person, capable of fretting over “stealing” his neighbor’s wi-fi or feeling guilty about doing “work” by checking his email on the Sabbath. As a reader, these obsessive elements do get a little overbearing and cause Jacobs to seem more like an odd-ball eccentric than a common man on a unique quest: really, who else would get excited about an obscure Jewish tradition of picking up an egg from a wild bird’s empty nest? Despite these eccentricities, the memoir has some very enduring moments regarding life, death, human relationship and the continued presence of the sacred in a secular world.
Jacobs’ project does lead him along a spiritual journey and although in the end he does not complete his year as a renewed believer, he does walk away a more self-aware and wiser man, more appreciative of the sacred act of holding his son and the special gifts of being able to have an impact upon his neighbor’s lives. Throughout my reading I found myself often reflecting on my own spiritual journey in this life, one filled with roller coaster ups and downs that have curved along agnostic bitterness and zoomed down the thrill of faithful zealotry only to arrive at my present state of calm appreciation for the beautiful gift of life. For this, I am thankful for having read The Year of Living Biblically because it gave me some reflective considerations about the meaning of faith and taking time for the sacred amidst the busy distractions we experience in the secular world.
“I’m now a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance.” (329)