NONFICTION The at-large editor for Esquire magazine grew his beard and carried a folding chair, among other things, in his literal quest to do what the Good Book says.
A.J. Jacobs had been thinking about religion for a long time, wondering what exactly he was missing, when he finally decided to do something about it. For one year, Jacobs resolved to try to do everything the Bible told him -- all 800 rules -- a time he recounts in his great new book, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible."
Jacobs, who is an editor at large for Esquire magazine and who says he was "Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant," was used to throwing himself into projects like this, and he has just the right personality for it: witty, curious and oddly brave. For his previous book "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Be the Smartest Person in the World," he plowed through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. But this new project proved more challenging, for different reasons.
In addition to his 72 pages of explicit biblical rules, there were also lots of guidelines and suggestions, many of them bizarre, unexplained, even inexplicable. But Jacobs decided to try to follow these as closely as he could, which meant no mixed fibers, no winking, no coveting and no cutting his beard. He hired a specialist to inspect his clothes. He carried a folding cane chair so he didn't have to sit on chairs sullied by menstruating women. He consulted rabbis, priests and experts over finer points. He even made pilgrimages to such literalist outposts as the Creation Museum in Kentucky and Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
Throughout, Jacobs explores the dark side and the light side of the Bible. As his beard grew, so did his sense of isolation. On the streets of New York, people called him the Unabomber or Gandalf and frowned at him for reading his Bible on the subway. But over the year, Jacobs discovered a few things. He tried to love his neighbors, which was hard. He felt newly thankful for little things, which was refreshing. And he learned that even the most strident biblical literalists don't follow all 800 rules: They pick and choose like everyone else.
Breezy in places, flippant in some, profound in others, "The Year of Living Biblically" is a fun and moving study of the book that has shaped our world. In the end, Jacobs seemed surprised to find that he'd been on a spiritual quest, so that when he finally shaved off his beard, the person staring back at him was a little different than one he'd known a year before.
Frank Bures writes for Wired, the Washington Post Magazine, Poets & Writers and other publications. He lives in Madison, Wis.