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"I'm Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian."

Interview With A.J. Jacobs, Author of The Year Of Living Biblically

This is the first part of a two-part interview

In recapping my five favorite books so far this year I mentioned how much I was looking forward to the new book by the author A.J. Jacobs. I loved his last book, The Know-It-All and went a bit wild with enthusiasm quoting excerpts from the book as part of the interview.

He mentioned in that interview that his next book would be about a year of following the Bible's rules:

The next book is called The Year of Living Biblically, and it’s about my attempt to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as possible – from the famous ones like the Ten Commandments and Be Fruitful and Multiply right on down to stoning adulterers and growing a huge beard. That one was always both a personal project and actual book. 

So I've been waiting with great anticipation for this book and was jealous when Newsweek did a good piece about the project. The book was officially released this week and already has great buzz. I've read the first 25 pages and am loving it already. A.J. agreed to another interview with me.

Scott: What sparked you to live a year following bible rules?

I grew up in an incredibly secular home. I'm Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. But I’ve become increasingly interested in the huge role religion plays in our world. It really is the defining issue of our time. Now that I have a kid, I wanted to figure out what to tell him about religion. So I decided to dive in head first. I wanted to get into the minds of the ancients who wrote and lived the Bible. Or into their sandals, I suppose. I wanted to figure out what was relevant and good for me, and what was maybe not so relevant.

How did you decide which rules and laws to go by?

I had a great spiritual advisory board made up of rabbis, priests and ministers (that sounds like the start to a joke, but it’s the truth) and they helped guide me. But the point of my quest was to follow every single law and piece of advice without picking and choosing to see what worked for me. So I also made my own list. I read the Bible from cover to cover and wrote down every one of them. From the famous (The Ten Commandments, Love Thy Neighbor, Be Fruitful and Multiply) to the arcane (don’t shave your beard, don’t wear clothes of mixed fibers, stone adulterers). Some rules were wise, some were baffling. Some seemed wise in the beginning, then became more baffling as the year wore on. Some seemed baffling in the beginning, but became more wise.

What was the reaction of family and friends to this whole… what's the word? Quest? Concept piece? Performance art?

Well, it varied. Some were fascinated by the topic and the amazing — and bizarre — things I was experiencing. At the same time, it put a pretty severe strain on my marriage. My wife hated the beard. I wasn’t allowed to shave it (Leviticus won’t let me) so by the end, I had this huge hedgehog on my chin. She wouldn’t kiss me for two months. Also, the Bible instructs me to build a hut once a year. And since I couldn’t get permission to build one outside, I made one in my living room. My wife didn’t appreciate having a construction project in our apartment.

This is your second book focused around a quest of sorts, the first being the great Know-It-All. Speaking of which, how much of the Encyclopedia do you actually remember?

I’ve forgotten vast swaths of it. Huge amounts! But there was so much information in the encyclopedia, that even remembering a small percentage of it leaves me in a better position than I was before.

Wherever I look, I’m reminded of some random fact. If I see a cat, I’m reminded of how the ancient Egyptians made mummies of their cats — but they also made mummies of the mice, so the cats would have something to eat in the afterlife. Which I thought was very considerate. 

Is it mere coincidence that both of your books are quests and projects? What's your next quest going to be?  

I love the quests. I love this ‘immersion’ genre in general. I’m a big fan of Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird (he retired to Florida when he was 30 years old) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. I see this genre as memoirs with added value. You get to learn about someone’s life, but you also get an introduction into an interesting topic.I’ve had lots of suggestions already for book number three. My wife wants me to go out to every restaurant in New York, because she likes to eat out. My brother-in-law wants me to be a eunuch for a year. I don’t know if that’d work for a year, seems more of a lifetime commitment.

Thanks to A.J. Jacobs for this interviewPart two will come in about two weeks.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin.He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one.He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle.He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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