By the book

If not all then most of us have at some point said (or at least heard someone else to say) something along the lines “This book changed my life”, usually meaning that whatever we had been reading consisted of a moving and transformative experience, after which we felt different from our former self who started reading a book in question. I guess those books as well as related experiences can be very different. We can be transformed by a line of reasoning that changes the way we think or be moved by an aesthetic image which casts a new light on something. Or perhaps by having read a particular text we can become aware of something in ourselves that we previously didn’t know of.

But there is a way that is quite something else and a book (or types of a book, I should perhaps say) that stands apart from all the rest. For a couple of thousand years there have been books that are meant to be lived rather than simply read. Books such as Torah, Talmud, Tripiṭaka, Qur’an, Kangyur, Rigveda or Yasna. Or Bible. Tobe sure, they all can be read — but this is not what they are for.

Tonight I finished reading The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. I had actually noticed it already last year when it was published, but only bought it when I was passing through NY earlier this month. It is an account of a rather wacky project — to try and follow the Bible as literally as possible and see where it takes you. Of course, even with the Bible alone there are millions of people in the world who think that they’re doing just that — follow the Holy Scriptures. But A.J. Jacobs, a self-proclaimed agnostic and editor at the Esquire magazine, decided to try and beat even the most die-hard fundamental believers in their game: no picking or choosing which rule to follow and when, no bickering over what a certain word or expression means or how should it be interpreted in the 21st century New York. If it’s written, it is so. If the Bible commands believers to stone adulterers (Deut. 22:23-24) or those breaking the Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-36), then this is what one should do, no ifs and buts. If it tells you to blow a trumpet (Psalms 81:3) at the new moon then a shofar you shall blow. And of course it also means no lying, no coveting and no gossiping — which basically makes one a complete outcast in today’s western society.

The result of this journey is every bit as funny as you’d expect it to be — but it is also more than that. Although from the strictly religious point of view, the whole affair was little more than putting on a show of faith, the author makes an honest effort — he truly seems to try and believe, not simply do lots of crazy (and not so crazy) stuff that Bible commands. He doesn’t simply read the thing and mull over the moral consequences, pros and cons or possible interpretations of some rule or the other — he confronts the Bible head on and walks the walk for a full year (plus two more weeks, to be precise). And it takes him to many different places, expected and unexpected, both spiritually as well as geographically speaking.

It is probably not a book that would change anyone’s life, but it does tells a story — deeply personal, extremely funny and deadly serious all at the same time — of a life that was submitted to a book for a full year, and yes, ultimately transformed, although perhaps not entirely in ways proscribed by it.

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