Monday, 30 August 2010

A.J. Jacobs: Man with a mission

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

If you regularly browse the shelves at any major book store, you can often spot new trends and emerging sub-genres. Some are completely inexplicable to me; I find it hard to understand the appeal of the autobiographies of misery typified by Dave Pelzer. Another more pleasurable sub-genre is the area of quirky male memoir. Its best known exponents are probably Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman: they are the men who undertake strange, wacky social experiments, and then write about them. They are the stars of their own books, and there is normally a co-starring role for a girlfriend with a varying level of tolerance. A.J. Jacobs belongs to this genre (although for girlfriend, read wife).

I discovered A.J. Jacobs by chance in our local library. I spotted one of his books, "The Year of Living Biblically," and was intrigued by the title. This is his project: to spend a year living by the rules set out in the Bible; part of the year will be dedicated to the Old Testament, the remainder of the year to the New. As A.J. Jacobs comes from a Jewish family (although not strictly observant, he remembers their family home having, "that paradoxical classic of assimilation: a Star of David on top of our Christmas tree"), he is more familiar with Old Testament teachings when he begins his project.

I find this a bit difficult to write about for a couple of reasons. Firstly A.J. Jacobs admits to the habit of googling himself, and I feel a little bit awkward about writing this in case he should discover it. I enjoyed his books, and I'm not about to write anything horrible - just wanted to reassure him now, in case he has found this - but it does make me feel more than a little self-conscious. I also find this difficult to write about because I am not a religious person, but I have friends who are and who might read this. A.J. Jacobs himself starts the project as an agnostic, and I can associate with the viewpoint he expresses, "if there is a God, why would He allow war, disease and my fourth-grade teacher Ms Barker who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale?" Although I have never met Ms Barker, I can understand the sentiment.

A couple of his more religious relatives are concerned by his project; he is naturally drawn to the bizarre, and they worry that he will focus more on the more eccentric dictates of the Bible. In the course of his book he calls out a shatnez tester (who will test his clothes to make sure that he is not wearing any items made from mixed fibres), he undertakes to blow a ritual horn (a shofar) at the start of every month, takes an egg from under a pigeon, and tries to avoid eating fruit from a tree that is less than 5 years old. He also tries to avoid sitting on a seat that has been occupied by a menstruating woman - a regulation that his wife objects to by sitting on every seat in the house before he returns from work (I mentally cheered this inventive protest).

However, he also finds that his quest to follow the Bible makes him a better person. He is more circumspect in his words, trying to eschew gossip; he tries not to covet, and he tries titheing to give money to charity. He assembles a corale of religious figures to whom he turns for advice and guidance: for every fundamentalist he meets, he meets several wise people who provide him with insights into life and morality. He visits Jerusalem, finds much to admire in the reticence of the Amish, goes to an unfinished creationist museum and attends a meeting at Jerry Falwell's church. At the end of his project he hasn't found religion, but he has found that, "whether or not there is a God, there is such a thing as sacredness."

I enjoyed this book so much, that I treated myself to a couple of his other books to read on a week off work - "The Know-It-All" (which was written first) and "My Experimental Life" (the most recent book of the three). In "The Know-It-All," he is disturbed to realise that his adolescent intellectual prowess has been squandered. He knows about pop culture and the peccadillos of the stars, and little about anything else - and so he begins a project to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His book follows the alphabetical structure of the source; taking the form of events from his life - such as his experiences of joining Mensa and entering "Who Wants to be a Millionnaire" - and musings on his reading.

I haven't quite finished it yet, but my favourite facts so far are:

  • The philosopher Rene Descartes had a thing for cross-eyed women.

  • The explorer Shackleton took the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Antarctica. They had to use it for kindling.

  • In the 9th century the Pope Formosus was put on trial after his death for his policies - his body was exhumed and propped up for the course of the trial. He lost.

  • The Greek prostitute Phryne was tried for blasphemy, but was acquitted after flashing her breasts at the jury.

  • So far I have enjoyed "The Know-It-All" most of his books, but that could be because I am a geek - I even half fancy reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica myself. As his books are quite autobiographical though, don't do what I did and read them in the wrong order - it ruins any tension just a tad.....