Thursday, August 30, 2007

Living Biblically

I've come to appreciate many things about working at a bookstore. I assumed years ago that I'd enjoy such a job, and I'm happy to report that my presumptions have so far been accurate. One thing I've found curious though is that the perks of the job I enjoy most are the ones I was either unaware of or overlooked when I applied for the job. Seeing as how my last inclusion of lists was well received, I'll present said perks in a similar fashion:
  • Coworkers I can talk with about numerous topics.
  • Discounts on books, music, and items in the cafe.
  • Cute girls working in said cafe that I like to think I may, one day, muster up the courage to flirt with.
  • Access to a vast array of reading material on any subject (and I do mean that; rule 34 would have a hard time competing with this selection).
  • Advanced reader's copies of books.
Of all those perks, the ones I enjoy most are the cute girls in the cafe and the advanced reader's copies of books. I believe it's safe to presume that I don't need to go into detail about the cafe girls, but the concept of advanced reader's copies and the joy they've brought me I will extrapolate on.

The idea is that before a book is released, uncorrected editions are sent to reviewers, advertisers, and lastly, booksellers, so that they may read the book and give feedback before it's released. This is where those comments on the backs of books like, "This book wasn't a complete waste of my time!" and "With a heroine as sexy as she is deadly, you know this book will seduce it's readers just like the sensual bite of a vampire!" (I made the first one up, the second I wish I was making up).

I put 'booksellers' at the end of the list because we are the last ones to receive the book, usually no more than a couple weeks before it is released. We receive various books from stories about people climbing buildings while in college to Ira Flatow's new book based on his radio show "Science Friday" to the new book by John Skipp in
his 'splatterpunk' genre.

Before I continue, I need to talk more in depth about that last one. John Skipp, apparently a well-known horror/gore writer who, according to the cover, is famous, a legend in horror fiction writing, and on par with Clive Barker. How this is true I can't imagine. His most recent work, entitled The Long Last Call, is complete rubbish. I don't mean it's rubbish in that the plot is bad (it is) or that his graphic, gory descriptions are of poor taste (they are). I mean this book is rubbish in that the man seems to have no concept of how to write cohesively or with any degree of professionalism. Now, seeing as how this is an advanced reader's copy I understand that it is has some grammatical, punctual and spelling errors; I can easily overlook and forgive those. Those, however, are not what I'm referring to, either. What I'm referring to is a book that begins four consecutive paragraphs with an ellipsis, or, while in third-person omniscient narrative, describes a man as "the f***ing owner" or "he punched her right in her f***ing face." This is not a first-person narrative. This is not a person telling you of an event that happened. This is a work (used loosely) of literature (used very loosely) that is swearing in what I can only see as a poor attempt to add realism and emphasis to actions. What it does add is making the story sound like something a 7th grader would write; one who had never had a writing course, learned to talk growing up in downtown Brooklyn and has no idea what a narration is supposed to be. The flagrant sexual acts, the graphic detail of excessive, needless violence, a juvenile plot, faceless, flat, boring characters, and the pathetic, immature narration make it a truly horrific story to read (which isn't scary in the slightest and quite predictable). I'm almost tempted to read his earlier works just to try and understand why anyone could consider him talented or how he ever became a "best-seller" (which I'm starting to realize means squat).

Back to the topic at hand; the perks of advanced reader's copies. About two weeks ago, we received in a book titled The Year of Living Biblically. Initially I assumed this would just be another 'Christian Inspiration' or devotional book (a disturbingly large and popular section). Underneath the title, it says, "One man's humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible," and towards the bottom it simply says, "A.J. Jacobs, auther of The Know-It All." I was a bit taken back by this; I had flipped through The Know-It All and had found it rather interesting, but not interesting enough to purchase as I never saw myself actually reading it. This, however, is an advanced reader's copy - a book free for the taking to whomever claims it first from the lounge - and on top of that, it's about living Biblically, which could be really entertaining.

I was right. It is really entertaining.

Jacobs writes with such poignancy, such clarity, wit and style that reading this memoir is a complete pleasure. I've found myself bypassing television, video games, and many hours of sleep simply because I couldn't put the book down, or in some cases actually turning off the television because this book is more entertaining than television. Jacobs, who grew up in a secular household, undertook a challenge to live the Bible as accurately as possible and documented his thoughts along the way - seems simple enough. Still, he didn't just live the spirit of the law, or even the intent; if there was any question about what it meant, he followed it to the letter. Everything from dressing all in white, attaching tassels to the corners of his clothing, not shaving the edges of his beard, not touching women who are "unclean" (menstruating; including his wife) and even going so far as to stone adulterers (he uses pebbles), give money to widows and orphans (asking people if they're either widows or orphans so he can give them money), blowing a horn at the beginning of each month, and going to an Atheist organization meeting in Manhattan to speak with non-believers (that way he knows he's speaking with those who don't believe). One of the most entertaining things is that he cites all the passages and rules he's referring to, so if you don't believe it's actually in there, you can look it up yourself (some are very perplexing that I'd never heard of, like the rule about how, if two men are in a fight, if one man has another pinned, and the wife of the pinned-man grabs the groin of the other man, her hand is to be cut off. It's apparently often interpreted as a parable for saying "women shouldn't embarrass their husbands" or something similar...still, it's a weird one). He used several Bibles for references to make sure he understood what it meant, as well as Rabbis, Priests, and other knowledgeable men so if he had any questions he could ask them.

It's a truly remarkable book, a riot at times and very enlightening and heartwarming at others (seeing how living Biblically effects his outlook on life and those around him is quite endearing) and it really drives home the idea that a lot of things that may seem arbitrary about religion actually do have a purpose. For example, Jacobs mentions how the Bible says not to partake of gossip or speak ill towards others. As he begins to put it into practice, he writes about how he's found that those negative thoughts don't even enter his mind, that overall he has a more positive view of people and is nicer to those around him. It's also quite entertaining how, at first, he constantly finds himself telling little lies to explain why he does something because it's too awkward to say, "because the Bible says so," to people (though he does later begin to do so). His section about finding a Bible is quite entertaining as well. With this being an advanced reader's copy, I'm not supposed to quote directly from it, but retelling the story wouldn't do it justice, and A.J. Jacobs seems like a pretty easy-going guy with a good sense of humor, so I don't think he'll mind me quoting this (it's from page 8):
I go to a Bible bookstore in midtown Manhattan. It's a huge, Wal-Mart-sized store with fluorescent lighting and a long counter of cash registers at the front. My salesman is named Chris, a soft-spoken guy with the body of an Olympic power lifter. He shows me tables covered with dozens of Bibles of all shapes, sizes and linguistic slants - from the plain-spoken English of The Good News Bible to the majestic cadence of The Jerusalem Bible

He points out one Bible I might want - it's designed to look exactly like a Seventeen magazine: an attractive (if long-sleeved) model graces the front, next to cover lines like "What's your spiritual IQ?" and side-bars such as "Rebecca the control freak."

"This one's good if you're on the subway and are too embarrassed to be seen reading the Bible," said Chris. "Because no one will ever know it's a Bible."

It's an odd and poignant selling point. You know you're in a secular city when it's considered more acceptable for a grown man to read a teen girls magazine than the Bible.
It's a simple event: man goes in to buy a Bible, talks to the clerk, buys a Bible. Seems simple enough, but his writing is so wonderfully done that the story is perfectly visualized -
you can see Chris talking to him, you can see the Bible he's describing, you can see the story play out perfectly and it's topped off with a humorous afterthought to wrap it up.

It's brilliant writing. The entire book is written with such clarity. I'm enthralled with it.

His desire to live Biblically for a year has actually inspired me to try something of my own. I've always been fascinated with Islam, and the more I learn about it the more I respect it. In a similar fashion to Mr. Jacobs, I've decided that this year I'm going to try and do the fasting of Ramadan - go 30 days without food or water from sunup to sundown (there are other restrictions, as well). My faith usually asks for members to fast on the first Sunday of every month, but it's something I always did begrudgingly. It was more of an annoyance than a sacred act, and usually one I did only when my mother would remind me which led to me grumbling because I wanted my Lucky Charms in the morning. With a fast like Ramadan, it's something I know I'm going to be doing and is entirely voluntary and intentional. I'm doing so not as an inconvenience but as an act of piety and to (hopefully) raise my understanding and compassion for those less fortunate than myself.

I think it'll be a good experience. I'm actually kind of excited for it, even though it will definitely be a challenge to go 30 days without eating while the sun is up. I'm sure I'll make more than one entry during that time; it will hopefully make for an entertaining read.

[In The Year of Living Biblically A.J. Jacobs says he occasionally googles his own name to see what people think of his books - in light of being honest, I'll admit part of what made me write this post and use his name so much is because I think it'd be awesome if he read this. He even says he reads blogs that mention him to see what people think of his books.]


Krusty said...

I have to say, 30 days? You are insane! If you live let us know how it turns out.

Lucalias said...

So you're saying that you're inspired by A.J. Jacobs to fast for 30 days? That'll be a challenge and hopefully you'll make it. I'm sure A.J. Jacobs thinks the same way. Maybe because of the mention of the name A.J. Jacobs, A.J. Jacobs will read this post that deals with the newest book of A.J. Jacobs, written by A.J. Jacobs!

(now how could he miss this post? ;) )

-->jeff * said...

first off, in regards to one of your pictures, i remember seeing the 'extreme teen bible' a few years ago, and despite its ostentacious title, was actually a decent edition, providing footnotes and sidebars about relevant topics, such as how dangerous a swarm of locusts can be in the middle east.

second, while i also have an interest in islam and the ramadan idea is interesting, there is a certainly paradox in opting to strictly live the commandments of another faith over that of your own. why not try to observe the once-a-month fast more diligently and give sincere offerings?

your blog is coming along quite well; it makes for very good reading.

Tim said...

Well, I'm not disregarding the commandments of my own faith - just adding on those of another.

Krusty said...

Plus, if anyone gets offended, call it a scientific experiment, everyone likes scientific experiments, especially religious people.

A.J. Jacobs said...

Hey Tim,
This is A.J. Jacobs, author of the Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, and occasional self-Googler.

I loved your post! Thanks so much. It multiplied my joy sevenfold.
And good luck with your fast! That's quite a challenge indeed.