Today’s Guest: A.J. Jacobs, author, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
A.J. Jacobs must have the best magazine job in America. As editor-at-large for Esquire, here are a few examples of recent stories appearing under his byline:
• “My Outsourced Life,” detailing his effort to send his writing assignments to India,
• “Googling A.J. Jacobs’s Brain,” about his proposed effort to catalogue his thoughts, dreams, and desires
“The Sexiest Woman Alive 2005” and “2006,” in which he spent five months teasing readers as to the identities of Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson. And, yes, he was required by law to spend time with each of them, passing off flirtation as research.
And then there was his equally painful interview with Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives” in which he described each of her body parts in languorous detail.
Oh, I could go on and on about the women in his professional life. They also include Mary Louise Parker and Rosario Dawson. But then we’d never get to the reason for this interview, which is to celebrate his hysterical, yet thought-provoking new book, The Year of Living Biblically.
A.J. JACOBS podcast excerpt: “I was walking around Manhattan in a white robe and sandals carrying a staff. I didn’t have sheep with me most of the time.”
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I have to start by saying I think you’re a friggin’ genius. Not only do you have an inventive new book and a magazine publisher prompting it and promoting it online and in print, but you’ve also found ways within its own text to subtly plug your last book, The Know-It-All. At least — I counted — 13 times directly.
A.J. JACOBS: Really? Oh, wow, I didn’t realize I was that good.
ANDELMAN: Well, it’s easy. Anyone can figure it out. You actually have an index. There’s an index, and you can go through, and you can count. So directly or indirectly, thirteen plugs, and that, to me, as a guy who’s written a few books, I have to say, I think it’s as brilliant as Nick Tosches thanking himself in the acknowledgements to one of his books because, without him, his books wouldn’t have been possible.
JACOBS: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. Yeah, well, that’s nice. Maybe I should have a coupon for the first book in The Year of Living Biblically.
ANDELMAN: I think that’s the only thing that’s missing. I think it’s great. I think it’s brilliant. How did The Year of Living Biblically come about?
JACOBS: It came about because I grew up in an incredibly secular home. As I say in the book, I am Jewish but in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. So not very Jewish at all. And I actually thought that religion was gonna wither away, and we’d all live in this sort of scientific world. But, of course, that didn’t happen, and so I became fascinated with was I missing something by not having a spiritual life? But was I missing something essential to being human like someone who’s never heard Beethoven? Or was half the world deluded? So I decided to dive in head first cause that’s what I like to do. So I dive in head first to try to understand the Bible, this most influential book in the world. And I thought the best way to do it would be try to actually get inside the minds of the ancient people and get in the sandals of my forefathers.
ANDELMAN: And you did this how?
JACOBS: Well, I read the Bible, and I compiled a list of every suggestion, every rule, every commandment in the Bible. And by the end, my list was 72 pages, over 700 rules. Everything from the Ten Commandments we all know, all the famous ones, no lying, no coveting, but it also had dozens, hundreds of obscure rules like don’t wear clothes with mixed fibers and don’t, well, stone adulterers, for instance. So I wanted to try to follow every single one of those. So just commit myself completely to this project. So that’s what I did.
ANDELMAN: Now, I’m definitely, I’m about as close to agnostic as you are, as you were at least. Moses had 613 rules that he brought down, didn’t he?
ANDELMAN: But you actually got over 700.
JACOBS: Well, I included sections of the Bible including the Proverbs, which have a lot to say about, for instance, laziness. So I couldn’t be lazy anymore. The Proverbs don’t like naps very much so it was unfortunate I couldn’t take naps all year. So I included other sections of the Bible in addition to the five books of Moses.
ANDELMAN: The thing that struck me reading was that this research must have affected a lot more people than just you. Particularly, your wife comes to mind.
JACOBS: My wife is a saint. That is true. I won’t deny it. Yeah, it was the most extreme makeover of my life. It affected every single part so the way I ate, the way I talked, the way I dressed, and the way I touched my wife. So she was very patient. I’m glad that we’re still married.
ANDELMAN: And you literally did change the way that you touched your wife. There were times where she was considered impure by the Bible.
JACOBS: That’s right.
ANDELMAN: Which meant not just not touching her, you couldn’t sit where she sat.
JACOBS: Right. There’s a section of the Bible, if you take it literally, that says you cannot sit where an impure woman has sat, which ruled out pretty much every chair, and in New York, you’ve got the subways, the buses. And my wife, as revenge, she didn’t like that rule so she sat on every chair in our apartment so I was reduced to doing a lot of standing.
ANDELMAN: And then you actually found a portable chair, right?
JACOBS: I did. I carried around a chair, a little pure chair for the subways.
ANDELMAN: Now, who else was affected by this project? People you work with, perhaps? Your son?
JACOBS: Yeah, people I work with. You mentioned Rosario Dawson. There was a little conflict between my work life where I work for Esquire, a men’s magazine. I like to think it’s a high-brow men’s magazine, but it’s still a men’s magazine. So interviewing Rosario Dawson while trying to obey the Bible’s rules about lusting, that was not an easy one. I had to do the interview without looking at her.
ANDELMAN: You were in the same room, though.
JACOBS: Oh, yeah. I just avoided eye contact.
ANDELMAN: Uh-huh. And how did Rosario feel about this?
JACOBS: Rosario was actually very understanding. I had a huge beard like this hedgehog on my face, and she actually said that, she was one of the few people who said she actually liked the beard.
ANDELMAN: Well, of course, at that point, wasn’t she just coming off working with Kevin Smith?
JACOBS: That’s right. Yeah. So she was used to it.
ANDELMAN: Were there other assignments that were affected by the beard and the whole practice?
JACOBS: Well, I did an assignment on the Bible for Esquire so that was one. But, yeah, it was the clash between the way we live now in the 21st century and the way they lived then. It’s all I see now. I was walking around Manhattan in a white robe and sandals carrying a staff. I didn’t have sheep with me most of the time.
ANDELMAN: Most of the time.
JACOBS: Most of the time. Well, I did go on a number of adventures because I wanted to immerse myself with people who live biblically or took the Bible literally in some way. So I did go to Israel, and I did spend the day shepherding sheep, which was one of the most, the greatest experiences of my book.
ANDELMAN: Now, there was also Uncle Gil.
JACOBS: Right. My family has an interesting religious background because most of us are very secular, but my ex-uncle, a man formerly married to my aunt, is probably the most religious person in the world. He’s been through every major religion. He was a born-again Christian. He was a Buddhist. He was a Hindu cult leader. And now he’s an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem.
ANDELMAN: In any of that time, I kept wondering, did he do Amway?
JACOBS: I didn’t see that in his autobiography, but he’d be good.
ANDELMAN: It’s a really interesting book to read, partly because it’s funny, but it’s also very thought provoking, as I said earlier. Myself, I’ve always been much less of a religious person and more of a Ten Commandments guy. I always thought, if you needed guiding principles in life, the Ten Commandments seemed to boil down pretty well to the basics of being a good person.
ANDELMAN: But, I wondered, now that you’ve finished the book, what elements of your year continue with you?
JACOBS: Well, it’s interesting because the book did change me in a hundred different ways, big and small. There is humor in the book, I hope, but that’s only part of it. I really was fascinated with religion, and I wanted to see what, if anything, I was missing. So there are things that I found about religion that I’ve kept even after my year. I don’t stone adulterers anymore, but I…
ANDELMAN: Thank God.
JACOBS: Yeah, thank God. I definitely, the Bible gave me a sense of gratefulness because there’s a lot of talk about thanking in the Bible, which I think it’s really important to remember the hundred things that go right in a day instead of focusing on the three or four things that go wrong. So it really helped me in that. And one of the other lessons I learned is that by acting with almost a “fake it till you make it” approach because I was acting like a moral person. I was not coveting. I was not lying. I was trying not to gossip. And, if you do that, you slowly become a slightly better person. I’m not Angelina Jolie or Gandhi, but I feel that by committing yourself to acting, pretending that you’re a good person, you actually become a better person.
ANDELMAN: Now, have you had that confirmed by other people?
JACOBS: That I’m a better person?
JACOBS: Well, my wife thinks I’m a better person now that I shaved my beard
ANDELMAN: What are you especially glad to be done with from that year?
A.J. JACOBS: Well, it was a very intense year so it was hard to, for instance, completely cut out lying, to be totally honest, all the time. It’s a radical life change. And I think it’s good not to. I think I learned that I should lie less. But there were times where it was just exhausting because I have a three-year-old kid, and you can’t tell him, “Uh, sorry, the TV’s broken”. You have to say, “No, you can’t watch TV because I don’t want you to,” and so there’s screaming, there’s crying, and he gets upset too.
ANDELMAN: I think at one point he wanted a bagel, and you tried to convince him it was an English muffin. No, your wife convinced him it was an English muffin, and you just couldn’t do that.
JACOBS: Right. He wanted a bagel. We didn’t have bagels. We only had an English muffin. So she wanted me to say, “Hey, here’s a bagel,” and give him the muffin, but I felt I had to tell him the truth. And it backfired in a massive way.
ANDELMAN: Has your year of living biblically changed the way that you will raise him?
JACOBS: It has. It has. One of the interesting things is the Bible talks a lot about how the God of the Bible has mercy, but also He has sternness. So I was a pushover dad. I was no backbone, say yes to everything. But I’m trying to be a little more like the God of the Bible where I have a balance between the mercy and the toughness.
ANDELMAN: I have to tell you that, of all the things in the book, the one that stopped me dead and made me scratch my head a little bit, I hope you laugh about this, but it was that your son could only watch TV while he was eating. That just really stuck with me.
JACOBS: You like that?
ANDELMAN: I thought that was interesting. It was the thing that we used to do. We used to let my daughter watch TV while she was eating, but then we noticed that eating was taking an hour to 90 minutes.
JACOBS: That is exactly the problem I have. I know. He turns it into like a five-course French meal.
ANDELMAN: I know that’s kind of off-topic, but that was the thing that really… I’ll remember that for a while.
JACOBS: I wish the Bible had more specific commands about television and when kids should watch it.
ANDELMAN: Since you mention that, you did keep working on your Powerbook, which I don’t recall seeing mentioned in any versions of the Bible or even the Torah.
JACOBS: Some of the time I actually tried to live like they lived 3,000, 2,000 years ago with the robe, or I wrote a lot by olive oil lamp. But, much of the time, I found if I could just follow the rules strictly then I could do some modern things. There’s no commandment, “Thou shalt not use a Macbook Pro.” So that’s sort of the loophole I found for that.
ANDELMAN: Now, one of the unnerving aspects of reading your book, as a writer, again, was the thought of massaging and merging so many versions of the Bible and related texts with so many purported authorities on its content. You have this whole council of people. And then, somehow, you come out of that with expertise yourself, all in less than a year, whereas some of these people have obviously committed their whole lifetimes to this. How did you do that?
JACOBS: Well, I’m certainly not the world’s greatest expert on the Bible, but I think I’ve got a unique point of view on it. And, as you say, I had a spiritual advisory board. I had rabbis, ministers, priests, some very liberal, some extremely conservative, and they helped me navigate. But, in the end, one of the goals was to see if I could strip away all the interpretations and get back to what the Bible actually said, what it meant back then, get back to the Biblical bedrock. And I realized that this was Mission: Impossible. I could not do that. The Biblical bedrock is too slippery. You can’t find out what it meant, the original intent was. But it was a fascinating journey, and I learned thousands of things along the way. So I’m glad I did it even if I’ll never know what Moses actually meant with a certain passage.
ANDELMAN: Would I be wrong in guessing that the proofreading and copy-editing process might have been a bit of a nightmare?
JACOBS: That is true. There were a lot of names that…Methuselah and things. I thank God for the copy editors.
ANDELMAN: I was going to ask you if you encountered any editors along the process who did not appreciate the point of view in the book or the interpretation of certain things in the book.
JACOBS: Well, I actually thought I would get a lot more flak than I did, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Definitely, there are people who don’t approve of my project, but far more people have been accepting of it. And I think that that is because I went in there with an open mind, really trying to understand this incredibly influential book as opposed to going in with an agenda.
ANDELMAN: Now, as we’re talking, the book hasn’t officially gone on sale yet.
ANDELMAN: There’re a few things ahead of us that you don’t know what’s going to happen. But what would surprise you in the months to come as far as the acceptance of the book goes? Would it be, if this hasn’t already happened, would it be if someone wanted to option the book as a movie, would that surprise you? Before you answer that, I’m thinking also you write about going into a Bible bookstore in Manhattan where there was a guy there who was real mellow and real calm. Would it surprise you to walk by there one day in the coming months and see the book in the window, for example?
JACOBS: As for the first question, it actually was already optioned as a screenplay by Paramount.
ANDELMAN: Good for you.
JACOBS: It was actually quite a bizarre process because we optioned the idea, and they wrote the screenplay simultaneously as I was writing the book. And the guy who wrote the screenplay actually finished his screenplay before I finished my book. So I want us to get a hold of the screenplay and see how my year ended. But it’s in development, and things are looking good, but you never know with Hollywood. And as for the bookstore, it is interesting. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback so far from evangelical Christians who, I don’t agree with a lot of what they say, but I did try to explore their point of view, and they seem to be interested. So I’m hoping the book will appeal to everyone from the Christopher Hitchens-type atheists to the Orthodox Jews, but we’ll see.
ANDELMAN: Are you now or do you see yourself becoming a regular at either temple or church at some point?
JACOBS: Well, I started the year as an agnostic and, by the end of the year, I don’t want to give away the ending. By the end of the year, I’m still agnostic, but I call myself a reverent agnostic. It’s actually a term a minister friend of mine came up with because, whether or not there’s a God, I do believe there’s something to the idea of sacredness and that rituals can be sacred and the Sabbath can be sacred, and there’s an importance to that, whether or not God exists.
ANDELMAN: So you didn’t come back and decide that you wanted to be Jewish, something you had not been really beforehand.
JACOBS: Well, I actually am a little more committed than I was. My kid is going to a Jewish school for the first couple of years. I don’t think he’ll continue in a Jewish school the whole way, but it happens to be a block away from our house so that helps. And I like some of the rituals, the Seder, and other things which I just didn’t have when I was growing up.
ANDELMAN: A.J., how did this book, the research and preparation for this book, compare to The Know-It-All in which you read the entire encyclopedia?
JACOBS: The Know-It-All was definitely an intellectual Everest because I had to read 33,000 pages and 44 million words. And not every single word was fascinating. So, nothing against the Portuguese, but the 25 pages on Portuguese literature, I could’ve done without. So it was a very challenging year, but I think that the Bible was more of a challenge because it affected every single part of my life. So it affected the way I ate, the way I talked, the way I thought, the way I touched my wife. It was a full immersion experiment.
ANDELMAN: How do you follow this? To the magazine, of course, you’ve set yourself up as the go-to guy for interviewing the hottest actresses and, with the books, you’re the go-to guy for time intensive big projects. What do you do next?
JACOBS: I know. I’m trying to think. My wife thinks I should try eating at every restaurant in New York City. My brother-in-law thinks I should become a eunuch for a year, but I don’t know if that can be a year long project. It’s sort of a lifetime commitment.
ANDELMAN: That’s the brother-in-law?
ANDELMAN: Yeah, that figures, doesn’t it?
JACOBS: Yeah. He thinks that would be a good idea. He thinks I have enough kids. I have some ideas, but I haven’t settled on one yet. But I do love the genre, the immersion genre or whatever you want to call it. I just love living these things, and I love reading other people’s books about it cause I think it’s like a memoir with added value. You get to look at someone’s life, but you also get a peek at this fascinating topic.
ANDELMAN: Well, it seems like you have a pretty good gig in balancing the occasional book with the magazine visibility and obviously the hot babes. So I have to say I’m sure I’m not the only guy in the business who’s very envious of what you do. But I really enjoyed the book. I’m really glad we had time to talk today.
JACOBS: Oh, I had a great time. Thanks, Bob. And envying is a sin, of course.