The Greatest Story Ever Told About A Type-A Obsessive-Compulsive Living The Bible's Teachings Literally Told By A Type-A Obsessive Compulsive Living The Bible's Teachings Literally

A few years ago we had one of our epic debates that as time goes on I'm not sure what was really about, or who took what side, or why it mattered in the first place. Some things I remember well: It happened in a borrowed car on our way down to the shore. I remember it lasting from somewhere in Staten Island to somewhere along the Garden State Parkway. I remember it being very intense. And I distinctly remember registering my extreme disdain for a then-relatively new crop of "Year Of" books in which an earnest protagonist contrives to write a book about doing something idiotic for a finite period of time.

I think the first kind of book in this batch, or at least arguably the first, or at least I will argue it was the first I can think of, is Julie & Julia, which was about a lady making a Julia Child recipe each day for a year. The "Year Of" project that I'm pretty sure started the car debate was No Impact Man, about which the less said the better.

I don't know that I thought much about Year Of projects before we had our great debate, but by the end the debate my feelings had coalesced around a visceral distrust of people doing stupid shit in order to write a book. One, I think the notion that one can simply parachute into a lifestyle for a year is inherently absurd — most of the things you could imagine doing would be superficial stunts. Two, I think I reflexively react against obsessive-compulsive Type-A stunts where the point is the discipline. I don't know or care what happens to people who crave strict boundaries in order to express themselves, but it should instinctively freak people out because it's just not normal. Living without electricity may make for a solid Nightline segment, but the takeaway for most well-adjusted people probably involves turning to one's spouse or significant other and asking him or her whether they'd immediately divorce/break up with you. And then there's the pitiful dancing monkey facet of a book project that revolves around a year's worth of discomfort and/or humiliation. Jesus Christ man, be better than that.

I remembered hearing about The Year of Living Biblically when it came out. The idea seemed interesting enough — following the bible as literally as possible is a decent thought experiment, if only to underscore how absurd and/or logically incoherent following anything literally can be. So the author grows a beard, wears white, follows Old Testament dietary laws, etc., etc. He'll surely get into some pickles. But then there's the issue of having to do something for a year, because simply pointing out screwy bible passages wouldn't be much of a book. Except I'm not totally sure why it needs to be a year, or why it can't be once a month, or why not ten years, other than it's a Year Of book.

In fact the Year Of artifice is kind of a running tension throughout The Year of Living Biblically, mostly when the author visits others who are "immersed" in the world of biblical living. For the author this is all a gonzo journalism project, but for those who he seeks guidance from — people like the Amish, Orthodox Jews or Evangelical Christians — it's their entire life. At the very least it seems silly to derive any sort of wisdom from doing something for just one year. Somewhere north of that is the implicit condescension of the author deigning to do something, but just for a year — and just for a book project. Imagine a book like "My Year As A Baseball Fan." Wouldn't most of us be like, If you want to be a baseball fan, be a fan — don't bother thinking about the idea of baseball fan.

The effect is really like Semester at Sea, that mushy middle ground between a semester abroad and a six-month long cruise vacation: Sort of fun but kind of silly and not particularly rigorous sounding.

But like I said, as a thought experiment, it's not too bad — Living Biblically is more germane to the American cultural discussion than baseball fandom. Biblical living affects political discourse. Not the same for baseball fandom.

So what is it then — besides of course the not insignificant obstacle of simply wanting to hate the Year Of genre — that makes Living Biblically so fucking tedious?

Part of it is that — for me at least — the book lacks an edginess that I think is important in this masochistic endeavor. The thing actually reads like a Nightline segment. The insight after living "biblically" is pat and mushy and right down the center. He sets out to prove the Creationists wrong and ends up appreciating the impulse to live by some sort of credo beyond what most of us apparently default to. Stuff like coming up with dopey ideas for a book project perhaps. It's the kind of book I would give my son, once he's old enough to think about it, and not worry that he would learn any bad behaviors from reading it, except for maybe weird obsessive-compulsive control issues that is.

Part of it is the superficial way the author traverses through his year. Hours or days with different religious people are distilled into a page or two. The journal-like construct of "Day [X]: I did [X, Y and Z]" is not only tedious but also a format ill-suited to a coherent narrative; there's little room to compare and contrast what you've learned or discerned along the way if you're barreling through a year day by day. The daily lessons learned or epiphanies about religion come off as superficial or rushed or pat or all of the above. It also feels like he's being supremely lazy — like he clocked in each day for 500 words and by the end of the year had a book. Nothing makes you want to hate the Year Of genre like the idea that the author literally spent just one year writing it. That's a journal or a blog, not a book.

To that previous point, so much of the humor seems so . . . easy. Or thoughtless. Here is an example from a passage about how the author requested a visit from a Jehovah's Witness, and the Jehovah's Witnesses being skeptical about such a request: "Yes, I'm aware that it doesn't make much sense. It's like volunteering for jury duty or paying to see a Vin Diesel movie." I'm picking on this passage in particular because, for one, it's just not that funny. I mean, it's "funny" in the sense that, sure, jury duty and Vin Diesel movies are two profoundly unfun chores or activities, but there's a laziness in those two examples that seems too obvious to just let slip by (which is hard to do, given that most "good" writing is supposed to slip by or wash over you). It just feels like lazy writing. The kind of quip you might write while doing something else, like listening to your spouse or watching Jeopardy. See? I just did it. It's too simple to write in this format, like shuffling a deck of cards or picking your nose. And when you fall into this rut, it's hard to stop, like or Sudoku or methamphetamines. My point, in part, is that he seems like an engaging guy, but so much of the execution seems so lazy.

That's not to say that there aren't some real insights in Year of Living, it's just that those moments are dimly sketched out and lost in the typing. There's a paragraph on Page 80 that justifies the whole endeavor in a meaningful, understandable way but which is tacked on at the end of Day 47 as almost an afterthought about the meaning of Sukkot when the author feels guilty about not building a proper sukkah:

But that guilt, in turn, is relieved by this epiphany: This holiday is all about living biblically. God, if He exists, is ordering everyone — not just those with a book contract — to travel back in time and try to experience the world of the ancient Middle East. God created "immersion journalism," as my friend calls it. Maybe god approves of my project after all.

Talk about "burying the lede"! That's the introduction right there, not the Dave Barry humor about spending a year growing a beard! Religion is "immersion journalism." That's smart. But the book just seems so cobbled together that an actual personal insight gets lost in it all.

Another part of why Living seems so tedious is how much of a pussy the author comes off at times. The edict to stone sinners, for example, he sort of punts on by tossing a pebble in a grumpy man's general direction. If nothing else, Year Of martyrs are meant to suffer for our sins of wanting to see supposedly intelligent people act like buffoons. And if you're not living up to that end of the bargain, then you're getting one over on all of us who have invested precious time and limited resources on a half-assed book. In other words, you seem like a decent enough guy, but we need a real prick. Another time the author shows kindness to strangers by buying a beverage for a man standing behind him at Starbucks. When the man says that makes him feel uncomfortable, the author gets flustered and basically runs away. We needed him to engage with the man, not scurry out of there; I would scurry out of there; you would scurry out of there. The author is the one who we pay to stay and engage.

(A not-so-small additional point: More than once the author goes off on a tangent about reading some sort of online criticism of his book and feeling upset by it in some way. Usually this in the context of how he's not living "biblically" in the sense that he's vain or something. In addition to being really unbecoming, it's also kind of offensive: Look, people on Amazon spend precious time and resources reading what you have to say. If they don't like it, either don't care or write better. They've taken your body and eaten you up — Christlike! You are now a part, and maybe not an insignificant part of their lives. That's a big responsibility. Instead of pouting that they didn't like something you wrote, give thanks that they somehow included you in their lives. I know you were busy interviewing so many snake handlers and chicken swingers that it was hard to include them all, but I'm somewhat surprised this never occurred to you during any part of those 12 months; maybe if you slowed down a little that point would have been clearer. And then there's the guilt trip — oy vey! — how am I supposed to hate your book when you make such a stink about getting so worked up about criticism?)

But of course one day ABC will cancel Nightline and then there will no longer be a venue to explore Year Of projects. And the meek shall inherit the earth back from the overzealous Type A obsessive-compulsives who reduce all of human existence into an easily digestible tear-off calendar.

Posted: March 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , ,

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