One of my favorite reads in the last couple of years was A.J. Jacobs’ A Year of Living Biblically, published in late 2007. Jacobs, who admits to not being the most religious person, spent a year living as close to the Bible as possible. While it sounded like it could get out of hand real fast — at least in my opinion — I found the book did a great job of treating a touchy subject like religion well. I learned a lot and gained a sense of respect for very devout people. I’d say his book changed my mind about many things.
Suffice to say, I was excited to pick up Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, which came out this year. Roose’s book is an exploration into a semester at Liberty University, also known as Jerry Falwell’s dream evangelical liberal arts university. Roose took a semester off school from the ultra liberal Brown University to become a student at Liberty and understand who attends the school and exactly what the educational and social life is like at such a conservative institution.
Because this is a work of non-fiction, there’s not a lot to discuss plot-wise in a review. I found a lot of what Roose learned in his adventure to be entirely new to me, too. My perceptions and ideas of such a place were skewed much as Roose’s were and it was enjoyable to read about a lot of those perceptions being just flat out wrong. Perhaps it’s my background in psychology, but there is something fascinating for me in learning my ideas are actually far off the mark about things like this. Moreover, I loved seeing Roose change as a person, too. He made good friends with many people at Liberty, and I found the conclusion of his time at Liberty to be just….sweet. I won’t go into details about that aspect nor about the huge event that happened at the end of his semester which I had not even remembered to think about until he reported it.
This is a book that people who liked Jacobs’ work will like, as well as people interested in how a facility like Liberty runs [less on the administrative side and more on the social/student side]. The Unlikely Disciple is written in a journalistic style that makes it easy to skip around when parts get dull or are just not of interest to you as a reader. I appreciated that as some parts did a little dragging. Roose is respectful, attentive to detail, and does a good job of telling a story.
Throughout the book, I did have an ethical question that did not arise out of what Roose was doing. Roose admitted in the first chapter of his book that he interned for Jacobs while at Brown. Considering the time frame in which Jacobs did his experiment and published a book and the internship and subsequent experiment by Roose, it seems almost certain to me this entire story is ingenuine in its goals. I dislike speaking ill of a good story, but I do have a problem with the notion that Roose either a. did this because his mentor did it, b. did it at the suggestion of his mentor, c. got himself the book deal before embarking on the experiment, or d. some combination therein. There is a lot of discussion in the reading world about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love because she got her book deal before embarking on her life changing journey. Well, it seems to me that Roose got his book deal before deciding to do this experiment.
How geniune are the lessons then? Does it impact how you read the book? I’m curious because I really did enjoy the concept and the way the story comes together, but there is a lingering feeling of disingenuity in this book that makes me question both Roose and Jacobs and makes me a bit hesitant to want to read more from either of them. It seems more about the money than about the story, in a manner that most journalists seems to rail against.
Should we not read or promote the books? Nah, I think people will enjoy them and I enjoyed them. But there’s a point where you need to take it with a grain of salt and constantly question your author. Perhaps the real value is in enjoying the story while also being able to think critically about the source and the spin — something invaluable in navigating a world fraught with information and disinformation.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).