Friday, June 22, 2012

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

I'm surprised I hadn't read this book sooner. I remember seeing it come and go at the library where I worked, but I never picked it up. I assumed it was a book about religion and missionaries and conversions - a poor assumption. I wish I had taken the time to read the back cover. This time I did pick it up because it was on the staff recommendation shelf (a feature at libraries I happen to really appreciate). (Thanks whoever Meagan is!)

This book is a fascinating, often heartbreaking, historical mystery surrounding the Sarajevo Haggadah, filled with fantastic, brave-faced women, as well as men. Being a book about a Jewish text, the book does deal a lot with religion and religious conflict (so my initial assumptions weren't completely off-base). I had no idea that there was such a long history of antisemitism. People have been unable to get along and killing one another over religious differences for centuries, I just didn't know the specifics of it. But perhaps even more striking is the protective relationships between Muslims and Jews, which is carried throughout the centuries in this novel. The stories of personal struggle and reluctant bravery in the face of death as a result of religious persecution are incredible. Each character struggles with their own religion/religious identity in the face of society-at-large. Brooks is an excellent storyteller and creates a cohesive story from fragments of history, all found in the Sarajevo Haggadah by art conservator Hanna Heath.

On a related note, is book binding still an art? Conservators must still be in demand for the World's ancient texts; but does the world still have craftsman book binders? In the world of self-published ebooks, it feels like it's probably an ancient and near-lost, if not entirely lost, art. I understand the need for progress, but I don't want to live in a world of self-published ebooks. I want authors with editors and agents and publishers and real book binders (although, I don't know that I ever have lived in that world.). I suppose, on the one hand, it's an impractical art, but I wonder if it is still practiced. It must be, somewhere.

One small editorial issue I have with this book is the chapters. The book begins with numbered chapters and abandons them for sections. Why bother to have chapters at all?

I loved being taken through the pages of history by Hanna and her curiosity and skill. Her own personal story of strength and change sits nicely within that of the haggadah. I recommend this book for anyone interested in history, the art of the book, religion, travel, or resilient characters.

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