They say Spring sprung yesterday, but that Groundhog knew what was up when he turned back around and went to bed. It is drizzly and grey – the weather, my spirits and everything I have been watching and reading. (I just binge watched the entire first season of The Handmaid’s tale.) Now all I want to do is read something light- but I’m still bogged down by the ghosts of books past- so I thought what better way to put a book to rest then by writing about it. The book that completed my 2018 pages for the Winter Session was The Book Thief- I loved it, But Nazi Germany was, most would agree, not a picnic after the ordeal of Cynthia Bond’s Ruby (which I am still immersed in teaching twice a week).
My priority to focus on something lighter after finishing The Book Thief was set off track the day I collected it from the library. I had read about The Book Thief on a Pinterest book list that happened to contain almost exclusively books I had read and enjoyed- naturally catching up on the few I hadn’t read made sense. I checked my library and they had it in stock that day. As I pulled it from the shelf the distinctive metallic markings on a black spin of the book 2 to the left caught my eye. It knew this book spine well, it is on my bookshelf- well it was. One of those inhabitants that had repeatedly made the cut by virtue of making me think ‘I kind of want to read that’.
With my self proclaimed dedication to being a deliberate possessor of books- by which I mean someone who knows the worth of most of her collection because they have been read- I was obliged to take action. Thus The People of the Book by Geraldine Brookes was next to the chopping block.
The term ‘People of the book’ commonly refers to the three faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, as each hold at the center of their faiths excerpts from same written tradition. Yet even with this common heritage they are more often at odds. The idea that a book can hold divine power is awe inspiring as a religious concept- and yet, even without religious affiliation the affliction of bibliophilia is at its core recognition of the magic that can be held in a text.
Brooks uses as her center piece a real historical codex, The Sarajevo Haggadah. This codex is a rare illuminated Jewish Religious book used at passover Seders that dates back to the 1300’s. The book itself is intriguing, an illuminated Jewish text is rare because this type of artistic depiction of biblical scenes is traditionally a Christian form (Jewish art has widely been considered to have been shunned for religious reasons). Adding to the cross faith history of the text, The Sarajevo Haggadah was hidden from the Nazi’s during WWII by a muslim Cleric.
Brookes gives a wonderfully vibrant fictionalized account of the codex’s journey and the characters she imagines helped it along its destiny. The details she brings to life through her descriptions of restoring the original manuscript drew me in. It is a love affair with all of the possible ways books are so transcendental. It details the production of the written text, the creation of pigments and parchment and the dedication and practice required to complete each component. It dances with the legacy of destruction- deliberately and accidentally, through wealth and through war. The shifting values and techniques for securing and restoring old books and the research to trace the history of such artifacts. Descriptions and themes that belong in my art appreciation class, where this novel may deserve placement.
One thing annoyed me about this book tho and that was how bloody Australian it was. While I was refreshed to read an Australian voice (the German undercurrent of The Book Thief overshadowed that the author is also Australian), parts left me feeling bludgeoned by the tacky lingo. Instead of providing nuance to the book, some paragraphs felt unnecessarily jarring, as if the authors editing team decided that they needed to up the Aussie factor and randomly inserted paragraphs of densely packed outback lingo that unfortunately came across as insincere and unlikely from the supposedly well educated and well bred Sydneyite. That alone sent the book to ‘the boot box’ for me- literally the box I got my boots in that is now home to all the books that are getting the boot from my bookshelf.
I concede that putting my discard books in a box rather than get rid of them instantly is akin to giving them a reprieve and this post has made me second guess my dedication to that end for this one in particular. I will instead perhaps relocate it to my shared office and allow it to be borrowed or stolen or sit temptingly there rather than so brutally sever my connection with it over my distaste for misuse of Australian Lingo, after all, to some that would appeal.