book by Geraldine Brooks.
blog post by Ryan. (He also reads).
People of the Book is an historical fiction novel about an ancient book restorer researching and writing a journal article about a 15th century religious text. Wait! Keep reading! Despite the preceding sentence being accurate, the book is surprisingly not boring! Rather it is suspenseful, compelling, and heart breaking in spite of the apparently dry subject matter.
The story flips back and forth from (more or less) present day as the protagonist researches this rare Jewish prayer book to epochal moments in the book’s history, and more importantly, to the human beings that ensured its survival through the ages. As I read the book, I found three things particularly striking…
One thing I couldn’t help but glean from this journey through time is an appreciation for how precious books are. I don’t mean just the reading of books and the information they contain. No, I’m talking about the actual, physical books in our hands. We take it for granted with the advent of the modern printing press, but there was a time not that long ago when books were rare, precious, and irreplaceable. Only the wealthiest could afford stacks of books, like modest ol’ I currently possess. And despite the tremendous effort in the creation of just a single one of these books, they were physically just as fragile as today. In fact, as those in power feared the books (or the information contained therein), the rarity of books made it so much easier to quash the information they held by burning. For an idea and a book to survive the ages is no small feat and at times I simply had to sit back and reflect how lucky I am to possess so many of such a rare item.
Another thing that will be thrust into your consciousness is the never ending plight of the Jewish people. Now some readers may be more acutely aware of the long history of Jews being chased from place to place amidst terrible persecution, but I think that for many of us sheltered by simple history books, this begins with the Egyptians and more or less skips ahead to the Nazi Holocaust with little bits strewn in between. And while the horror of World War II is a component of this story it also takes place amidst the ghettos of Europe, the inquisitions, and the Spanish expulsion of all Jews. More than simply mentioning these events as having happened, the book forces the reader to live them through the simple, but tragic lives of the people who experienced these tribulations first hand. As the ol’ softie, Joseph Stalin once noted, “a single death is a tragedy. A million deaths, a statistic.” As anyone who has ever visited the Holocaust Museum can attest there is a difference between reading a figure in history class and feeling the tribulations of just a single individual. This book makes the reader feel the heartbreak of several individual tragedies beneath statistics.
Which brings me to the crux of an historical fiction book in the first place. Although many of the specific names and details of the book are made up, the events depicted really did happen. To millions of people over centuries of turmoil. What any good historical fiction novel does is make the reader understand, or at least want to understand, more about actual history. By this metric, People of the Book succeeds. It succeeds where history books fail: in feeling out the human element behind factual events. As I am want to do, I went out searching for details on the events of these times to better understand and to better appreciate the very real canonical of this fictional story. The version I read even had a useful afterword to help differentiate which elements were fabricated and which are real.
I came away with more than I might glean from just fiction or just history and for that reason, this genre exists and shines.