Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Review of People of the Book (Or, Why I Hate the Kindle)

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

Published by Viking Adult

4 Out of 5 Stars  

Brooks's novel is a fictionalized account of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish religious text noteworthy for its inclusion of an illuminated manuscript and for its survival through turmoil and the hostility towards Jews that has erupted time and again over the centuries in Europe and Eastern Europe. The novel is told from the perspective of Hanna Heath, an expert in book restoration, who is called in to restore the text for display. While working on the book, Hanna finds a few curiosities that she keeps and carefully labels: a butterfly wing, a small sample of some wine stained pages, salt crystals, a white hair, and the notation of some missing decorative clasps. As Hanna investigates each of these items and their origins to gain insight into the Haggadah's past, the reader is presented with the story of each noteworthy item in its own stand alone chapter (stories that Hanna herself can never learn as the evidence she finds only provides her with a basis for conjecture and hypothesis). Each story is unique and not necessarily connected to the others. While the novel has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, it's a far cry from Robert Langdon's action-adventure chase through Europe in pursuit of an explosive secret that might change religion as we know it. Instead, the pacing is slower--the pacing of a scholar motivated by the desire to simply know, even if definitive answers aren't available. And, though the novel explores the nature of Jewish/Muslim/Christian relationships throughout the ages, it doesn't seek to lecture about morality or about what one should (or should not) believe.

Despite enjoying it, I will admit that People of the Book has some flaws. The story of Hanna Heath and her strained relationship with her ultra-feminist, professional mother is cliched and not given enough room to become a realistic exploration of a such a complicated relationship. In addition, a few plot points are contrived, but I can forgive that simply because the book appealed to the book lover in me, which is a nice segue way into . . . WHY I HATE THE KINDLE (and all other eReader devices).

First off, don't lecture me about how this is the future and I need to embrace it. If you own a Kindle, fine. Enjoy. I'm not suggesting that the privilege be taken away from you. However, I'll not be tempted by the siren song of fashionable technology. I love books. I love the way they feel. I like physically seeing the progress I've made as I turn page after page. I love the cover art. I love how books look on a shelf (in home decorating magazines, I delight in trying to identify the books on the shelves of well-appointed dens and studies). I like to select which books are going on vacation with me, agonizing over which ones might suit my mood. And, when I see someone reading a book, I will often become a creepy Peeping Tom of sorts as I try to catch a glimpse of the book cover so I can see what they're reading. I judge you by what book you're reading--if you're reading Neil Gaiman, I want to know you; conversely, if you're reading Twilight, I may be silently hoping that you get to join the undead (but in a more permanent dead sort of way). So much of that is lost with an eReader. And, after reading People of the Book, I'm aware of how much history can be lost. Not just the tiny fragments that get wedged into the bindings and between the pages, but the history of the people who owned and cherished the book. A world where physical books become obsolete and everyone has an entire library on one portable reading device is also a frightening possibility. How easy then for the next dictator to destroy our beloved texts. Smash one eReader and hundreds, thousands of books are permanently lost--far more efficient than book burnings. It's the impermanence of it all that scares me. Not only that, I think that obsession with books, recognizing and identifying with others because you notice the Christopher Moore font on the book cover or the tell-tell cover art of a Tim O'Brien paperback, helps create a reading community that we're connected to and a part of. How many chance encounters, spontaneous conversations, or just the simple nod of respect to complete strangers with whom we briefly feel connected when we realize we're reading the same author on the same bus--how many of those moments are lost when we're all carrying around the same reading device that indicates no individuality or reading preference to those around us? Will we feel as open to asking a complete stranger, "What are you reading?" Obviously, not all books are as important as the Haggadah, but I like to think that we all cherish our own quaint libraries and someday perhaps they will tell the world about who we were.


  1. "It's the impermanence of it all that scares me."

    Impermanence, indeed. Did you know that according to Amazon you are leasing ebooks from them, not buying, and they reserve the right to zap any ebook "purchased" from their store from your Kindle without permission, or warning, AND without reimbursement?

    I love my Kobo, but you make beautiful sense about what we'd be losing if we let the print book die.

    1. That's one of the many drawbacks I see with some e-readers. As long as I hold a real book in my grubby little hands, I'm at least assured that I own it!

      I wrote this back when e-readers first came out and I was worried about the future of physical books. I still am, but not as much. And I can see where e-readers can be useful (especially for those who have libraries that support them, have difficulty reading small print, or travel a lot), but, for me, nothing will ever replace the perfection of a physical book.