People of the Book

From The Baltimore Sun

When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I worked at their digital conversion unit. Between the many pages I quality checked for the Google Book Project and the Cohen AIDS archive, I also spent hours numbering Islamic manuscripts for digitization. These are the most beautiful books I have ever worked with; the script was like art itself but the borders were the true works of art and the occasional picture, gilded with gold was truly spectacular to see. Most were not decorated, in fact as I recall, many were math texts but there were a few that were so beautiful they could take your breath away.

Geraldine Brooks’ novel, People of the Book, tells the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book used at Passover. This is a real book with its own storied history but Brooks takes the book and creates a (highly) fictionalized history of it, following the book from the days of the Spanish Inquisition to the Venice of Carnivale to the mountains of Bosnia as the conservator working on the book follows the few clues these places have left behind on its pages and binding: missing clasps, wine stains, a grain of sea salt. As a reader, we of course always know more than the conservator in the book. She cannot know the whole story as Brooks presents it to the reader, she’ll never know the names or reasons behind her clues but we do in the end and she at least has parts of the story.

The premise for the book is fascinating, telling the history of a book through the people who have owned it, protected it, and even tried to destroy it. The story was so much stronger in the historical chapters that I skimmed most of the modern shell story. The conservator, Hanna, is distant, abrasive and unlikable. She is easy to skim past to get to the next chapter in the haggadah’s history. I particualrly liked the last story of the book, where its famous illumination drawings came from and how they ended up in a Jewish prayer book.

Also, the book celebrates the many ways in which the stories of Christians, Jews and Muslims cross paths over time. It shows a world were these cultures once lived in harmony and then uneasy peace and then in all out war. However, Brooks’ idea of the book’s story, that it was illustrated by a Muslim woman in the house of a Jewish doctor, scripted by a Spanish Jew on the eve of the expulsion, saved by an alcoholic Jewish-born Catholic priest in Venice, rebound in Vienna and then somehow survives World War II in the mountains of Bosnia before rescue again as war broke out in Sarajevo, is the story of all three cultures as they struggled to keep up with the world around them, to adjust or fight back as needed against forces out of their control. The strength of one book to bring together all these cultures was impressive to see and realize that beneath all the fiction, the truth of the book’s story was just as unbelievable and miraculous.

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