Saturday, January 3, 2015

Recent readings of various value

Last April I told here about the effort I was making to re-learn to read books. I have been more successful than I feared, and less successful than I'd hoped - sort of like most things in life.

Here and in the the posts below are comments about the books I've read since then. Feel free to tell me about important books I"m missing!

The single most important and rewarding read of the year has been... the Bible. Last year I completed one complete 7.5-year round of Daf Yomi, and decided to dedicate the daily time slot to other traditional Jewish stuff. I read Menachem Elon's magisterial "Jewish Law" and reviewed it here, Then I read volumes 1,2 & 3 of Rav Benny Lau's "Sages" series (here's the 1st volume in English). Lau writes a light and entertaining introduction to the men (and rare women) who created the Talmud. I don't know how the English translations are; the Hebrew original is informative but not deeply scholarly. Elon and Lau, to mention the two scholars cited in this paragraph, are not similar. Elon is a serious slow read, but richly rewarding. Lau is a quick read, full of interesting anecdotes and sketches of the sages, but not deep.

Having spent time reading "about", I turned back to reading an original source - and nothing is more original than the Bible. So far I've read Judges, the 1st Book of Samuel, and the first quarter of the 2nd Book of Samuel. I'm using the Daat Mikra interpretation, which is a combination of modern and also a compendium of the main traditional interpretations. I aim to do a chapter each day - sometime this works, sometimes it's too much - which means a quick read of the entire chapter, then a careful, sentence by sentence, study of the text.

I've read this part of the Bible repeatedly in the past, but this is the first time since high school where I've studied it, and the first time ever that I've done so on my own volition, simply to learn. It is, how to put this, as rewarding as can be. The Hebrew is so packed and powerful; so many everyday word combinations turn out to be Biblical; there is so much in there. Fortunately there are lots of books left (30  of them), so I'll be busy at this great task for a while, I hope.

OK, so that's the top of the list.

Then there are books I ran past and will merely mention here. Greame Simson's The Rosie Project: A Novel was a very enjoyable quick read, which gives what seemed to me a convincing look into the mind a highly functioning man with Aspergers.

Gary Shteyngart''s Little Failure: A Memoir came highly recommended, perhaps too highly recommended, as my expectations were accordingly high. Shteyngart tells the story of how his Russian Jewish parents and he moved from Leningrad to New York in the 1970s, and the twisted path he then followed before becoming a successful New York author. Interesting, but a bit too harsh on his parents for my taste, and the self censure became a bit tedious after a while. Which proves, I suppose, that I wouldn't fit comfortably into New York literary intellectual circles. (I never read a full Phillip Roth book, either, nor even Saul Bellow. We all have our defects).

Daniel Gordis' Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul is interesting, but not, I suspect, really directed at someone like myself who grew up as an Israeli teenager convinced of Begin's infallibility, then a young adult gearing up to vote against him. But if you were further from the man than that, and you're interested in a readable biography of one of Israel's more important leaders, this one may well work for you.

I read Haim Be'er's newest novel, Their New Dreams (I read it in Hebrew and can't tell about the quality of the translation), which I liked. Be'er, now in his early 70s, tells the story of an Israeli man in his early 70s who is trying to write his first novel. Be'er himself has written 6 or 7 or 8 of them so that part isn't autobiographical; on the other hand, some of the mechanics of inventing a story and writing a novel may well be.

Then there are the books I reviewed in separate posts, below:

Kate Atkinson in Life After Life: A Novel and Jenny Erpeneck in The End of Days both wrote the same story from very different perspectives, and ended up with two various different books: see my review here.

Thomas Carlyle wrote one book twice, and the result is the astonishing The French Revolution: A History which I reviewed here.

And finally, I read all four volumes of Robert Caro's simply magnificent biography of Lyndon Johnson, which I will review when I find the time. Don't wait for me to do so, however, by any means: go and read them! Now! Robert A. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power; Means of Ascent; Master of the Senate; The Passage of Power


Anonymous said...

When you say you were reading the Bible, how close is the Torah to the Old Testament of the Christian Bible ? Has much been lost in translation ?

Yaacov said...

I can't say how much has been ost in translation. I expect, much, tho more in some translations than in others. WHat I can say is that reading in the original is a rich and highly rewardable experience. and, thousands of years later, the original Habrew is often more powerful than modern Hebrew, unless the modern is simply using the ancient.