About 10 years ago Grove Atlantic Press published a series of books called Books That Changed the World. By enlisting established writers and other subject matter experts to write a brief “biography” of some of history’s most seminal books, Grove Atlantic produced a nice line of books devoted to the West’s most significant works. With Karen Armstrong writing about the Bible, Christopher Hitchens discussing Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Bruce Lawrence weighing in on the Quran, how could any lover of history, comparative religion or bibliophile not fall in love with a series like this.
Late last year, I learned W. W. Norton & Company recently published a book by Adam Kirsch in which he took Grove Atlantic Press’ Books That Changed the World concept and applied it to the great works of Judaism. When I discovered my public library recently purchased a copy I immediately put it on reserve and before long I had my hands on a treasured copy. The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature is gifted and poet and literary critic Kirsch’s history of Judaism as seen through what he considers, and probably rightfully so, its most important books. From the Biblical books of Deuteronomy and Esther to the Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (think Fiddler on the Roof) it’s a detailed but still readable and relatively concise look at the books that profoundly shaped Jewish history.
I found The People and the Books full of fascinating and thus pleasant surprises. For instance, I never would have considered the book of Esther such a significant text, but after one takes into account the substantive issues it touches on like assimilation, civic duty and the threat of genocide, all within a very surprising secular context (it’s probably the only book in the Bible, including the Christian New Testament that rarely, if ever mentions the name of God) one quickly realizes Kirsch appreciates the book’s vital significance. While I expected to see mentioned in a book like this works by luminaries Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, Maimonides and Spinoza, my own subject matter ignorance precluded me from considering worthy of inclusion the writing of Tsenerene, whose Yiddish paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible served as one of history’s early adventures in chic-lit.
I didn’t know a lot about The People and the Books before starting it but in the end, Kirsch impressed me. (The only part of the book I didn’t like that much was portion on the Zionist fiction of Theodor Herzl.) Not only has he crafted an excellent book but my goodness the man knows his stuff. For anyone seeking quality books on Jewish history, The People and the Books should by all means be including in that reading list.