November 15, 2019

The People of the Book

Ironically, “the people of the book” is an honorific that was first bestowed upon us in the Koran, where the phrase is used to describe both Jews and Christians.  Still, we have come to embrace the phrase, and the fact is that books have always played a crucial role in creating, shaping, preserving and directing the destiny of the Jewish people.

“The people of Israel were not great craftsmen, or painters, or architects,” writes Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews.  “But writing was their national habit, almost their obsession.”

Jewish civilization, in other words, is rooted in texts rather than artifacts. The Bible tells us the life story of David in abundant and shocking detail, for example, but we have only a single fragmentary inscription in stone that refers obliquely to his existence in flesh and blood.  And it is the special genius of the Jewish people that we pile text upon text — a single page of Talmud, as pictured here, consists of a fragment of Mishna framed by the interpretations offered by generation after generation of rabbis and sages.

Even in biblical antiquity, the sheer accumulation of words was seen as a problem to be solved. The Dead Scrolls, for example, contain portions of every book of the Bible except Esther, but they also include a fantastic assortment of writings that were wholly excluded from the Tanakh when it was canonized in the first century. And the world-weary ironist who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes despaired of the Jewish habit of mind that has always compelled us to put our words into writing.

“And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:12) Or, to borrow a thoroughly modern restatement of the same sentiment: “So many books, so little time!”

Yet the Jewish compulsion to write and read books simply cannot be denied. Even as we worry that the printed book may be an endangered species, the publishers of America are issuing hundreds of thousands of new titles every year.  And it is an article of conventional wisdom in the publishing business that “the people of the book” are an especially appreciative audience, a fact that sends touring authors to synagogues, Jewish libraries, and assorted Jewish communal organizations across America.

Books, as it turns out, are the stock-in-trade of the Kirsch family business. My father, Robert, was the daily book columnist of the Los Angeles Times for nearly thirty years before his death in 1980.  I have been contributing book reviews to the Times since 1968, and my son, Adam, is a book critic on the staff of The New Republic and and a contributor to many other distinguished journals, including The New Yorker and the New York Times.

Today, I am embarking on a new and exciting phase of my life’s work as a reader, writer and reviewer of books.  I will be contributing weekly book reviews to the print and online editions of The Jewish Journal, and I will be posting news and comments to the blog you are reading now on a daily basis — God willing! Mindful of the admonitions of Eccl. 12:12, my task is to single out the books that are worthy of your attention, and it’s a calling that I undertake with both pleasure and honor.