With the release of The Lost Book of Moses: The Search for the World’s Oldest Bible from HarperCollins tomorrow, author Chanan Tigay is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
There’s an old joke that goes something like this: Gentiles leave, but never say goodbye; Jews say goodbye, but never leave. When it comes to Jews and their books, at least, I think there’s some truth here.
Indeed, among the aspects of Jewish tradition that most appeal to me is our tendency to read the same books over and over — and over. We read the entire Torah through once each year. And when we finish, we don’t waste a single moment — as soon as Deuteronomy’s done, we roll immediately back to “In the beginning.” Tradition wants us always to be in the middle of a good book. Last month we read Esther twice. This month we’ll do the same with the Haggadah. Eicha, or Lamentations: once a year. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes: once a year. Song of Songs: once a year (unless you go to one of those shuls that reads it once a week).
As a writer, this repetitive reading appeals to me. Indeed, there are a number of books I return to year-in, year-out for inspiration, instruction, or pure enjoyment. My familiarity with them offers a great sense of well-being as I read and re-read. Opening their pages for the umpteenth time, these books make me feel like I’ve come home. “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it,” Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) tells us of the Torah. “Everything” is not to be found in the books that I turn over and over. Still, with each turn, I feel that I gain some new insight. If I’m stuck in my own writing, they may offer a path forward. If I’m spent, they may inspire. If I’ve already seen that day’s Sports Center twice, they offer entertainment.
They’re not all Jewish books per se. But the act of reading and re-reading them feels to me profoundly Jewish. And so: my Top 5 Books for Re-Reading here, in no particular order:
Barney’s Version: This is Mordecai Richler’s last, and (to my mind) best novel. Cranky, funny, inventive, touching, hockey-obsessed (of course), and did I say funny? Richler seems always to be left out when critics invoke the pantheon of great twentieth-century North American Jewish writers. I can’t understand it. To my mind he’s at, or near, the very top. It’s arguable, of course. But for me, that list should include Richler, along with Roth, Ozick, Malamud, Bellow, and Paley.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Katherine Boo’s real-life portrait of life in a Mumbai slum is so psychologically astute that, to use a backhanded compliment I hate, it reads just like a novel. And it’s not just beautiful and perceptive: it changed the way I think about poverty.
Among the Thugs: Bill Buford’s harrowing and hilarious account of his years infiltrating England’s soccer hooligans. There is no more perceptive writer on matters of mob violence and lager, athletic spectacle and gastric heroism — and none funnier. And his sentences: no one else writes sentences like these, so alive the pages crackle. Buford is sui generis, a term most of the characters in this book would not know.
Holy Days: In this powerful nonfiction tale about life inside the ultra-Orthodox community, Lis Harris writes with deep insight, keen observation, and sly humor about what was, when the project began, a world with which she was deeply unfamiliar. Harris serves as the reader’s proxy, alternately receptive and skeptical — and riding shotgun on her journey is as enlightening as it is entertaining.
The Lost City of Z: David Grann is a top-notch reporter and a dynamic writer, but above all, he’s a storyteller of the first order. Whether he’s writing about a man (wrongly?) convicted of arson, an art sleuth, or, as in this book, the search for a mythical Amazonian city, you simply can’t not be interested. Like the fearsome animals that lurk in rivers forged by the book’s explorers, Grann yanks you in and never lets go.
Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.
Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. Born in Jerusalem, Tigay holds degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania and was a recent Investigative Reporting Fellow at UC Berkeley. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.