Hitting the Books: 10 Thought-provoking Reads for the New Year

From Western liberalism and prisons around the world to Doris Lessing and David Grossman, here's what ten contributors to Haaretz’s weekly Hebrew books supplement will be reading this coming year.

David Bachar

1. Undeterred by boredom

Judith Rotem

It’s unbelievable, I think to myself, how I got the worst of both worlds. In the ultra-Orthodox schools I attended, I was forbidden to study (or even read) general literature. Evading the prohibition, I snuck into the library of Histadrut House in Bnei Brak, but my reading was unsmart, unguided and uncritical. I was like a hungry person who isn’t choosy about what he eats.

But neither was the gateway to the Bible fully opened to me. Every day, in “Torah” class, we delved into a few verses, sometimes only one verse, which was surrounded by dozens of commentaries, and we had to remember the interpretations of Maimonides and Abarbanel and the “Keli Yakar” and “Metsudat David” and “Metsudat Zion” and of course Rashi and “Yesod Olam.”

We managed a little more in the “Prophet” classes: Joshua-Judges, first prophets, Isaiah-Jeremiah-Ezekiel, Book of Esther and Book of Ruth, some of the minor prophets. And that was it. And just as I taught myself – later – Bialik and Tchernichovsky and Shimoni, so I opened my heart to Job and Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and Psalms. Nevertheless, here am I, a woman of my age, who has never opened the books that conclude the Bible: 1 and 2 Chronicles! How sad and frustrating to know that even if I am vouchsafed many more years, I will never manage to read all the writers (James Joyce and his friends) who glare at me accusingly from my imagined library, the one I will never get to.

“The day is short and the work is vast and the workers [me] are lazy and the master [life] is pressing,” we read in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). But this year, I promise, I will start with the books of Chronicles, even if they are boring.

Daniel Bar-On

Judith Rotem is a writer.

2. A novel approach

Tomer Persico

In the new year, I intend to read Larry Siedentop’s “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism” (2014, Penguin Books). Siedentop joins a growing crop of thinkers who, in response to the crisis of humanism and liberalism in the West, are going back to consider the origins of those ideas. For the most part, they emphasize the connections of these concepts to the monotheistic traditions: Christianity (Charles Taylor, Brad Gregory and Siedentop himself) or Judaism (Eric Nelson, for example).

Siedentop’s book is an in-depth (and very belated) development of a short, influential article he wrote in The Times Literary Supplement (1989) about the essential connection, as he sees it, between liberalism and Christianity. In it he warned that without an understanding of the roots of liberalism, it will be far more difficult to defend its values.

Siedentop’s ambition, like that of his colleagues, is overarching, and books like this must always be approached with caution. Not only is their scope astonishingly wide, it’s clear that the authors have a direction and an agenda.

These books interweave research and philosophy: This is apparently the method by which thinkers today propose an all-encompassing historical thesis – a challenge that has turned out to be quite complex since the death of Hegel and the death of metaphysics. But these are the books I’m fond of reading. They are my novels. Possibly in the future I will try my hand at writing a novel of this kind.

Dr. Tomer Persico is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at Tel Aviv University and Alma College.

3. Uncritical reading

Sharon Geva

This year I intend to reread “The Children’s Island,” by Mira Lobe, in the 1948 Hebrew translation (from German, though the book was written in this country) by the beloved Israeli author of children’s books Yemima Avidar-Tchernovitz.

I intend to read the book as I first read it some 30 years ago and as my 11-year-old son, who has just started sixth grade, will also undoubtedly read it. I intend to read the book without paying attention to the division of labor between the girls and the boys on the island, without heeding the fact that the boys are hunters gifted with a technical sense and golden hands, who wish to acquire an education; and without noticing that the girls are in charge of preparing the food and that even if they discover and invent things, their discoveries are not the result of hard work and resourcefulness, but are made incidentally.

Nor will I wonder what happened during World War II – the book’s historical setting – to the relatives of black-eyed David who remained in Russia. And I will no longer be envious of Diana, the daughter of a family of circus acrobats whose father and mother allow her to do anything, but anything, she wants. I will read without considering what psychic wounds were suffered by a 12-year-old girl who hardly attends school, is made to repeat the year three times and whose parents treat her with criminal neglect.

It’s my intention to reread “The Children’s Island” without taking into account that the most important character in the book is neither a boy nor a girl. Because, without the mother of Stanley and Thomas, the whole story would not have taken place. She tells her boys, as they are hunkered down in an English shelter during the Blitz, that America is a safe place, she allows her son to write a letter to the president of the United States and she chooses to part with her children in order to save them.

I will read without understanding why she is presented as Mrs. Morin, the nicest mother in the world, but we are never told her first name. But for all this it’s necessary to get through the third chapter, “The Voyage,” without crying, and that’s a tough task in itself.

Dr. Sharon Geva teaches history at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, and is an initiator of a project to write and expand Wikipedia articles (in Hebrew) about Israeli women.

4. Inheriting the apocalypse

Yossi Sarid

It’s true that he published his fourth novel just two months ago, but I am already waiting with tremendous curiosity for the fifth. I won’t get to read it until the day it’s printed. Because in our family we don’t show manuscripts – we barely even reveal the subject ahead of time. Not because of the evil eye, but rather because of the good eye: With so many recommendations for corrections and improvements, it’s unlikely that a book would ever see the light of day. We are very critical in our family, and don’t spare our son Yishai Sarid son the rod.

I finished Yishai’s last novel, “The Third,” in one night and called him in the morning. I am thrilled, I told him, by your daring. You assumed a particularly onerous mission. One cannot write about the third commonwealth/Temple and its destruction based only on reflections of the heart and fears. One has to show perfect command of the sources and the traditions, and ground oneself in comprehensive knowledge of Jewish studies in general. You fulfilled the mission, I said, not even your detractors will be able to ignore your achievements. And to myself I wondered: Are nightmares of apocalypse also transmitted by inheritance?

“The Third” follows “The Investigation of Captain Erez,” “Limassol” (available in English, from Europa Editions) and “Naomi’s Kindergarten” – four completely different books in content and form. In the meantime, Yishai agreed to leak to his parents that the fifth will surprise them more than all the others. No wonder, then, that we are waiting with bated breath.

Yossi Sarid, a former education minister, is a columnist for Haaretz; Yishai Sarid’s novel “The Third” was reviewed in these pages on July 24, 2015.

5. Briefing for a descent into the world

Nili Landesman

I didn’t read Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” during my turbulent youth, when it first appeared in Hebrew translation in the late 1970s, or when it was republished, in a new edition, 30 years later, by which time I had already stopped getting married and divorced, and was locked into the arrangement of a liberated woman.

If only I had delved into it during the period when I was torn between the feminist imperative to maximize independence, personality, words and career, and the obligations of being a helpmate, raising the children and keeping house – maybe I might not have felt in such distress, felt so lost and deceived. But if I hadn’t refrained from reading it before things fell apart, it’s possible that, given the greatness of the author, I might have been paralyzed when I tried my hand at writing a book.

If I had a daughter, and she’d ventured into the market to choose a man to love from here to eternity, I would have thrust the book into her hand and told her to skip the author’s preface, my dear, it’s in small print, unlike the novel itself. You’re liable to get bogged down, like I did, and that would be a pity. You can always read and enjoy the preface after you have arrived at page 595, the last one in the Hebrew edition, when heartbreak will prevent you from taking any other book to hand afterward, and your soul will seek Doris’ lucid writing.

Pay attention, my daughter: Find in the book all that will be essential for you as you form an identity and find a place in our world, which is (still) ruled by chauvinist fraudulence. The Hebrew is a bit archaic, but all the rest is totally relevant in this soul-refreshing work, which illustrates how one smart, deep and brilliant female writer trumps all the distinguished men, hands down. Oh, never mind. Maybe my granddaughter, if there will be one, will listen to me.

Nili Landesman is a writer.

6. Continental drift

Avner Shapira

“To Hell and Back,” the autobiography of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier in World War II, was published in 1949 and adapted for the screen in 1955. Murphy played himself in the movie, but before that he began to suffer from what is now known as posttraumatic stress disorder, in the wake of his combat experiences. He became addicted to sleeping pills and slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow.

There is something appallingly symbolic about this reaction of the American war hero, and it also reflects something of the collective traumatic imprint left by the catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century.

Those cataclysms will be at the heart of the forthcoming book by the British historian Ian Kershaw, which is also titled “To Hell and Back” (due out next month from Penguin Books). Following his publication of a series of resonating works about Hitler, Nazi Germany and World War II, Kershaw now takes on the history of Europe itself, between 1914 and 1949.

In the course of 624 pages, he will analyze the sequence of severe jolts that shook the Continent from the outbreak of the Great War until the years immediately following the World War II, a period he will present as “unprecedented in human history – an extraordinarily dramatic, often traumatic, and endlessly fascinating period of upheaval and transformation,” in the words of the publisher.

It will be fascinating to see whether this time, too, as was the case with a number of his previous books, Kershaw will continue to be, as he has been described by historian Anthony Beevor, “the finest sort of academic, for he combines impeccable scholarship with an admirable clarity of thought and prose.”

7. Too much life

Eilat Negev

Ted Hughes was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was also a charismatic man and beloved of women, at least two of whom took their own lives: the poet Sylvia Plath and Hughes’ Israeli paramour, Assia Gutmann, whose biography I co-wrote with my partner, Yehuda Koren.

Hughes created a private mythology and a rich world of images, and his life story is a key to understanding his poetry. However, only one biography of him – hagiographic and censored – has been produced, shortly after his death. Since then: silence.

It would be hard to find a more ideal biographer than Jonathan Bate, a professor of literature at Oxford as well as a playwright, television personality and prize-winning literary critic. In 2009, the publishing house of Faber and the poet’s widow, Carol Hughes, signed a contract with Bate to write an authorized biography, “A Life in Literature.”

Toward the end, however, those who commissioned the book felt that it contained too little literature and too much life, and canceled the contract. Bate found himself in an impossible position, but with legal backing, he decided to continue, as no one owns his memory and his insights.

“Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life,” is being published this month. It’s been 17 years since Hughes died and 52 years since Plath’s suicide, but no biography about either of them has been translated into Hebrew. I hope it will be the book by Bate.

8. Criminal justice

Nirit Ben-Ari

Only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, but one quarter of all the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in the Land of the Free. In addition, 37.6 percent of the prisoners are black, even though blacks account for only 13.2 percent of America’s population. Baz Dreisinger, a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, set out to examine the state of justice in different countries.

“Why are we looking only at America’s prison crisis, when, in so many ways, this is a crisis that we have actually exported and foisted upon the world?” Driesinger asks in the trailer to her book. “The crisis that we are facing in America, with 2.3 million incarcerated, is a crisis that other countries are facing on various scales as well.” She started in Africa – Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa – and went on to Thailand, Singapore and Australia, before heading for Jamaica and Brazil, and ending the journey in Scandinavia.

In each country, she visited prisons and met with both inmates and representatives of the systems that sent them to jail. The result is “Incarcerated Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World,” forthcoming in February 2016.

Dreisinger has a sensitive eye for wrongs, and more acutely for race-related wrongs. This was evident in her first book, “Near Black: White to Black Passing in American Culture” (2008), which is about whites who “passed” for blacks over the past century, from Jewish jazz players at the beginning of the 20th century to the rapper Eminem.

There are no data in Israel about the composition of the country’s 20,000 prison inmates, other than a statistic reported by Channel 10 to the effect that in the Ofek juvenile-detention facility, 40 percent of inmates are of Ethiopian origin. Is incarceration the only solution to crime? Dreisinger’s new book will undoubtedly offer unconventional answers.

Nirit Ben-Ari has a Ph.D. in political science from the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and writes about culture and politics.

9. Long night’s journey into day

Nurith Gertz

This year I intend to finish reading Roberto Bolano’s novel “2666” – more precisely, not the whole book, but the section about the murders, which consists of 274 pages (in the Hebrew translation), across which are scattered a thousand or more bodies of women who are murdered in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa.

I reached the fourth chapter after a delightful journey through the first three chapters, in which nothing happens the way it was supposed to happen. The plot wanders without a goal, zooms in on the quotidian and seeks the moment in which it all acquires meaning. Anyone who arrives at that moment knows that this was why he meandered through the book’s tangled byways. This is what he was looking for. This is the second floor of life, the other dimension, in which life is revealed in its full meaning.

That is, until we reach the part about the murders. Numberless homicides are committed in this section, each described in precise detail, though the murdered women remain unidentified corpses, utterly anonymous.

This section is a work of genius. It’s about the banality of atrocity and murder in a world in which the criteria for judging have disappeared. The wrong people are in jail, the police close cases and none of it rubs off on anyone. There is no connection between a crime and its punishment, between the murderers and the guilty – all are abandoned by the law, all are nameless bodies, not only the women. And even after the mystery is supposedly solved and the murderers are apprehended, the killings continue and the plot goes on wandering without a connecting thread, without logic to lead and guide it.

I can decode well the world of chaos described here. I understand the fragmented plot and the indifferent monotony of the descriptions of the murders. I understand well the greatness of this section. What I don’t understand is how to traverse these 274 pages, from rape to rape, from body to body. It’s a long journey to a nonexistent goal. It will probably take me weeks, maybe months – it’s to this journey that I intend to devote the year ahead.

Prof. Nurith Gertz is a scholar of literature.

10. Reader fleeing a message

Yuval Elbashan

This year it will happen. This year I will stop fleeing from David Grossman’s novel “To the End of the Land” (whose Hebrew title means, literally, “a woman fleeing from a message”). I bought two copies of the book. The first still resides, disconsolate and shamed, at the bottom of my bedside stack of books. The other wandered with me on one occasion to Kathmandu, where I spent almost two months and promised myself that I would read the novel come what may. Neither the murky atmosphere of Kathmandu nor the boredom brought on by the absence of electric power helped, and on my last day I dropped the book off unceremoniously at the library of Tevel B’tzedek.

This year will be different. Because in previous years I also tried and got bogged down every time. Like all those who flee, I too knew why. It was Grossman’s wish, as noted in an afterword to the book, that by writing it he would somehow protect his soldier-son Uri. That did not happen. On August 12, 2006, at the intolerable conclusion to the Second Lebanon War, Uri was killed. The many words that the father set down to protect the son were of no avail.

“After we finished sitting shivah [observing the seven-day mourning period], I went back to the book,” Grossman relates. “Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written” (translation by Jessica Cohen).

I found myself unable to listen to that echo. As one who believes (perhaps like Grossman) in the power of words to remedy fate, I could only shut my eyes in the face of their abject failure to suppress what resonates in that echo chamber so that I myself would be able to go on writing, be able to go on cloaking myself in books as a reader. To cloak myself and feel protected. So this year it will happen. The flight will end. Or not?

Attorney Yuval Elbashan is a social activist.