Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks

This book is, quite simply, a story about a book. If you are a book lover, you'll be likely to find the fictionalized account of the Sarajevo Haggadah's history intriguing. It is a real book, and this story is based on the story of that illuminated Jewish text that managed to survive more than 650 years of discrimination against the Hebrew people, while remaining relatively intact.

I found my copy at a thrift shop (as per usual) and began reading. It had never occurred to me at the time that manuscripts like the Sarajevo Haggadah would merit body guards, as is described in the first chapters of the story. But when you consider a priceless book of original artwork and religious significance almost 700 years old, I gather that it would be akin to protecting "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci. Since I've read this book, I haven't thought of books in the same light as I previously had, as mere entertainment and enlightenment. Books, scrolls, and manuscripts have the utmost significance to our history as portals to different periods of time, in addition to letting the dead "talk". When we burn (or throw away) a book, regardless of how many others may be out there (excepting encyclopedias), that person's "voice" grows fainter, and when it comes down to it, we're disrespecting the dead. Not that I wouldn't strongly consider burning a copy of Hilter's awful autobiography if I found one somewhere, but it too, has a reason for being still in print. The reason? Revealing the charisma that can sometimes be cloyingly attached to an egregious soul.

The Plot:
Hanna Heath is a rare book expert, who is given the task of restoring and preserving the Sarajevo Haggadah. While she cleans it with painstaking detail, she comes upon clues of its past: an insect wing, wine stains, salt, and a hair, beginning to unravel its unlikely past, and revealing how it survived the years of persecution against its people.

The way the book is written is like this: when Hanna finds a clue, the author gives a vignette of the people who owned or were around the book during that time. I truly appreciated the way it was told, but it may be frustrating to certain readers who want to know more about a select snippet, or the characters in the scene.

My first impressions of the book had been that it would perhaps be good, but after reading it, I really knew it was something special. It was a book that made me consider what books truly are, and how we, as owners of books, are so lucky to be able to hoard them and protect them so future generations might be able to read them. I think of my grandmother, who died when I was nine, and left me her tattered copy of Gone With the Wind, which had been her favorite book, and when I read it at fourteen, the feeling of really getting her. We never had a sense of closeness, but upon reading the book, I understood much more about her than I had considered previously.

Books have a way of telling about their owners, whether the clue is a name just inside, or a forgotten bookmark left to tell of where the book was bought. After reading this book, I stopped throwing out the bookmarks and erasing the names (of people or book stores) within copies of books I picked up at the thrift shop, choosing to leave them with the book for future generations to puzzle out, if they should wish to.

People of the Book is one of my favorite historical tales, because it covers a lot of history and a lot about books, and also makes you wonder about what books mean to you. While it isn't a five-star read, I highly recommend it for book and history lovers who don't mind a cohesive but separate series of stories about one book, wrapped in a contemporary tale.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars for a solid story of a book and its people.

Content: Violence, but little else to object to. Intended for adults, but I read it younger. Ages 16+.

Page Count: 372 in the paperback edition


  1. We're reading Geraldine Brooks for my Lit Collective Online Reading Retreat group on Goodreads and this one is one of our selections. I have been looking forward to reading this one for years.

    Fantastic review!

    1. Thanks, Michelle! This is a book I could talk about for hours, because of its insights into 650 years of history and how we think about/treat books. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.


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