December 13, 2017

Book review: “Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc,” edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood

Published in 1996, Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays looking at various aspects of the life and legacy of the woman who led French armies to victories in the early 15th century, was branded a sorcerer and executed by the enemy English and, five hundred years later, was declared a Catholic saint. The idea of “fresh verdicts” is that these essays examine aspects of Joan’s story that have been ignored or confused over the many centuries since her death at the English stake as a heretic. Not that Joan’s story itself has been ignored all that time. Indeed, in an opening essay, Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, asserts: No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, protofeminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, “turner-of-the-tide” of the Hundred Years War, and even Marxist liberator. Similarly, in one of the concluding essays, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees a similar pattern in the […]
December 11, 2017

Book review: “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a celebration of much that is disdained and feared by mainstream American society:   The Unknown Loss Getting Lost Being Lost Hell Solitude Tragedy Melancholy Emptiness Ruins Death Sadness Wanting Captivity The Wild Heartbreak The Void Mortality Disappearance Darkness Does that list give you nightmares? Then, A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not for you.   Three recognitions Solnit looks deeply into how various people and peoples have faced all of these seemingly negative aspects of existence and how she has faced them in her own history. And she finds in them the deepest life. The deep place where life is richest, fullest. It has to do with a recognition that, first, none of these is avoidable, and that, second, each is the yin to a yang of some seemingly positive aspect of human existence. For instance, you can’t have heartbreak without having had love. You die because you’ve been alive. Darkness is part of the texture of light. Her third recognition is that these aren’t negative at all.   The Turtle Man Near the very end of her book, Solnit tells a story of having a dream one […]
December 4, 2017

Book Review: “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach

Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting on the art work. “How are you doing, brother?” Walker asked. “I’m getting my strength,” the man said.   Long overdue book about long overlooked milestone This story is told twice in The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach, and it provides an insight into what the outdoor mural, created with direct community input, meant to African-Americans in the neighborhood, in Chicago and across the nation. The work of art, the first of its […]
November 30, 2017

Book review: “The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453” by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward is adamant in The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453: No matter what the French or several generations of modern writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, have to say, he writes: In 1428 an illiterate shepherdess of seventeen decided she had been called by God to save France and expel the English. In fact, far from driving out the English, Joan of Arc merely checked the English advance by reviving Dauphinist morale, and the [English] Regent managed to halt the counter-offensive. It was not the Maid who ended English rule in France. Seward has his own perspective as an English writer, and he does a praiseworthy job of summarizing the Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years) in 265 brisk pages in this fine 1978 history. The English of the 15th-century saw Joan as a witch since she seemed to cause things to happen that resulted in unaccountable French victories over the long-dominant English. The French saw her as a saint.   “Failed” Yet, even as Seward is trying to set the record straight as he sees it, his telling of Joan’s story over eight pages of his text is not unsympathetic. And, good historian that […]
November 28, 2017

Book Review: “The Ninth Hour” by Alice McDermott

Sister St. Saviour, a no-nonsense Catholic nun with the networking skills of Tammany Hall, stands in the near dawn at the window of a burned-out apartment in her Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 20th century. A gas explosion it was that caused the fire. One man died, Jim “Mc-something” — as he’d wanted. An Irishman who’d lost a good job as a trainman because he didn’t like bosses controlling his time. Sister St. Saviour is doing what she can to cover up the suicide, to protect his young and pregnant wife. Looking into the garbage-strewn courtyard, she is disheartened, and, then, just for a moment, she catches sight down there of what she takes to be “a man, crawling, cowering was the word, beneath the black tangle of junk and dead leaves, the new vague light just catching the perspiration on his wide brow, his shining forehead, the gleam of a tooth or an eye.”   Ghosts of actions taken, choices made Alice McDermott’s new novel The Ninth Hour is about the ghosts that haunt lives down the decades, especially in families. Ghosts, like the one in the courtyard, that seem to appear as visions, but, even more, the ghosts […]
November 17, 2017

Book review: “Riding the Rap” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard titled his 1995 novel Riding the Rap, but he might have easily called it Be Cool — a name, as it turned out, that he later gave to his 1999 sequel to Get Shorty. But it would have fit Riding the Rap well, maybe better than Riding the Rap. All through the novel, guys are saying to one another, “Be cool.” Usually because they’re not all that cool at that moment. Still, they’re guys who pride themselves on their coolness — coolness in life, and coolness in moments of stress, and coolness in the midst of violence. In the two moments of greatest violence in Leonard’s novel, there’s a character who’s been totally cool and who seems to be acting one way and then, well, goes another. This is what happens when you’re dealing with sociopaths, as colorful as they may be.   “Nothing to it” For instance, two bad guys are watching a third on a closed-circuit television screen as he walks up to a hostage they’ve taken in hopes of making a killing, financially. They think he’s going to punch the obstreperous hostage. Instead, they watch him reach under his loose shirt and pull out an […]
November 10, 2017

Book review: “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick is a mess of a book. I should have known by looking at the title and subtitle. From those, I guessed that this would be a book centering on Benedict Arnold. After all, lots of other books are out there about Washington, and Arnold was the infamous traitor of the American Revolution. Hence, the “Fate” reference. As it turns out, the book sort of centers on Arnold, a talented military leader who was self-centered in the extreme. At least, that’s how Philbrick paints him. I’m not sure I fully trust Philbrick’s reading of Arnold.   Three thirds Let me explain: In 326 pages, Valiant Ambition seems to be attempting to do too much. It covers a four-year period (1776 – 1780). About a third of the book has to do with what Arnold did during that period, and about a third with what Washington did. The other third is about other stuff going on, such as campaigns by other generals and the doings of the Continental Congress. One of the points that Philbrick seems to try to make is that Washington had many failings […]
October 30, 2017

Book review: “The Sioux Spaceman” by Andre Norton

  It’s amazing, if you think of it, how the covers of science-fiction paperbacks are so often completely misleading. This is true to some extent for paperback novels in general, but it seems to be the case most often in the sci-fi genre. I have no idea why that is. Or maybe I do.   One reason: That other species One reason may have to do with the core audience of science fiction — teenage boys and young men as well as older men who, in some part of their being, remain teenage boys or young men. These are readers who tend to be bookish and more than a little shy. That may explain why, for the most part, there’s little or no sex in the regular run of futuristic novels although this has changed somewhat in recent years. Still, even today, most sci-fi gives its primary focus to the nuts and bolts of technology, ignoring those messy things like emotions and lusts. You wouldn’t know that, however, if you judged the books by their covers. This was especially true when pulp science fiction magazines regularly portrayed a hardly clothed creature from that other species…er, that other sex…on their covers. […]
October 24, 2017

Book review: “The Adventures of Alyx” and “Picnic in Paradise” by Joanna Russ

Machine, the young man who has become Alyx’s lover, has disappeared into a hole in the snowscape, fallen into an ice chimney. He can be seen at the bottom, crumpled like a puppet with no strings. Machine is one of eight civilians on the planet of Paradise who need to go through a war zone to get from here to there, and the only way for them to do it is without using any technology — too easily traceable. Alyx, a Trans-Temporal Agent, has been assigned to move these pampered giants across a dangerous expanse without being spotted. She is from ancient Greece, nearly 4,000 years in the past. How she got to this moment around the year 3000 AD isn’t explained, like much about the story of Alyx. What’s clear is that Alyx is a runt compared with the eight civilians. Each is about seven or eight feet tall. She is, even for her time, short. Joanna Russ tells Alyx’s story — make that, stories — in her 1983 book The Adventures of Alyx which is made up of four short pieces from 1967-1970 and a stand-alone novel Picnic on Paradise from 1968.   A half century ago So […]
October 18, 2017

Book review: “History of Beauty,” edited by Umberto Eco

Consider the difficulty of those who pore through the dust and shards of earlier civilizations. You pick up a small sculpture which, to your Western eyes, seems to depict a deformed and twisted body. It looks ugly to you. But how did the people who made it perceive the sculpture? As Italian intellectual Humberto Eco writes in History of Beauty, the 2004 book he edited: Every culture has always accompanied its own concept of Beauty with its own idea of Ugliness, even though — in the case of archeological finds — it is hard to establish whether the thing portrayed was really considered ugly or not… Eco wrote the book’s introduction and nine of its 17 chapters. The other eight were written by Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele.   “Which canon, which tastes” Midway through the book, de Michele makes this point: For a painter portraying the Beauty of a body means responding to theoretical exigencies — what is Beauty and under what conditions is it knowable? — as well as practical ones — which canon, which tastes and social mores, allow us to describe a body as “beautiful”? How does the image of Beauty change over time, and how […]
October 16, 2017

Book review: “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” by Robert Alter

In this secular age, many writers striving to create literary works are uncomfortable with or antagonistic toward religion, religious faith and religious subject. For myriad reasons, faith isn’t hip. Yet, one doesn’t have to be a believer to recognize that Western literature and art have deep roots in the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament, and the story of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity in the New Testament. Every writer of the West, either directly or indirectly, creates within a cultural universe where the Bible and its ideas and its stories are major elements. Think of Adam and Eve. Think of the crucifixion. Think of Noah and the Flood. Think of the Nativity. The Bible is woven deeply into Western culture, and, when it comes to the English-speaking portion of that culture, one version — the King James Bible — has had a direct and powerful influence on some of the greatest writing in the language, particularly in the United States.   “Its clang and its flavor” As Robert Alter writes in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible: The King James Version was famously eloquent and a beautiful […]
October 9, 2017

Book review: “King Arthur” by Nick Higham

First things first: Everything we think we know about King Arthur was made up out of whole cloth. There are no historical sources for a flesh-and-blood Lancelot or Merlin or Guinevere or Round Table or Camelot or Arthur. There’s no other conclusion for me after reading Nick Higham’s clear, clean, well-reasoned 2015 biography King Arthur, part of a series of short lives of great people called Pocket GIANTS from the History Press.   “No confidence” Higham spells this out in the book’s opening chapter “The Greatness of Arthur”: King Arthur’s giant presence in our culture is assured. There is, however, something distinctive and different about him. For, while we are in a position to offer a life story, with dates, for almost all the other figures featured in the Pocket GIANTS series, and to discuss their impact on their world, we can have no confidence in any particular outline of Arthur’s life, his family connections or his deeds. We do not know precisely where he lived or when. Indeed, there is doubt as to if a real ‘King Arthur’ lived at all. There may have been numerous different Arthurs whose stories have been woven together. Or perhaps the whole ‘King […]
October 6, 2017

Book review: “Ecclesiastes” from “The Wisdom Books,” translated by Robert Alter with commentary

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. (1:14) When you look behind fantasy football, and binge-watching Game of Thrones on Netflix, and the morning commute to work, and CNN and Fox, and photos of grandchildren posted on Facebook, and weeding the garden, and Uber and Lyft, and the new blouse hanging in the closet, and Grandma’s recipe for spaghetti round steak, and the injured little finger needing minor surgery — well, it’s not a pretty sight. When you look behind life, you find death lurking in the wings. That’s not a new thought although much of modern American society is aimed at distracting us from that cold reality. We’re born to die, and that’s been a major or minor theme in much of world literature and art over the course of many millenniums. One of the most eloquent writers on this theme, someone who refuses to avert his eyes, is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).   “Most peculiar book” Written some twenty-two hundred years ago, Ecclesiastes is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word or name which […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 2 — Book review: “The Place of the Lion” by Charles Williams

T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of the novels of Charles Williams, calling them “supernatural thrillers.” These handful of novels, written between 1931 and 1945, attracted other fans, such as C.S. Lewis, author of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R. R. Tolkien, creator of the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings — both of whom became friends of Williams. All three — Williams, Lewis and Tolkien — could be termed writers of fantasies — although, depending on who is using the term and what context it’s used in, this can seem a term of denigration. I don’t mean it that way. There are light, flitty sorts of fantasy novels, but these men didn’t write that sort. They were more like the sorts of fantasy novels that have come from Neil Gaiman, the late Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore. Before you jump down my throat with protests, let me say that I recognize that Gaiman, Pratchett and Moore have produced novels that are often funny and even silly. Moore’s stories have been called absurdist, but I believe that’s because he’s an American. If he were British, they’d be fantasy. Lewis can be somewhat playful, but Tolkien and Williams are […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 3 — Book review: “Coyote Blue” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore has written a lot of comic novels in which supernatural — otherworldly — figures play havoc with the everyday, humdrum world we live in. These novels feature vampires and angels and lust lizards and various gods of violent mischief and death merchants and Jesus Christ. (The story of Jesus was told by his smart-aleck, somewhat randy childhood sidekick named Biff.) Three of his novels don’t have a supernatural figure, but they do involve giants from the world of literature and art — King Lear, Othello, Shylock and various hangers-on from the Shakespearian canon as well as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (who was an artistic giant, even if only 4-foot-eight.)   Absurd or fantasy Moore is an American, Ohio-born, and his novels have been called absurdist. If he were British, however, like Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, I suspect his books would be classed as fantasies. (There is a doctoral dissertation somewhere in this observation for anyone who would want to spend the drudge of doctoral research laughing.) I mention this because, while reading Coyote Blue, Moore’s second novel, published in 1994, I remembered a comment that Gaiman made about Pratchett (in an afterword for a new edition of […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 1 — Book review: “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Originally published in 1990, Good Omens — the novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett when both still early in their writing careers — was reissued in 2006 by the Science Fiction Book Club. It was one of 32 important sci-fi titles that the book club reissued as part of its 50th anniversary collection. This edition includes various supplements about how the book got conceived and midwifed, notably an essay by Pratchett about writing with Gaiman, and one by Gaiman about writing with Pratchett. In that latter essay, Gaiman — who went on to produce such novels as Stardust, American Gods and Coraline — had this to say about his writing partner for Good Omens: It was the way his mind worked: the urge to take it all apart, and put it back together in different ways, to see how it all fit together. It was the engine that drove Discworld [the setting for Pratchett’s enormously popular and hilariously inventive fantasy series of 41 novels] — it’s not a “what if…” or an “if only…” or even an “if this goes on…”; it was the far more subtle and dangerous “if there was really a…..what would that mean? How […]
September 4, 2017

Book review: “The ‘Book of Genesis’ – a Biography” by Ronald Hendel

Martin Luther, that flawed saint, had a lot to say about the biblical book of Genesis. His 16th-century rebellion against the Roman Catholic hierarchy also involved a revolt against the long-popular approach to the Bible, particularly Genesis, of seeing it all as an allegory. Luther, who is one of the handful of major figures in the history of Christianity, came to think that the best way to look at the Scripture was to try to understand the plain sense of it. In other words, take it at face value. As bible scholar Ronald Hendel notes in his 2013 examination of the history of the Bible’s first book, The “Book of Genesis” — a Biography, Luther’s rejection of allegory was part and parcel to his repudiation of the authority of the Catholic Church. The basis of faith, Luther argued, was Scripture alone — without the mediation of theologians and church leaders. As he frequently did, the former Augustinian priest employed scatological wit in his analysis: “When I was a monk I was a master in the use of allegories. I allegorized everything…even a chamber pot.” In modern times, Bob Dylan has sung, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way […]
August 21, 2017

Book review: “Fast Falls the Night” by Julia Keller

Fast Falls the Night, the sixth of Julia Keller’s series of novels set in fictional Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is, like the others, a mystery. Its puzzle is solved in a sharp and scary twist in its final three pages. In fact, there are several abrupt and unsettling turns in the last chapter or so. But, as with the other books, the plot here is secondary to larger concerns that Keller has — questions of hope and despair, and of right and wrong.   “That kind of day” Consider this scene early in the book. Shirley Dolan has come to an unfamiliar minister to talk about two secrets she is holding close to her heart. When she tries to light a cigarette in the careworn study, the pastor tells her that smoking isn’t permitted. The pack went back into her purse. She dropped the purse on the floor, using her heel to wedge it under her chair. To keep it out of the way. Out of her reach. So that she didn’t forget and go for a cigarette all over again. It had been that kind of day. That kind of week. The kind when you forget things. Screw up. […]
August 15, 2017

Book review: “The Great Time Machine Hoax” by Keith Laumer

Well, Keith Laumer is trying to be wacky here in The Great Time Machine Hoax, but the laughs are pretty tepid. So’s the imagination. Oh, the 1964 novel is interesting enough as a cultural artifact since it deals with speculations from that time in a story about a huge, self-aware computer (embodied in a beautiful [and naked] “girl”) and glitches relating to time travel and a future culture of mind over matter and a past culture under the sway of a circus operator and an all-male community of back-to-nature men who, as portrayed in the book, don’t appear to be gay but also don’t seem to miss the presence of women. That’s a lot of storylines for a 210-page novel, and Laumer doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.   “The shrill cries of social injustice” The “hoax” of the title, for instance, isn’t really a hoax, but more of a miscommunication. The time machine aspect of the story permits Laumer to send his main character Chester W. Chester here and there through history and the future and alternatives thereof.  Each landing place has its own story, but none of the stories is that compelling, and they bear […]
August 7, 2017

Book review: “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” by Bruce B. Lawrence

For Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God, given directly to Muhammad at the start of the 7th century AD by the Archangel Michael in oral messages in Arabic that the prophet — the last prophet — would repeat for his followers. Only later were these words written down in 6,236 verses in 114 suras, also called chapters or signs. For Islam, the Qur’an is untranslatable. This, writes Bruce B. Lawrence, is why so many translations of the sacred book include, often in the title or in a subtitle, such words as “the meaning of…” or “an interpretation of…” or “an explanation of…” Lawrence, a religion professor at Duke University, notes in his new book “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” that all translations are something other than the original work, an effort to communicate and approximate the source. “Translation is hard work, never more so than when translating a scripture from its original language into another,” he writes. “To ponder the meaning of esoteric words is to explore the signs of other realities and then render them into their lyrical equivalents.” Citified life and desert life An Englishman, Robert of Kenton, created in 1143 a Latin translation […]
August 4, 2017

Book review: “Botticelli — Images of Love and Spring” by Frank Zollner

It’s difficult to know how 15th century Italians experienced the paintings of Sandro Botticelli. What did they see, for instance, when they looked at La Primavera, the artist’s giant 70-square-foot canvas with a bunch of male and female figures, one of which has a vine coming out of her mouth? What was the message or messages that Botticelli was sending? What was the message or messages that his patrons were paying him to convey? Those are the sort of questions that German art historian Frank Zollner sets out to answer in the 1998 book Botticelli: Images of Love and Spring. (This is one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and 2007 by Prestel. Others include Arabian Nights: Four Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, art by Marc Chagall, text by Richard Francis Burton, and Titian: Nymph and Shepherd by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis.) Zollner parses La Primavera as well as The Birth of Venus, Mars and Venus, Minerva and the Centaur and two of the Villa Lemmi frescoes: Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented to the Liberal Arts and Giovanna Albizzi, Venus and the Three Graces. And it’s hard to imagine […]
August 1, 2017

Book review: “The Defiant Agents” by Andre Norton

What’s striking about Andre Norton’s 1962 novel The Defiant Agents is how political and moral it is. Norton was a writer of adventure novels, cranking out an average of about three a year during her 70-year career as a novelist for a total of more than 200.  (She died at the age of 93 in 2005.) She specialized in science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.  Her usual goal wasn’t to make political commentary the way, say, George Orwell did in 1984. The Defiant Agents is the third book in what came to be called the Time Traders series which began in 1958 with The Time Traders and continued in 1959 with Galactic Derelict.  Although both books pitted American agents against the menacing Reds of the Soviet Union, it was just the usual white hat/black hat dichotomy.     Political and moral reasons Here, though, in the midst of the adventure in The Defiant Agents, Norton is making clear and direct commentary on the daily headlines of her era — the headlines dealing with the threat, seemingly unavoidable, of nuclear weapons. The title is a hint.  The agents in the book are defiant for political and moral reasons. Perhaps […]
July 24, 2017

Book review: “Bite Me: A Love Story” by Christopher Moore

If you’ve read the first two books in Christopher Moore’s (so far) trilogy of comic novels about vampires — Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story (1995) and You Suck: A Love Story (2007) — you may be tempted to skip the first chapter of Bite Me: A Love Story (2010). Those initial 18 pages recap, for anyone just coming in from the cold, what happened during the two-month period covered in the first two books. So, yeah, life is short, and you may say to yourself, “I don’t need no recap.” You’re wrong. Well, you may not need a recap, but you really, really want to read this one because it’s spectacularly hilarious, coming, as it does, from the mind and journal of 16-year-old Abby Normal (real name: Allison Green}, that Goth girl from the earlier two books, the self-proclaimed Emergency Backup Mistress of the Greater Bay Area Night and a tortured soul in constant denial about her deep-seated perkiness.   Her churning brain In her own inimitably brash and, in its way, innocent style, Abby recounts the complicated doings in the earlier books and makes constant asides about whatever enters her ever-churning brain. For instance, (in the first book [parenthetical […]
July 19, 2017

Book review: “Joan of Arc: A Self-Portrait,” compiled by Willard Trask

As Willard Trask notes in the Foreword to his 1936 book Joan of Arc: A Self-Portrait, we know the Catholic saint and liberator of France today — 600 years after she was burned at the stake — in a deep and telling and very unusual way. That’s because her actual words and phrases were captured by clerks in two voluminous court records. The first was from her rigged heresy trial. The second was from her nullification trial, held a quarter of a century after her martyrdom at the hands of the English and their allies. The record of the trail contains Joan’s responses to the prosecutors and judges, and the two records hold the recollections of her contemporaries regarding what she said to them or in their hearing during her short 19-year-long life. Trask writes: The possession of these documents places us in an unique position with respect to Joan: we can hear her speak. We have not only what she would tell us, but her very words, in a way that we cannot be sure we have the words even of those who live for us chiefly in what they have spoken — Socrates, say, or Saint Francis. The […]
July 17, 2017

Book review: “The “Dead Sea Scrolls”: A Biography” by John J. Collins

The discovery of 2,000-year-old Biblical and other religious scrolls in a cave near Jericho, just west of the Dead Sea, in 1947, caused a sensation. The excitement only grew as other caves with other ancient writings were found over the next decade. By 1956, some nine hundred documents — some full manuscripts, many only fragments — had been located. Together, they were called the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls may seem to be an unlikely candidate for inclusion in a series on “biographies” of books. The Scrolls are not in fact one book, but a miscellaneous collection of writings…written mostly in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and a small number in Greek. They date from the last two centuries [BC} and the first century [AD]. So writes John J. Collins, a Yale University expert on the Scrolls, in the preface to The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, one of 15 books published so far in the delightful Princeton University Press series called Lives of Great Religious Books. Among the spiritual classics that have already been examined in the series are The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Bhagavad Gita, as well as Mere Christianity by C. S. […]