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Book Review – People of the Book

August 16, 2009

One of the hardest parts of the summer residency for me was having to forego reading for pleasure while I started on my coursework. My family went to the shore four days after I got home from boot camp, and my suitcase had five books in it. I wasn’t sure if I could finish all of them, but I was certainly going to do my best. While most of my choices were “mind candy”, perfect for beach reading, two of the books were serious novels. One of those stands out as my favorite, and the timing of my reading it couldn’t be better.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was a great read. I had checked it out of the library in May, only to be unable to finish it in my 3-week loan period. I found myself unable to renew it. A good friend loaned me her copy, and I’ve had it sitting on my nightstand for all these months. Having enjoyed Brooks’s previous two novels March and Year of Wonders, this was the first book I read on vacation.

The book centers on the Sarajevo Hagaddah, a 500 year old Jewish prayer book that has defied the odds and survived warfare, plague, and censorship. When the book resurfaces in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, rare book expert Hannah Heath is called in to preserve the book. Interspersed with the modern struggles Hannah goes through in her work with the Hagaddah, the reader is treated to the historical background of the book and how it came to be. Brooks weaves her tale very seamlessly, and her attention to historical detail is amazing. The discussion of religion is relevant in today’s world, as Brooks discusses Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Times of peace and tolerance are juxtaposed to darker periods of history, such as the Spanish Inquisition and World War II.

This book also had special meaning for me as a library student. The dedication of the book is “For the librarians”. One of the main characters of the book is Ozren Karaman, who was chief librarian of the National Museum and also the “kustos” (or caretaker) of the Hagaddah. He saved the book during a bombing of the library, and hid the book to ensure its survival. During her investigation of the book and its contents, Hannah stumbles across another librarian, Serif Kamal, who saved the Hagaddah during World War II. When she finds out this librarian was ultimately jailed because of his work for diversity and truth, she is incredulous that “just a librarian” would be jailed because of his actions.

The accounts of the Hagaddah’s rescues had some pertinence to one of my courses at bootcamp this summer, IST511 Introduction to Libraries and Information Professions. One of the aspects we learned about was book preservation and rare book collections. We had the privilege of hearing Dr. Lavender speak about some of the rare books in Byrd Library’s Rare Book collection. He referred to one of the books as his “fire book”, the book he would run for first if there were a fire. It was a book that at one time belonged to Queen Elizabeth I, and it was amazing to see. I remember being amazed by the book itself, but the meaning behind his statement didn’t really hit full force until I was reading People of the Book. I would guess that many books that reside in special or rare collections are here through the foresight and sometimes courage of librarians.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially anyone interested in rare books, history, or the judeo-christian-islamic relations.

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