I first heard of People of the Book back in November or December of last year, through HRH who was reading it at the time. When she had explained the plot to me one evening, I was frankly unimpressed. Sounds like a Historian copycat, I remember saying to myself, and brushed it off.
Three weeks ago, I found myself in a pinch. I was craving a book to read, but I was tired of Sherlock Holmes (which I had been reading for a couple weeks straight), and all the rest of my books were sitting in paper bags towards the back of a very chaotic living room (compliments of being in mid-move). HRH came to my rescue, with some books from her library, which had not yet been packed up. People of the Book was one of the several she suggested. Although I had brushed it aside all those months ago, I was desperate, and desperation is a funny thing. I expressed my thanks, took the book, and began to read it.
I liked the book almost from the start — which certainly surprised me, because I was so set on disliking the book. I wrote this in my journal the day after:
I am nearly halfway done with People of the Book, and all I can say at this point is, “Wow.” Brooks is a good writer, and I wish I could write down all the well-put and clever phrases that caught my attention. […]
I do. I really wish I could copy down all the phrases and descriptions that I thought were particularly striking. But I don’t think it could be possible, without copying the bulk of the book into my journal. Brooks’ writing is so descriptive, and rich in imagery and emotion.
Here is one good (albeit, unpleasant) example:
The young man spoke with difficulty. When they had unscrewed the gag and pulled the metal bulb from his mouth, four fractured teeth had gone with it. His lips were torn at each corner, and when he opened them to speak, a fresh spurt of blood trickled down his chin and dripped onto his stained smock.
You see what I mean? So vivid and emotive. You can’t help but be pulled into the world of each character: to see what they see, and feel what they feel. (That chapter, by the way, was the hardest to read. Wow, the Spanish Inquisition was no joke.)
The story is, for lack of a less clichéd word, rivetting. As with The Historian, the thrill of the story lies primarily in the story’s capacity for instruction (namely, world history), and for spiriting me away to exotic locales, such as Venice, Bosnia, and Vienna. Reading the book is like taking a trip to the parts of the world that I have never been to, and taking part in work that I want to do but cannot because I lack the knowledge and the credentials necessary.
In hindsight, I should have said “the thrill of the story lies in part in etc. etc.” As much as I enjoyed the history lessons and the vicarious traveling, what I liked most of all about the book was its focus on the relationship between books and people.
People of the Book is not so much a story about the Sarajevo Haggedah, but about the characters who brought it to life, who handled it, and who ultimately preserved it. The story is about their lives, their struggles and fears, their hopes and desires, and how their stories intertwined with that of the Haggedah’s. What captivated me was how ordinary these characters are, and how none of them sought to be a part of something big and famous and world-shaking. And yet, through their seemingly ordinary actions, their courage, and a generous dash of fate, they not only managed to preserve the Haggedah but unwittingly left their marks — their memories, their stories — in the codex. In a way, the characters became the Haggedah. And likewise, the Haggedah became them, as a repository of memories and lives, and deaths. Perhaps that is why books are so precious to me: because they withstand time in a way that humans cannot. And yet that imperviousness is so fragile, and so dependent upon the next generation of people.