In Defense of Reading: Jim Lefferts Guest Posting On Books That Will Reward Your Gaze

Jim Leffert, a fellow member of perhaps the most broad-spectrum Jewish congregation in existence, Harvard Hillel’s Worship and Study Minyan, reads more than almost anyone I can think of, and writes about his voracious and small “c” catholic habit for the benefit of that congregation and on GoodReads.  His latest is below.  Winter’s coming…stock up on books.  (And no, I didn’t post this because of the mention in passing of my latest book below, but mention it he does, for which my thanks.)

If I were to weigh in, I’d add that I fully share Jim’s enthusiasm for Stone’s Trial of Socrates — perhaps more than fully, given that I didn’t feel the book slowed down at all; I found it gripping throughout.  I haven’t read the new Ian Pears, but I think I was somewhat less caught up in his Instance of the Fingerpost than Jim was.  Reading his comments below, though, makes me think I should take a second look.  And my thanks to Jim for alerting me to the Sister Pelagia stories.  I’d never heard of them, but they sound like the kind of haute beach reading I truly love.

Anyway — the point of this all is to celebrate the book any which way we can, so read, then read.

The Trial of Socrates

By I.F. Stone

So you think that Socrates is deservedly one of civilization’s culture heroes for his pioneering use of the dialectic method in philosophy and for being a martyr for philosophic inquiry when he ran afoul of the Athens city fathers, who sentenced him to death by swallowing hemlock? I.F. Stone doesn’t think so, and in this book he lays out evidence to explain why the democratic government of Athens tried and executed him. Stone may not excuse the decision to execute Socrates but he makes a case for why it happened.

Analyzing a variety of ancient sources, he demonstrates that Socrates had great contempt for Athens’ democratic form of government and continually ridiculed it to his young tutees; energetically advocated an “enlightened” rule by autocratic dictators; did little or nothing to speak out against or stand up against the dictatorial regimes that periodically took over Athens; and points out that his tutees, who were all from the aristocratic class, included two of the main dictators.

Stone also argues that had Socrates wished to, he could have persuaded the jury to give him a lesser punishment. Instead, because Socrates wanted to die, he baited the jury and goaded them into imposing this unusually severe sentence. Stone comes out swinging on the first page of this book and never lets up. He fires away: Socrates loved to poke holes in others’ reasoning to make them look stupid but did not offer a viable alternative to others’ thinking; furthermore, he didn’t take his wife and children’s well-being into consideration when he goaded his captors into making him kick the bucket. The book moves a little slowly in some places, but all in all, it offers an enlightening analysis of Greek philosophy, politics, literature, political history, and legal practices as he explicates the most memorable legal case of the 5th century B.C.E.

Molly and Me

By Gertrude Berg

Aviva Kempner’s fine documentary about Gertrude Berg, titled “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”, led me to check out Berg’s 1961 memoir. According to Kempner, Berg was an important culture hero who translated the immigrant Jewish experience into a prime time nationwide radio and later television show that lasted a quarter of a century. A creative force acknowledged as the inventor of the sitcom, Berg conceived the characters, hired the actors, and wrote every episode.

Molly and Me is a charming, entertaining, and at times poignant portrait of Berg’s immigrant family’s struggles and strivings (sort of an “All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown”), her experiences growing up at her family’s Catskills hotel, and her entry into and life in show business. Unfortunately, about 60 pages before the end, the book runs out of steam. By now, she is a famous and accomplished performer and the only suspense she offers is how much will she worry and sweat and, by her own account, torment the people around her as opening night approaches, before finding out that she is again triumphant.

It turns out that the real reason that the book sags is that Berg omits the heartbreaking story of how the blacklist claimed her co-star, Philip Loeb and led eventually to the demise of her show, despite Berg’s efforts to protect him and keep the show going. For this story, you’ll have to go to Kempner’s fine film, to Glenn Smith’s biography of Berg, or to the thinly fictionalized account offered in the film The Front, in which Loeb’s best friend Zero Mostel portrays a character based on him.

Stone’s Fall

By Iain Pears

With The Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears created a new kind of masterwork—a historical novel constructed intricately to work like clockwork, which glides sequentially from one subjective narrator to another, so that each section unveils new explanations that upend the previous narrator’s picture of the characters’ motivations and actions . In addition, this remarkable novel draws the reader deep into 17th century England’s skullduggery and political and geopolitical machinations.  A subsequent novel, The Dream of Scipio, presented three stories, spanning 15 centuries. Continuously inter-cutting from one story to another, that book intertwined the three human dramas as it brought to life the political and ideological backdrop of each story and era.

Pears’ latest novel, Stone’s Fall, is as ambitious as An Instance of the Fingerpost. Three sequential sections, each with a different narrator, piece together a story that continues from 1867 until 1910 (the sections are in reverse chronological order). The mystery to be explored (as introduced years later in the early 1950’s) is why British titan of industry John Stone plummeted from the window of his town home in 1909. Was it an accident? Suicide? Was he pushed? Stone’s alluring and mysterious widow hires a crime reporter from a London newspaper not to solve this mystery, but rather to tie up a serious loose end that is critical for unblocking the disposition of Stone’s estate. The reporter is seriously mesmerized by the widow (leading me to wonder at times if the book was going to turn out to be a remake of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but the twists and turns of their relationship merely set off the labyrinthine plot.

As if A Tale of Two Cities was insufficient, Pears gives us three—London, Paris, and Venice–plus side visits to the provinces. The book is a rich brew that includes not only the characters’ personal dramas, but also crises in the British and European financial system (in this respect, the book is a sequel to Tom Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter), industrial and technological history of the late 19th and early 20th century military industrial complex (a la Richard Powers), geopolitical machinations, scandal, skullduggery, and many other ingredients that convey a sense of time and place. At times, the characters go into overdrive in order to an ending that left me disappointed, but Stone’s Fall is an absorbing and rewarding read nonetheless.

Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockeral

By Boris Akunin

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Boris Akunin (the pseudonym of Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartishvili) has written 11 detective novels, taking place in the 19th century, which feature Russian secret agent and detective Erast Fandourin. Five of these novels have appeared in English. The present book is the third volume in a more recent series that takes place in the waning years of the Russian Empire—around 1910—and that feature an inquisitive and adventurous nun, Sister Pelagia, as the hero.

Having missed the first two installments, I am unaware of the extraordinary and tragic events that led young Polina Andreevna to take up the habit and retire to a convent in rural Zavolzhsk by the Volga River, where she serves as headmistress for the local school. In this book, however, Sister Pelagia soon leaves the monastery and travels far afield, as she seeks to solve the murder of a man believed to be Manuila, a charismatic Russian preacher and founder of a sect of Russians who want to live like Jews and travel to the Holy Land. Manuila is despised both by xenophobic and anti-Semitic elements

in Russia and by the established Jewish religious community, but the reasons for his attempted assassination are unclear. When the murdered man turns out to be a sect member who was posing as Manuila for security reasons, Sister Pelagia resolves to find the real Manuila in order to protect him from harm and to resolve the mystery of who is after him. SisterPelagia is also vexed by a vision that she has involving a cave and a red cockerel.

Sister Pelagia’s ally in her detective efforts is Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky, a public prosecutor who is himself an assimilated Jew who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Berdichevsky’s zeal to get to the bottom of this mystery is amplified by his infatuation with Sister Pelagia. As Berdichevsky pursues his leads deep into the heart of reactionary governmental and quasi-governmental circles, we encounter the political convulsions and intrigues of the time, and particularly the anti-Semitic hostility that boiled over periodically into pogroms and later, into the infamous Beiliss blood libel trial (as detailed in Maurice Samuel’s fine book, Blood Accusation). While Berdichevsky investigates in Zhitomir and St. Petersburg, Sister Pelagia, forced to flee Russia, travels to the Holy Land, where she encounters a group of Zionist Halutzim, a Palestinian Arab guide, a group of homosexuals who are re-establishing Sodom with the help of an American millionaire, and the assassin, who is determined to eliminate her and Manuila.

I was impressed by Akunin’s extensive use of material from Jewish sources throughout the story. The twists and turns of the tale are truly impressive, and one may find humor, pathos, rationalistic ratiocination, political intrigue, and spiritual mysteries nicely brought together.

Jim Leffert is a psychologist who practices in Cambridge and Framingham, Massachusetts.

Image:  Lilly Martin Spencer, “Reading the Legend” 1852

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6 Comments on “In Defense of Reading: Jim Lefferts Guest Posting On Books That Will Reward Your Gaze”

  1. Mike Ch. Says:

    Boris Akunin, in spite of his Georgian real name, shouldn’t be called “Georgian writer”. Born to a Georgian father and Jewish mother, he lives in Moscow since the age of 4 and doesn’t even speak Georgian – while being fluent in Japanese, English and French.

    The Pelagia and the Red Cockerel was well researched: Akunin visited Israel twice in the process of writing. I warmly recommend the other two books of the Pelagia series – and of course all his books on the gentleman detective Erast Fandorin, brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield.

  2. Tom Says:

    I’ve got to say that I’m not particularly enticed by the teaser for The Trial Of Socrates. From what Popper wrote, and from my own study of Greek philosophy in university, it seems that Plato was the one with authoritarian tendencies, not Socrates. And The Apology is one hell of a defense. It always seemed to me that Socrates was wary of hypocrites and know-it-alls, that his methodology inherently discouraged autocracy because of the inevitable conclusion his interlocutors drew: namely, that they didn’t quite have a grasp on the matter at hand, though they’d recently claimed otherwise. What was democratic about his method, in other words, was the notion that our shared ignorance was part and parcel of the human condition. Ignorance united everyone. Humility is therefore called for.

    I dunno. Read The Open Society And Its Enemies (just the first volume if you want a takedown of Plato, but that takedown is really only the surface of the book, since the whole work is something much more fundamentally enlightening, which I’m not going to get into because I’m already being longwinded, and blah blah blah). I’d say it does a heckuva job distinguishing the Socrates-Socrates, and the Plato-Socrates who manifests himself in dialogues like, say, The Republic.

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