Author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, "I HAVE ALWAYS IMAGINED THAT PARADISE WILL BE A KIND OF LIBRARY." Indeed, regardless of what they write, authors have a great love of reading in common. For our special books issue, Moment asked 20 prominent Jewish authors to discuss the books that shaped them. Their answers are highly personal, ranging from A. A. Milne's children's classic Winnie-the-Pooh to Primo Levi's Holocaust memoir The Periodic Table. But as varied as the answers are, every author speaks of their chosen book in much the same way most of us might recall a beloved friend.
Two great works of history have book-ended my life. The first, Heinrich Graetz's six-volume History of the Jews, which I discovered at age 17, is a book that is essentially obsolete as a history but nevertheless remains very important. He published these volumes between 1853 and 1875. He died in 1891, three years before the Dreyfus Affair. He did not live to see that infamous case, and his books also do not contain WWI, WWII, the Holocaust--all of the terrible events of the late 19th and 20th centuries. But Graetz is one of the great Jewish historians, and these books were my first serious encounter with Jewish history. In school and even in college there was no Jewish history. In the 1940s, European history classes said nothing at all about Jews. They didn't exist. They were not part of history. It was galvanizing and empowering, beyond interesting, to discover a history of the Jews. I found these volumes on a bookshelf in Newark, New Jersey while on a family visit. I opened the first book and began to read--I was immediately absolutely electrified. I began to read Jewish history with Graetz and I have not yet stopped reading it.
The second book, David Nirenberg's 2013 Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is really Graetz's companion volume. Together the two are the most important history books I have ever read. Nirenberg's book is not about anti-Semitism per se. It is a book about imagination, Christianity, Islam and the whole history of secular philosophy. It's about all the cultural discourses that imagined the Jew. It is a hair-raising and extremely depressing book.
For most readers, I would recommend Nirenberg's history because in just one volume, it covers the entire historic span of ideas about the Jews. This book discusses our secular and philosophical history, Jews living in Islamic countries and the European experience. To understand Judaism today and anti-Semitism, which is now having a huge surge, you have to know about the past. These books are essential reading. Today's Jews need to understand the historic environment in which we as a people marinated. Our present is saturated with our past.
Cynthia Ozick is an essayist and novelist and the author of more than 20 books. Her most recent book is Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays.
The book that most influenced me is The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka. I read it while I was doing my basic training in the army. I grew up reading epic storytelling--I loved authors who themselves were probably influenced by Kafka. Kafka's work is mainly about anxiety and human stress caused by our inability to comprehend the world. When I read him, for the first time I saw that in order to write a good story you don't need to have all the answers; often the role of the writer is just to present some good questions.
This metamorphosis of a man into a cockroach is really the story of a man who gets trapped in a world and a life that he did not choose or create. This story echoes much of my experience in the Israeli army and my feeling that I had been painfully transplanted into a strange world that, at the time, just made no sense to me. I really identify with this idea of being abruptly thrown into a system or a reality that you don't understand the logic behind or, really, that there isn't any logic behind.
Kafka is one of the most powerful storytellers of all time. There is something very powerful about how his work combines humor and terror. We can link these two qualities to much of what we now perceive as Jewish humor. In Kafka's writing, humor is very primal, but when Jews use humor, it is never just to make people laugh. There is always something deeper; there are always complicated emotional undercurrents to Jewish humor. In this, Kafka is not an exception. These two qualities in Kafka's work, humor and terror, connect to what it is to be a Jew--funny and terrifying.
Etgar Keret is a short story writer, graphic novelist and author of 11 books, most recently The Seven Good Years: A Memoir.
Norman Mailer's nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night had an enormous influence on me. Mailer managed to write about himself as a character in his narrative while simultaneously doing amazing journalism by writing about himself in the third person. He created the character "Mailer" and then wrote about himself as this character. When I first read it, I saw that this device gave him incredible remove and distance that allowed him to write honestly about himself in a way first-person narrative would not have. I had covered him during the October 1967 anti-Vietnam War rally and march on the Pentagon that the novel describes. Mailer is a spectacular reporter. He reveals at the beginning of the book that he was drunk for much of the period the book covers. Having been with him at the time, I can say that everything he describes--including his own drunkenness--is completely accurate. I didn't remember him taking many notes, and yet The Armies of the Night is one of the greatest pieces of journalism of our era.
When the time came to write All the President's Men, which is as much about [Bob] Woodward and myself as it is about journalism, the question we had was, "What should be the voice of the narrative?" Bob tried to write a first chapter using the first-person plural "we." I read it and knew it was never going to work. There was no real way to separate the two characters of Woodward and Bernstein. I remembered what Mailer had done. So I took the draft and turned the "we" into Woodward and Bernstein. We each wrote the parts of the story in which we had had the primary role. So Bob would write something like, "Woodward was thinking that the attorney general was dissembling about what he knew." Or I would write, "Bernstein knew that Haldeman had quite a reputation." This technique allowed us to explore our individual characters in much the same way that Mailer had done. It gave us an opportunity to write about our mistakes and foibles with less self-consciousness or worry than if we had written in the first person.
Jewish readers may find it of particular interest to look at the example of the Vietnam War in Mailer's book as a case where a government profoundly lost its way. It seems to me that Mailer covers a problematic war and the resulting antiwar movement in a way that is just as applicable to Israel as it is to the United States, particularly these days. Mailer describes painful divides in a rapidly fracturing country. Israel is also a country divided by some of the exact same questions about good governance and about what actually represents real and necessary national security.
Carl Bernstein is the author of five books, including All the President's Men, which he coauthored with Bob Woodward. The two won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for their Watergate coverage in The Washington Post.
Rayuela (published in English as Hopscotch) by Julio Cortazar shaped my writing. I had been an ardent admirer of Cortazar's work ever since my mother, when I was 17, passed me a copy of his book Bestiario, saying that I absolutely had to read this unknown Argentine author. I was mesmerized. Each one of the eight stories tore reality to shreds and did so unobtrusively, turning ordinary life into a mystery that crept up on the reader and finally delivered a knockout punch, leaving us breathless, questioning our own sanity, hoping that we would become accomplices in changing the way we looked at the world. And all this in the everyday street...