Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book

I love the way Geraldine Brooks writes. I got hooked when I read Nine Parts of Desire and then again when I read Year of Wonders. You can read my review on her award winning March here. So I could hardly wait for People of the Book to come out in paperback, so I could read it. (Those hard cover books hurt too much when they fall over if I fall asleep, and are too heavy and bulky to carry on airplanes.)


Here is what I like about Geraldine Brooks. Her books are not easy to read. They make you uncomfortable. They make you think. They give you another perspective, and that perspective challenges your assumptions.

The heroine, Hannah, is not very likable. She is cold, she makes poor decisions, and she has a very uneasy relationship with her mother. She is, on the other hand, a master of her craft, which is stabilizing and restoration of old books. She is the specialist called in by museums to help preserve masterful works, and to identify forces at work which can cause grave damage to these books.

While this is a work of fiction, it is based on an actual book and some of the history surrounding it. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish holy book, is a real book. Some of its history is known – including the fact that it was twice saved from destruction by Moslems, one a very brave librarian in Sarajevo who rescued and preserved it risking his own life, the fact that it was saved from destruction during the Italian inquisition by a Catholic priest. From tiny bits of physical evidence, Geraldine Brooks weaves an entire book creating a story how all the individuals and forces that might have been involved in the creation and preservation of this one special book.

People of the Book is a mystery – Hanna goes in and in the process of evaluating and analyzing the book, gathers tiny bits of “evidence” – a tiny grain of salt, a hair, wine stains. As she investigates, lab results come back, filling in missing pieces of how this book might have travelled from Spain of the convivencia (Medieval Spain) to modern day Sarajevo. Slowly, slowly, Brooks reveals to the readers the real (fictional!) people behind the tiny pieces of evidence.

The plot is interesting. What grabbed me from the beginning, however, is that this is a real book-lovers book, written by a woman who loves books. We learn about how books are created, how book conservators know, from looking at the origin of a sheet of paper, where a book was created and about what time period it was created. We learn about different treatments of paper, we learn about inks, we learn how pigments are created, and we learn about illustrations.

I was captivated by all the love of book-creation present in this book. Most of all, I love it that she dedicated this book to the librarians of the world, those unsung heros who devote their lives to the preservation of information. It was definitely worth a read – and, as an exception to most of my rules, it will probably be worth a re-read.

A friend recommended a video of Geraldine Brooks discussing this book at a book-talk at Northeastern University. It is a little long – you will need about 38 minutes of your time if you want to listen to this amazing woman:

March 29, 2009 - Posted by | Adventure, Books, Community, Cross Cultural, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Relationships, Technical Issue, Women's Issues


  1. […] here: Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book « Here There and Everywhere Share and […]

    Pingback by Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book « Here There and Everywhere | My Digital Ebook | March 29, 2009 | Reply

  2. I like the part of the review about the tangible aspects of bibliophilia, savouring the tactile and yet almost spiritual art of book creation or restoration. Reminds me why I value some old books, and of a book I have written by three book designers taking about another designers’ accomplishments in almost reverential terms.

    Comment by Dave Armishaw | March 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. Dave, I totally agree. There is something in superb craftsmanship, working with hands and mind and spirit in concert, that is truly reverential. When you see something that has been carefully and thoughtfully done – a painting, a poem, a stained glass window, a work of calligraphy, a beautiful church or mosque or temple – it evokes that “WOW” reaction from us, doesn’t it. And the same goes for a beautifully crafted bag or shoe or faucet or light fixture . . . it is like serving God by giving the best from within us. I think Geraldine Brooks captured that focus and servant-to-the-craft attitude. It is transcendental – God’s breath through our hands . . . 🙂

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 30, 2009 | Reply

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