When Books and Life Entwine

January 1, 2018 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Children’s literature abounds with whimsical stories about characters that magically wander off the page into the real world. But for some adult book lovers and their special books, something like this actually occurs. Sometimes a book speaks so powerfully to a reader that it infuses and shapes the reader’s everyday life.

This is what happened to Ilana Kurshan and Daniel Mendelsohn, the authors of two erudite and moving “bibliomemoirs” about the books that transformed their lives and relationships. If All the Seas Were Ink (2017) chronicles Kurshan’s immersion in the Talmud while recovering from a traumatic divorce. An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic (2017) recounts Mendelsohn’s experience teaching Homer’s Odyssey to college freshmen and to his father, who audited Mendelsohn’s seminar. Both books skillfully entwine ancient texts with the authors’ personal stories.

If All the Seas Were Ink

In Jerusalem, Ilana Kurshan is famous as “the woman who reads and walks.” A literary agent, translator, and inveterate book lover, she has mastered the art of reading while navigating tricky terrain, riding elevators, and waiting in line at the post office. So it is not surprising that a chance remark from a friend would lead her to sign up for Daf Yomi (“daily page”), sometimes called “the world’s largest book club.” Kurshan joined thousands of Jews around the world who read the same page of Talmud each day, completing the entire work in seven-and-a-half years. When she began Daf Yomi, Kurshan was in her late twenties, newly divorced, grieving, and adjusting to life as an American in Israel. As she struggled to cope, the notion of turning over a new page each day had a symbolism that appealed to her.

The Talmud accompanied Kurshan through the twists and turns of her life as she traveled for work, tentatively began dating, remarried, and became a mother. Kurshan never missed a day of Talmud study and often found surprising connections between the text and her life. Even as mundane a task as emptying the dishwasher in the morning reminded Kurshan of the Talmud – specifically, of the Temple priest’s morning chore of clearing away the previous night’s ashes from the altar. To Kurshan, each of these morning tasks is a ritual that “links the day that has passed to the day that is dawning.” Her sensitivity and love of learning permeate this captivating book.

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

Daniel Mendelsohn is a respected classics scholar and literary critic. In 2011, Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn, decided to audit Daniel’s freshman seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College. Daniel had some misgivings, despite Jay’s promise to sit silently in class. And indeed, Jay could not resist sharing his provocative opinions. During the first class, he declared that Odysseus was no hero, no matter what classical tradition said. Measured against Jay’s tough standards, Odysseus was a liar, an adulterer, and a whiner who needed too much help from the gods.

As the seminar progressed, Daniel began to see themes in the Odyssey that bore on his not-always-easy relationship with Jay. The epic begins with a son, Telemachus, who seeks knowledge about his father, Odysseus, and learns that Odysseus has a complex, many-faceted identity. Likewise, Daniel comes to appreciate dimensions of Jay’s personality that were not obvious in the impatient, judgmental father of Daniel’s childhood. Daniel reveals early on that his book will end with Jay’s death. This poignant fact makes the book, as one reviewer said, “a kind of Kaddish: an act of mourning that involves making peace with the dead.”