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Required Reading

 

In a recent New York Times article, Alice Walker was quoted as praising an author whose works are notoriously and outrageously anti-Semitic. First this brought up the question, Can you judge a person by what she reads? But, as a result of the publicity, many people went looking back at Alice Walker’s previous works, and found that she had her own history of anti-Semitic writings.

Prior to all of that, I had, of course, read The Color Purple as part of my American education, and the rabbi at my synagogue had used a number of Alice Walker’s poems in religious services over the years. Most likely we won’t be reading her work in our services from now on, but the question is, Should we continue to read her books, or any books by authors that disturb us? My own answer is yes, with the caveat that I always want the chance to speak out about those things that disturb me, or disturb others. I don’t want to shove everything that offends me into the back of a dark closet, where I can’t do anything about it.

But, I still find it very difficult to push myself to read, and watch, things that disturb me. Over the years, I’ve had to develop a way to manage that sort of difficult reading. I’ve put together a pile of books by my bedside that I read a little bit at a time, mixing together books that challenge me and books that I enjoy, as a brain cleanser, so that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by other people’s points of view, at least when I don’t want to be. I’ve pushed myself to read all sorts of political tomes, including books about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and when the emotions (anger, frustration, confusion, and often fear), get to be too much, I just switch over to a chapter of something else, to balance the scales.

I’m in a bit of a quandary, though, now that my official schooling is over, to decide which books to put on my required reading pile. I know that I need to continue to challenge myself going forward, but in which particular areas? And exactly how challenging do these books need to be?

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“Can’t we just watch TV?”

 

As of now I have about twelve books on my reading pile, with another thirty on standby. I’m still plodding through Harry Potter in Hebrew, though I’m not sure why it’s so much harder for me to read than the Harry Potter books in French. It undermines my confidence in all of those years of Jewish education that I never learned the Hebrew word for magic wand. I’ve also been reading through the Hebrew bible, in Hebrew, for years now, a page at a time. Biblical Hebrew is even harder to understand than Harry Potter Hebrew.

 

When that gets too frustrating, I can move over to my Beginning Spanish Reader, though that has recently become too hard for me, and I had to go back fifty pages or so for remedial reading. And then there’s a Spanish vocabulary and phrase book for Social Workers, but most of that just flies over my head.

I’m also reading the review book for the social work licensing exam, slowly, because it’s so freaking tedious, and balancing that out by reading a book of essays by David Rakoff that is even funnier than I remembered. Then there are the psychology books, most recently on Addiction and Body Therapy and Non-Directive Play Therapy, which sometimes interest me and other times make me very angry, and then books on Jewish philosophy by Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others, which I don’t really understand. I’ve been trying to cushion that particular torment with a book of dog essays that I got as a present for my birthday.

006

Ellie prefers being a dog to reading about them. Weird.

Oh, and I am very proud of myself for finally finishing Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. It only took me three and a half years. And as a reward for that effort I let myself add a book of memoir essays to the pile, by fellow blogger Sheila Morris, called Deep In The heart. Unfortunately I finished that one too quickly for my own good, and I will need to go and buy her new book to fill the void.

Of course I’m also reading mysteries, but they don’t go on the study pile; they get pride of place next to my writing notebooks, because I can read whole chapters of them at a time without wanting to scream at anyone. I take as much time as possible to revel in books by writers like Rhys Bowen, and Louise Penny, and Jacqueline Winspear, and Donna Andrews, and Ellen Crosby, and Charles Todd, and Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). And more recommendations are welcome!!!!

I’m not quite sure why I need to have such a tall pile of books to read at any given time, except that there are too many parts of my brain that need to be satisfied. Having a brain that likes to run in twenty directions at once is kind of inconvenient, but I don’t really want to go back to having someone else tell me what to read either. I’m sure Cricket would agree with me on the subject of reading autonomy, if she could read. As it stands, she finds all of my reading annoying, and time consuming, and she thinks I would much prefer sniffing individual blades of grass with her for hours at a time. At the very least, she would enjoy that more. Ellie would too, come to think of it. Though she’s more of a squirrel chaser than a grass sniffer.

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“This is the only grass I could find!”

008

“There was a squirrel! I had to go!”

 

While we’re on the topic of required reading, if you haven’t had the chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review for the book, I’d be honored!

YG with Cricket

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

95 responses »

  1. Your book is in my pile Rachel and I’m enjoying it very much! 😊

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  2. I SO admire you for reading stuff that isn’t easy. But I differ from you on Chernow’s Hamilton: I ate that shit up! I am so sorry to hear about Alice Walker being anti-semitic. I loved The Color Purple. As for me, I read history before bed, right now a book about the Plantagenets, and then a little of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (It’s All Small Stuff), which my mother loaned me. In general, however, I do not read anything that somebody else tells me should be required reading. It is a measure of how much I like your blog that I read a post with that title!

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  3. You might add the three mysteries by Jane Harper to your pleasure reading. She’s Australian and plots are intriguing and not of that woman in peril genre I hate. I have vascillated like you between stacks and single books. Right now I am reading Jill Lepore’s History of the United These Truths.” Very slowly. Excellent writer.

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  4. Louise Penny is really good! I also like Lis Wiehl &Terri Blackstock.

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  5. You provide a helpful perspective. I did not know that about Alice Walker.

    Dorothy Gilman is a mystery writer that I reall like. Her books have been around awhile. The Tightrope Walker is one of my favorites. The main character deals with anxiety and there were some good insights about that (which I found helpful) along with the mystery part. All of her books have an extra depth. She has a non-fiction book I love, titled: A New Kind of Country about starting over on her own in Nova Scotia.

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  6. Keep challenging yourself, but challenge yourself with that which you love (or hope to) as well.

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  7. You make me feel positively stilted! Mostly I read for fun, to relax, to escape. I’ve discovered Heather Graham whose thrillers include a bit of the paranormal—sort of science fiction meets the real world. I do read spiritual books, too, and Catholic newspapers. And right now I’m reading through “Who’s Who & Where’s Where in the Bible” because I’m going to the Holy Land—aka Israel—in March. What I really want is one of those shirts that says, “Too many books, too little time.”

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  8. I read The color Purple many, many years ago and I’ve clearly forgotten the story. Wish I could find your book here too.

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  9. Wow that some collection of books. I’m glad you got some dog essays for breathers.

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  10. I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who uses Harry Potter for foreign language practice. : – )

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  11. Way to go, Rachel. You do better than I do with my reading list.

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  12. “Yeshiva Girl” sounds a nice book.

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  13. Dog Tripping – David Rosenfeldt – you’ll enjoy it. It’s about how he and his wife travel cross country with about 21 dogs – all of the dogs have health problems of some sort. It’s funny and heart warming at the same time – and he also writes mystery novels – Andy Carpenter series won’t strain your brain but they’re fun. I’m reading TTouch – by Linda Tellington-Jones – this might interest you, it’s about massage for dogs. Your reading pile is amazing – I think it rivals mine!

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  14. My brain has trouble going in one direction at once. I need to keep reading when I start a book, otherwise I forget what’s going on! How lucky you are to be able to deal with a few at the same time!

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  15. Totally understand the feeling of not being able to read things that are uncomfortable, I too would be reaching for something more relaxing. I’m the same with films, there is a lot that I couldn’t watch. Always good to mix the reading with some doggy time, out in nature and chasing those squirrels. I bet their beady eyes are looking longingly at you when you settle down with a book.

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  16. Hebrew, French, Spanish? You never cease to amaze me Rachel.
    I haven’t picked up a book to read since the end of November, and have three in the cupboard unopened.
    Have a great week.

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  17. Rachel, I sometimes get the feeling that you are reading my mind! I, too, have been pondering my stack of books and why I am resistant to some (usually non-fiction) and totally embrace others (usually fiction). You just helped me see that when something seems to be “required,” I am more likely to resist reading it (or perhaps enjoying it). I am trying to let go and approach every book as if it will engage me as much as most mysteries do. Thanks for sharing.

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  18. If you’d like another delightful dog book that is incredibly well written, I highly recommend Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto. Such a lyrically written book. Also I’m in awe of your reading in languages, wow!

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  19. I think it is important to read things that offer opposite views, or books by writers that might have them. At the very least, it comes under the umbrella of ‘know your enemy’, and the positive is that you may come to understand why some people hold views that are anathema to you.
    As for your huge self-imposed reading schedule, I can only suggest it might just be too much. Like having all your food on one plate, and wondering how you will ever manage to finish it all. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  20. Sometimes when I’m reading my dog will climb up on my lap or chest and insert himself between my eyes and the book. A not-so-subtle way of suggesting that I would probably rather play a game like tug-of-war or fetch.

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  21. I too have several books on my night stand but my reasons are different than yours. I can’t seem to read more than a few pages without falling asleep. 😟. I love books but find reading hard because I can’t sit still enough in daytime to read and fall asleep at night. Sigh… I agree that one should go ahead read even things they don’t agree with such as the example in your post. After all we watch the news don’t we? Have a good week.

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  22. First, my thoughts on buying books by authors who are anti-semetic or of any other “hate-group”: I would buy second-hand so as not to fund them or add to their numbers of copies sold. 🙂
    Second, you have an amazing mind to be able to absorb so many and so diverse of topics the books that you read. I wonder if you recognize that about yourself…
    Amy

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  23. Rachel, you are truly a Renaissance Woman and as Tina Turner would say your big wheels just keep on turning – unstoppable. Imagine having a book on your reading table – I am honored and grateful that you enjoyed the Texas tales and don’t worry about buying my new book. One is already on its way to you as my way of saying thank you for what your writing has meant to me these last years.
    Yeshiva Girl is on the top of books on my bedside table, and I look forward to reading.

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  24. Hi Rachel. Here’s another book to consider adding to your list. I recently read an amazing nonfiction book called East West Street by Philippe Sands. This book reads like a detective story and is about the origins of the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. I love the quote by Vanity Fair in praise of this book. It says “A rare and unusual event: a book about international law that makes you want to keep reading.” Best to you.

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  25. Great post, Rachel! Like you and many who have commented, I too have difficulty reading challenging books, especially non-fiction on social injustices and classic fiction that contain racist assumptions. But I read as much of them as I can tolerate for the sake of staying aware. And I love to read. Currently, I’m reading The Perennial Philosophy by Huxley, two different translations, for comparison, of Candide and of course, Becoming by Michelle Obama.

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  26. According to Amazon, I read 146 books last year on Kindle. My new record. But my choices are a lot, lot lighter than the stuff you have tee’d up. The only Jewish-themed story I read was Yeshiva Girl so I can report <b< it was absolutely and without question the very best book of its kind and Rachel didn’t pay me much at all for that endorsement but Cricket slipped me some treats.

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  27. I like hearing about your reading stack. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone had one and at least a few of the book were a stretch in some way!

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  28. I’d like to call it The Pile, even if there are many piles all over the house. And the ones waiting in Goodreads list, ibooks, Amazon order list are also create The Digital Pile 😄😂.
    It’s great you are reading different types. As hard as it is, it expands your horizon. Your article is inspiring. I got to add a couple of mysteries and si-fi to my Pile. Maybe one French book too! 😄😄😄

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  29. I think it’s a mistake to judge a book by the nature or personality of the author. There have been some great authors who had unsavory histories or opinions. And when it comes to antisemites, there are so many different versions of the prejudice, and so many fine people who’ve been influenced by that particular prejudice, that it would be our loss if we ignored the work of all anti-semites. I believe that there are people who’ve written very wise… even great works despite the fact that they had their own limitations which made them personally ‘less than perfect’. And one of the most common limitations is prejudice.

    Since you mention different books that you keep near, I thought I might suggest one which I recommend especially to you: Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow.

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  30. I do find it almost impossible to separate the artist from the work, which is probably a great failing; my son loves the Cosby show, but I can’t stomach watching that, even though its message is so positive, for instance.

    Have you read any of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries? They are a lot of fun, and kind of like Louise Penny’s books, they’re set in a kind of magical town that almost becomes a character in the stories.

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    • I don’t even try to separate an artist from her work; I know from my own experience that what I write and who I am are integral to each other. I can’t watch Cosby, or Woody Allen at all.

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  31. I think it’s amazing that you continue to read and watch things that you may not agree with. I think understanding where those pieces of work comes from is crucial to changing the mindsets of those who create those works. What do you think? If more people would take on that mindset we might all get along a little more?

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    • I’m not sure how easy it is to change other people’s opinions, but knowing why they believe what they believe can help us to have compassion for them, or to decide that there is nothing more to be gained by continuing the conversation.

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      • I completely agree, changing minds is not an easy task. But I really like your thought about compassion towards those who have those views. I think some people listen to things that they don’t agree with just to have something to get mad at which is not healthy in my opinion

  32. Congrats on the book! Funny I guess we are on the same wavelength. I wrote about Walt Whitman’s views on slaves recently. I’m going to cut Walt some slack as a product of his times and ignorance. Alice Walker is harder to get over because she’s present day and should know better. To be honest, I was never much of a fan anyway.

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  33. I also balance my “heavy” books with “lighter” ones. It helps me to enjoy them, instead of weighing me down. Also, I have to tell you I’m still laughing about your not being taught the Hebrew word for magic wand! 😂

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  34. I was interested by this post. Quick question: if you never read anti-semitic writing how can you recognise anti-semitism in literature?

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  35. Rachel, My answer is yes,I agree with you. I mean if everyone stopped reading stuff by people someone hated,Nothing would get read …

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  36. hmm. . I may be taking the easy way out, but read books that I enjoy. If I read a few pages of a book and don’t like it, I’ll just move on to another one.

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  37. Good to know. I require myself to read a little Neil Gaiman because some of it is lightly terrifying, and some of it isn’t, but usually it pushes my mind to think in new/different ways than before. I cannot read multiple books at a time however. Teaching leaves me almost no free time for recreational reading.

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  38. So many good books to read and so little time – a problem I understand well.

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  39. Adorable dogs and comments. I appreciate your to-do list. Lately, I’ve been wondering what can I cut off mine. Sometimes, it’s all overwhelming. Anyway, good luck with your work and everything else. 🙂

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  40. Hi Rachel. Great pictures and cute captions.
    I write short stories, mostly about my youth in the ‘old south’. Some dialogue comes off as racist and a great amount of it is certainly no longer PC. One of my oldest friends, who grew up with me, worries that my writing implies that I am insensitive, ‘tone deaf,’ or racist. My editor and I discussed and decided that staying true to time and place is more important than being perceived as insensitive. Read or don’t–now you’re finished school, it’s your choice–but please judge the story on its merits and not what jumps out as offensive.
    Meanwhile, thanks. I’ve enjoyed your blog.
    Cricket is correct: naps, treats, and walks are what’s important.

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  41. I also find it very important to challenge myself with my reading and step outside of my comfort zone… but I have a hard time with certain subject matter – especially sexual assault. It took me a very long time to make it through Lolita for that reason, although I’m glad I did because Nabokov’s writing is brilliant. When it comes to objections to the author, I try to borrow the book instead of purchasing it, and balance out my reading list by alternating with an author who is their opposite.

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  42. I feel sorry for dogs not being able to read; all that spare time they have to curl up in the warm and they waste it by not reading!

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