Booksmart: Book Reports for 3-19-08

Against the Machine:
Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

(By Lee Siegel. Spiegel & Grau, 182 pp., $25.95)

“How did the egalitarian, self-expressing, hierarchy-busting, anti-exclusive Internet end up standardizing its users?” you might ask. Or perhaps you haven’t asked. But you should, because culture critic Lee Siegel has some mighty trenchant answers.

In the tradition of Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” and Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Siegel serves up mass behavior for the sham democracy it is. The Internet’s vision of “consumers” as “producers,” he argues, has turned inner life into an “advanced type of commodity,” which we now expect to be “performed rather than disclosed.” From “The Tipping Point” to reality TV to Wikipedia, all life is now pretty much a popularity contest.

It’s telling that much of the commentary on “Against the Machine” has appeared online, accusing the author of being a sour-grapes Luddite. It’s a bit of a joke trying to read most of these reviews flashing with pop-ups, featuring buff men in snug underwear and ads for various kinds of self-enhancement. But participatory culture at bottom is about advertising, and, ultimately, it is democracy’s fatal downturn. Take eBay, for instance, where buyers and sellers work hand in hand. No one is the owner, right? Um, not really — unless you want to consider perfecting the art of “having people cram products down their own throats” the height of egalitarianism.

Siegel’s is the first book I’ve read since college that made me want to underline something on every page. Here’s one. Until the past decade, no one could wake up in the morning and, before even getting dressed, “reach more people in his bathrobe with his private thoughts than William Faulkner, at the height of his renown, ever did.” —Mary Welp

People of the Book
(By Geraldine Brooks. Viking, 375 pp., $25.95)

“People of the Book” fictionalizes the already unbelievable real-life tale of the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated version of the narrative Jews around the world use at Passover to tell the story of the Exodus. The Hebrew codex came to light in 1894, causing a kerfuffle among art historians, who had long believed that the Third Commandment, prohibiting the making of false images, precluded the use of figurative art by medieval Jews.

Geraldine Brooks cleverly and convincingly serves up the Sarajevo Haggadah as the embodiment of Jewish survival in Europe: Created in Spain during the convivencia (a period when Jews, Christians and Muslims engaged in free cultural exchange), it survived the 1492 Spanish Inquisition and the 17th-century destruction of heretical books in Venice. It made its way to sophisticated Sarajevo and was saved from destruction during World War II by the Muslim chief librarian of the Bosnian National Museum, who hid it under his coat when the Nazis came.

During the Bosnian war, the Haggadah was once again saved by a Muslim librarian, who locked it in a bank vault to protect it from being bombed. Brooks takes us backward in time through the medium of Hanna Heath, a young Australian manuscript conservator, summoned to Sarajevo in 1996 to prepare the Haggadah for an exhibit celebrating the war’s end. As Hanna works on the manuscript, she discovers in its pages a single clue to each missing piece of the history: a wine stain, saltwater, a butterfly wing, a strand of Persian cat hair. The detective work she undertakes to uncover the source of these samples is more thrilling than the best pages of an Ian Rankin mystery. —Mary Welp