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The Book of Lights -- Take I*


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I like Russian literature.

When most of my friends read that sentence, it doesn't mean "Arwyn likes literature written by Russians;" it means "Arwyn likes dark, depressing literature riddled with philosophical (and sometimes pedantic -- see Turgenev; Tolstoy) meanderings."

As far as Russian lit goes, that's not really far off. Which leads to the question: "Why?"

I recently finished a book by a favorite author -- not Russian, but equally...depressing? But, not. In the same way that Russian literature isn't. To me.

The book is Chaim Potok's The Book of Lights. I first read his The Chosen and The Promise in high school, though I haven't yet gotten around to his more famous My Name is Asher Lev.

The Book of Lights is the story of a young Jewish man without any real direction in his life, who doesn't know precisely what he wants to do, or why he would want to do it, and allows other forces -- his professors, his family, his girlfriend, his roommate -- to drive him toward disparate goals. He studies at a Jewish seminary in New York, and focuses on kabbalah because he connects with the subject and the professor -- but he doesn't know why. He accepts a scholarship for a year of graduate study that allows him to put off entering the Army because the fund was established by his roommate's family in honor of his roommate's brother, who died during World War II -- but he doesn't know why. He serves two years in post-war Korea, most of the time as the only Jewish chaplain in the country, and does a bang-up job of being the best chaplain ever -- but even when he's recognized by his commanders for his excellence, he still doesn't know why.

It's the story of this young man -- and of another, his roommate, whose father helped invent the atomic bomb and who knows the why of everything he does: atonement. He played no part in the development of that weapon or in its use, but he feels compelled with the strongest compulsion to atone for unleashing that tool of destruction on the world.

I finished the book nearly two weeks ago and, like a good Dostoevsky novel, I'm still digesting it. I haven't been able to read anything since. Why?

It's not a happy book. It's a story of two separate dimensions: the man who doesn't know the why of all he does, but who loses himself in doing it -- and, in the losing, becomes a real leader, a real scholar, a real person. And the man who knows the why, is hounded by the why, is tortured by the why, and is so caught up, so obsessed by it, he can't live a real life, can't live a normal life, can't really live. But who, though driven to drink, to debauchery, to extremes to suppress his pain, also has the compassion to say prayers for the dead at the tomb of the enemies his parents strove to put down.

More often than not, I feel like the first fellow -- I rarely know the why. I can give reasons for my actions, or at least, I can come up with reasons. But I feel like there's a deeper driving force that I don't have the capacity to recognize that drives the major milestones of my life. Am I, in the end, better off for not knowing, not having the depth of pain or passion that drives those like the second?

Or...not?

* I call this Take I as this is the first of a few thoughts inspired by this book -- the next may or may not be less naval-gazing and more interesting.


11 Responses to “The Book of Lights -- Take I*”

  1. Anonymous Mike 

    Arwyn, it looks like we've been overwhelmed by basketball.

    I've been wanting to read The Chosen for quite some time. I suppose I ought to add The Book of Lights to my list as well.

  2. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Heh. Alas! Good literature always seems to have a hard time standing up to important things like, say, March Madness. Oh well. There's always literature. March will, eventually, end.

    And I very highly recommend The Chosen. Excellent (and yet, still short) book.

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