Reading is good for you

People of the books: This new bimonthly column, exclusive to JUF News, offers reviews and recommendations on Jewish-themed books, and other reasons to read.

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People of the books: This new bimonthly column, exclusive to JUF News, offers reviews and recommendations on Jewish-themed books, and other reasons to read.

If reading could be patented, it would be sold as a wonder drug. The announcement of its health benefits would read like the miracle cures promised by old-time carnival hawkers or today's equivalent, the attention-grabbing ads at the bottom of your screen: Boosts intelligence! Improves social skills! Scientifically proven to reduce stress!

In fact, reading provides these benefits-and more. Research published in the journal Neurology reports that reading preserves brain function and slows memory decline. 

A study by Sussex University shows that reading can reduce stress by as much as 68 percent. "By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world…while exploring the domain of the author's imagination," cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis told The Telegraph .

Literary fiction, in particular, can help readers build empathy and improve their interactions with others. Narratives that portray characters' thoughts and feelings expand readers' capacity to understand that other people hold beliefs and desires different from their own, according to research published in Science . "Understanding others' mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies," David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano wrote of their findings.

Thus, with the health of your brain in mind, it is my pleasure to recommend three books with complex and compelling characters interacting in fast-paced stories drawn from Jewish history.

The Weight of Ink (Mariner Books), by Boston-based author Rachel Kadish, won a 2017 National Jewish Book Award and was named an Amazon Best Book of the Year. Reviewer Judy Bolton-Fasman called it "a big, beautiful book." She's right on both counts. Although nearly 600 pages, this is a book you will wish was longer. The Weight of Ink is set in contemporary London-and the same London locations 300 years earlier. Characters include a brilliant scribe with a secret identity, a blind rabbi, an ailing historian of Jewish history, and an American graduate student who abandons his studies of Shakespeare to investigate a mystery from the time of Spinoza. 

The Secret Chord (Viking), by Geraldine Brooks, is a masterful retelling of the life of King David. Brooks, the author of People of the Book and the Pulitzer Prize-winning March, comes at David's story from unexpected angles. She gives voice to those in David's circle, including his wife, his mother, and the prophet Nathan, his advisor. Brooks unveils characters' complexities, strengths, motives, and limitations to create suspense, since we already know the story. She doesn't skimp on the story's grit, grandeur, or brutality. In fact, the Miami Herald said, "This is the original Game of Thrones ."

Warburg in Rome: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is by James Carroll, a National Book Award winner. I was introduced to Carroll recently with his new book The Cloister . It seems I was late to the Carroll party, as he has several bestsellers and writes regularly for The Daily Beast . Carroll is a former priest, and a number of his books explore anti-Semitism in the Church. Warburg in Rome, a suspense-filled thriller that takes place in the final months of World War II, covers heroic actions by individuals-and Vatican complicity in war crimes. 

Based on true events, the novel weaves together the actions of a handful of fascinating fictional characters-Marguerite d'Erasmo, a Red Cross worker; Colonel Peter Mates, an undercover America intelligence officer; Giacomo Lionni, a member of the Italian-Jewish resistance aided by an aging French priest; and Monsignor Kevin Deane, a New Yorker in Rome on behalf of the very real Francis Cardinal Spellman, who provides rare access to the Papal court. At its center is David Warburg, newly minted director of the U.S. War Refugee Board, sent to assist desperate Jews in the chaotic just-liberated city.  

To me, the complex and morally ambiguous situations readers encounter in these books are exactly the type of brain-building that David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano (the writers of the research covered in Science ) recommend, making us more sensitive to the complicated choices made by real people, today and in our past. David Laskin (whose own book, The Family, was selected by Spertus Institute in 2014 as Chicago's Jewish One Book) wrote in a review of Warburg in Rome for The Seattle Times , "The lines of this book are fiction, but the dots they connect are history." 

Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes) about Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communications.


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