Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Review: Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Ilan Stavans

Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Ilan Stavans. Published 2021 by Oxford University Press.

This is a book that does what it says on the label. It provides a very short introduction to Jewish literature. The book, pocket sized and clocking in at about 116 pages of text, is broken up into chapters covering various areas of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, more or less chronologically starting with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Stavans is a professor at Amherst and a scholar with deep knowledge of his subject; I encountered this book as a part of a course I'm taking with him on early Jewish literature but this book covers pretty much everything. (He also wrote the book I've been listening to for a while, How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, which goes into much much more depth on Yiddish literature.)

His voice is engaging and while the book feels like a big checklist, it's never dull or dry. He provides pencil sketches of the lives and works of everyone from Fernando de Rojas through Susan Sontag and I found myself taking notes for things to check out or look for and even though I am not new to the subject I still learned quite a bit. I was particularly drawn to the chapters on translation and criticism as these were not things I expected to read about and found them very interest-piqueing.

The only issue I had is that I felt like there could have been an entire chapter devoted to Russian writers. But maybe you need a whole book for that subject and there are Russians sprinkled throughout in particular in the chapter on people who wrote in Yiddish.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in the subject and I think even if you already know a lot, Stavans provides a pretty broad and wide-ranging panorama and you'll probably find something new and interesting to investigate in your own reading.  It has definitely earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.

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