Summary of History Book Club on April 23

After we read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” there was a lively, wide-ranging discussion on the sweep of human history from 10,000 years ago to the present. The advent of agriculture, raising of livestock, invention of writing, disease, and differences in technology were covered. One excellent feature of the book club discussions is that each participant learns new information and perspectives from the other participants. For an entertaining and refreshing break, please try the History Book Club and the Brown Baggers Book Club at the Central Library.

JMRL’s other books by Jared Diamond:

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.” ― Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

The dedication in Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book reads, “For the librarians,” so it’s possible that yours truly was a bit biased before starting to read. Opinions were mixed on the latest BrownBaggers group read, but we enjoyed the discussion that followed.

While a work of fiction, the “Book” in question is a real Hebrew text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Currently held by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, the Haggadah was created in mid 14th century Spain. At some point, it made its way to Italy and was saved from the Inquisition’s fires by a Venetian priest. It only made its first appearance in Bosnia in 1894. So how did this holy book make its way across Europe through the centuries? While mostly imagined, Brooks tells of the book’s journey and the story of all of those who protected it along the way. Interspersed with the historical tableaux is the story of the present day book conservator, Hanna Heath, assisting with the book and her own personal relationships.

While many of us enjoyed the more historical scenes, the modern characters often fell flat and didn’t engage. While probably a necessary framework to tie the historical narratives together, certain plot devices felt contrived and perhaps a bit too coincidental. On the other hand, we were disappointed when certain threads were not resolved neatly – perhaps indicating a larger flaw in the modern storyline.

The role of women in protecting the Haggadah was also noteworthy. While generally in a more domestic role, many of the female characters were able to take on huge responsibilities or step slightly outside of their sphere. Hanna’s mother served as the modern, professional counterpoint but lacked the compassion and connection to humanity that her daughter encompassed.

One theme we did notice and enjoy was the amount of cooperation and intermingling between multiple religions and cultures. The book, a Jewish text, was protected or saved by both Muslim and Christian characters. Even during the Inquisition in Italy, there was an unlikely sort-of friendship portrayed between a Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi. It was interesting to see these barriers crossed in what we perceive as much more restricted times. The spread and mix of cultural practices and traditions was also intriguing. Hanna illustrates (if you’ll excuse the pun) this well when she asks, “So why had an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?”Also, we’re used to a smaller, interconnected world now but it is stunning to think of how this book, itself a mixture of traditions from many peoples, also came to travel over the continent.

The BrownBaggers’ next read is “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Join us at the Central Library May 17 at Noon.


“but tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Thomas Jefferson

Cinder Stanton and Peter Hatch are retiring from Monticello this month.  Cinder, the Shannon Senior Historian, began working there in 1968.  After time away, she returned in 1979.  Peter Hatch, Director of Garden and Grounds, came to Monticello in 1977 from Old Salem and Moravian gardens.   The two have recently come out with new books at this important juncture of their lives.

At Cinder’s March book launch for Those Who Labor for my Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” she received a lengthy standing ovation from the full auditorium at Monticello.   Cinder has worked for more than 20 years on the lives of those enslaved at Monticello as well as many other subjects.  She has advised other authors such as Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed as they studied this complicated issue.  Even in retirement I am sure she will continue her work on the Getting Word Oral History Project that she began in the 1990’s with other colleagues and the Central Virginia History Researchers’ website.

Peter will launch his book, “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello on April 23 at Monticello.  Published by the Yale University Press, it promises to be rich in images and information.  Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Willson Peale in August 1811: “but tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.”  Jefferson continued to accumulate garden knowledge after his retirement from politics.  I hope that Peter, in his retirement, will continue disseminating his knowledge to gardeners of all ages.

These two retirees are actual Jefferson encyclopedias.  We are fortunate to have some of what they know included in other books that are on JMRL’s shelves.  Peter Hatch’s book mentioned above will be included as soon as JMRL can get it.

Peter Hatch:

Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello

The Gardens of Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Garden at Monticello

Lucia (Cinder) Stanton:

Free Some Day: the African-American Families of Monticello

Getting Word: the Monticello African-American Oral History Project

Jefferson’s Memorandum Books:  Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767 – 1826

Slavery at Monticello

~ The Reluctant Blogger