The sound of the shofar is supposed to be a wake up call, a sound reverberating inside us to shake us from our slumber and exhort us to repent. For some of us, sensory means are not all that will aid this – we need intellectual stimulation to get us to think differently. That’s where this list comes in.
At this time of year, most Jews are thinking about what kinds of lives they want to lead, how they will try to do better, if fortunate enough to be granted another year. What are the things that might help us in that quest?
Here is an eclectic reading list, but one that is intended to get readers to think about what is of value in their lives and perhaps move them to act accordingly. Or at least start thinking about it. Certainly, it is good to focus on themes of the season – I am looking forward to getting a new commentary on the High Holiday liturgy with teachings by Nechama Leibovitch or thoughts from rabbis like Yehuda Amital or commentaries on the book of Jonah like Rabbi Steven Bob’s.
But, the books on this list are to get a reader to awaken and think about what a good life might be. Some of these are focused on death. That is natural, as we are supposed to be thinking about our mortality at this time of year… how we spend our time, what we want out of life, what is important to us. A good life, in short. Is it something that can be achieved? Read on.
Nine Books To Build A Better Life This Year
1.Year to Live: How to live this year as if it were your last (1998), by Stephen Levine. Exactly what the title says. Want to be “scared straight” into becoming a better person? This book has exercises, strategies and guided meditations. Effective and totally appropriate for Jews to think about at this time of year when we wear white, don’t eat, drink or procreate, basically visualize ourselves in shrouds yet on this earth, and try to reflect on how to get to becoming the kind of person we want to be. Levine includes exercises to do for all kinds of situations we should prepare ourselves for including lying in our own coffin. Maybe that is not necessary, but if the shofar does not work…
2.Still Life with Monkey by Katharine Weber(2018). Basically, this novel is a meditation on what makes life worthwhile. Weber is a fantastic writer and one of my favorites among contemporary American novelists; her Triangle, about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and its effect on families who lost people in it is a must-read that I started re-reading immediately when I finished, just to figure out how she created the plot that she did.
Still Life with Monkey is about a successful architect who becomes quadriplegic in a car accident after he loses consciousness because of a bee sting. His new physical limitations lead him to question every aspect of his heretofore well-curated and comfortable life that was designed to produce maximum pleasure – in eating and drinking, attending cultural events, and planning homes for those with the wealth to indulge in a carefully planned simplicity which displays their wealth in a more cultured vein than a more overtly ostentatious design might do. The protagonist’s wife decides that a service monkey, trained to help paraplegics, will be able to satisfy his many unmet needs.
I, like some reviewers, was not satisfied with the answer given to what constitutes a good life at the conclusion of the novel. However, I highly recommend the novel because I have been provoked to think harder about just what is a satisfactory answer to how to define a good life since completing the novel. For me, a novel that is well written and enjoyable –and causes a reader to invest so much in the actions of the character that one is instigated to want to yell at a character to act differently– is the best kind of fiction there is.
3. The Fall by Albert Camus (1956)A bar, a character whose name means “clemency, John the Baptist”, a stolen painting called The Just Judges, a splash loud enough to be that of a human body, drowning. Yes, the book is heavy and symbolic, but worth reading and thought-provoking. It is certain to make a reader think… which is my goal with this list, as well as when I have taught this book in the classroom, where it can be effective.
4. 4,3,2,1 by Paul Auster(2017). What Auster does in this novel is what many of us wish to do – go back in time and create different circumstances in life. Basically, the same character with the same parents has a variety of circumstances handed to him – getting in a car accident and being injured or hurt more seriously, having a parent die with insurance or without it, living in a city or in the suburbs. Some aspects of the character’s life remain consistent over the sequences and some are changed. Though the book is quite long, keep reading —Auster is a wonderful writer and this book is certainly an appropriate read for the season.
5. The Common Good by Robert Reich(2018). A good life is not just about ourselves as individuals, but about society as a whole. So, a book premised around discussing how politically and organizationally we can reach a sense of good for the most and inculcate a sense of civic duty (Reich recommends a required two year national service program for all eighteen year olds) has importance at this time of year. Reich has both a timeline of the breakdown of the common good, as well as suggested fixes like insisting upon public truth.
6. Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year among the Oldest Old (2018) by John Leland. This book stemmed from profiles of six elderly individuals by the author, a reporter for the New York Times. At times, it feels as though he is trying too hard to shoehorn all his reporting about a particular individual into one pithy lesson that he tends to repeat. However, the six individuals from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds are worth learning from. Seeing how they each find happiness, even in difficult and trying life circumstances, is encouraging, making the reader feel that anyone can find a way to have more happiness in life. For the chance to evaluate the lives of others – and watch the author assess and change his own in subtle ways – the book is worth a read, particularly at this time of year.
For more on the psychology of happiness, as well as a reading list, see Adam Sternbergh’s New York Magazine article on Yale University’s course on “How to be Happier.”
7. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (2018) by Maxwell King. Biographies of those who led meaningful and good lives, and successfully inspired millions of others to do so, can be inspirational. One journalist called Rogers a “genius of empathy” for his abilities to help kids confront and control the many emotions humans have. Rogers was one of the first to see the potential of the medium of television as an educational one and he used his own deep Christian faith (as well as knowledge of other religions) to teach each child to see him or herself as valuable. The book just came out, so I have not read it in its entirety, but I can already see the tone of the book as too worshipful, as one reviewer has pointed out. However, I think spending time with a person who cared about being kind and introducing others to the value of that and other virtues is time well spent.
8. The Hebrew Bible. Actually, read by itself, it may not get you to be a better person. There are vicious gang rapes(Judges 19), land grabs by greedy kings( I Kings 21) and prostitution (too many instances to mention). Brother killing brother? Genesis 4. Brother trying to kill brother? Genesis 37. There are few ideal and virtuous people here. These are human stories of those trying to understand God’s commands and attempting to inculcate moral instruction in an unruly and disobedient crowd.
For Jews, the way to read the Bible is with a teacher. However, in 2018, if you can’t get to a classroom, it can come to you virtually. The 929 project, started in 2015 in Hebrew and July 15, 2018 in English, encourages people to read a chapter of Bible each day so that, after three and a half years, they will have read the entire text. The website provides commentary from different writers (full disclosure: including me) from a variety of perspectives. There are many ways to access this wisdom, reading the Torah portion of the week is another, but this is one of the most up-to- the-moment iterations of how to approach it though reading from a book.
9. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. Basically, all of the common sensical wise advice your parents and grandparents gave you – or should have given you, is here. You are not free to desist from the work, but neither are you obligated to complete it. If you are not for yourself, who will be for you, but if you are only for yourself what are you? Yes, all of those pithy aphorisms and more advice for living a good life are here. Bonus: a young graphic artist, Jessica Tamar Deutsch, recently produced a graphic novel version of this guide to a good life making it more accessible and interesting for those of all ages.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.