Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Animus in the Inanimate

For over a year now, I've been trying to get a hold of Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book. I finally got a hold of it, and it was well worth the wait.

Inanimate objects do have lives of their own. They need certain conditions to continue to "live:" generally a temperature of about 68-70 degrees, a relative humidity of about 60%, not too much light, not too many harsh chemicals, just like a person. They have meaning and experience attached to them. Anyone who's ever participated in distributing someone's belongings after the person has died knows this. The jealousy and sniping surrounding your grandmother's silverware didn't originate with the fact that everyone had been using their fingers thus far. The silver represented family dinners long past, their great-grandfather carving the meat thirty years ago, the hopes and dreams of the young couple that received it as a wedding gift and the life they made together. That power of objects is what led me into the museum field. So, of course, I loved this book.

I also enjoy reading any book that depicts the museum field at all. It's kind of an invisible field. I'd imagine conservators feel even more invisible, and must have enjoyed the main character of the book. Hannah Heath is an Australian book conservator with a PhD, an international reputation, and a contentious relationship with her mother. She gets an invitation to work on a very special book: The Sarajevo haggadah, a lushly illuminated 500-year-old Jewish prayer book.

The story of the book unfolds as Hannah's work progresses. Through the examination of a wine and blood stain, we find how the haggadah was saved from the Inquisition. Through the examination of a salt stain, we discover how the family of a Jewish illustrator was not so lucky. By looking at different items found within the book's binding, we learn how the book was put together and lovingly preserved through hundreds of years of unrest and violence.

The characters are powerful, and the story compelling. I highly reccomend this one, and look forward to reading some more by Brooks.