Sunday, May 29, 2016

Jewish Book Review: "The Talmud: A Biography" by Harry Freedman

This "biography" of the Talmud has to be one of the most baffling books I've ever read, and not because of the complexity of the subject matter. For one thing, even after finishing it, I had no idea who the intended audience was. I found it at my local Barnes and Noble in the tiny section devoted to Jewish books. All of the other books there were aimed at adults or, well, the general public, so I think this must've been too. The review quoted on the back describes it as a "tour de force . . . A must read," which just doesn't sound like something an academic would say about a kids book, but the first few chapters are written in just the most ridiculously dumbed-down language. From that I would've thought it was aimed at b'nei mitzvah kids, but I think even twelve- and thirteen-year-olds would find it patronizing.

The writing in these chapters also doesn't flow very well. There's just such an odd mix of short, declarative sentences and long run-on sentences that the prose doesn't flow; it lurches. You'll see a short sentence. Then there'll be another one. And maybe a fragment. Then there will be a long, sprawling run-on that rambles, with a clause on one topic that goes on and on and, yes, it keeps going, and then there'll be another one about something else and it'll go on for just as long or even longer, and maybe you'll get completely lost in it and have no clue WTF is going on and when it's going to end. Then it ends. There'll be another short sentence. Maybe then another sentence. Which seems to be cut in half. While you're still recovering, there'll be another run-on  that goes on even longer--well, you get the idea.

After the first few chapters, the prose awkwardly transitions into a more normal style for nonfiction aimed at the general public. Occasionally there will be  be a paragraph or two in the original, clunkier style, but those are fairly rare.  This continues through until shortly before the end, when the original style takes over. It's really weird.

I was honestly so distracted by all of that, that I couldn't focus on the subject matter. It was not a tour de force. It's essentially what it's sold as: a history of the Talmud. It really doesn't distinguish itself in any way other than the ones I've described. There were some interesting anecdotes about various scholars involved in Talmudic disputes. There was an amusing, if out-of-place, Monty Python reference. That's about all I can say about it.

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