I’m on vacation in Virginia, where the pace of life is notoriously slower than in other parts of the developed world. I went to college here, and I didn’t like it then. Now I find it to be quaint and pleasant. The people are good-humored and generous for the most part, and kids and dogs appear to outnumber adults. As Jacob Riis put it over 100 years ago, this is how the other half lives.
The day after I got here I went to the local library to see if they had anything interesting in stock. I asked the librarian how many books one could take out at a time. She answered seventy-five. I made a joke about how I’d have to come back later with a pick-up truck to get them all, and she smiled in her southern way and chalked me up silently as just another northern Jewish weirdo passing through.
I got some good books, though I won’t have time to read them all. Here’s the list: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow; Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett; The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher; Origins by Neil De Grasse Tyson; Planets by Dava Sobel; and the Norton Anthology of American Jewish Literature. Will I get through the week?
As you can see, there is a science motif running through my choices. Partially, this is because I’m a next-to-know-nothing on the subject. Instead of plunging into a long novel like Anna Karenina, I prefer to play hopscotch with many books on different subjects. With two dogs and an eight year old in the house, I doubt I’ll be able to do any in-depth reading while I’m here.
The Norton Anthology is a great overview of American Jewish writing from the 1700’s up to contemporary authors like Allegra Goodman, who was born seven years before me. So I’m feeling old now.
It also has a few pages of jokes, which I was surprised to find in a “literary” anthology. I guess this is proof that literature has an expanding definition attached to it, something that sourpuss Henry James probably would’ve scoffed at as he did the Yiddish language. “Torture-rooms of the living idiom” was James’s memorable, if misanthropic, description of the Yiddish scene on the Lower East Side about a century ago.
Here’s a decent joke from the volume, which I’d never heard before. Either I haven’t been around the block enough times, or I’m too young, or I began listening too late in life. Enjoy.
A Hebrew teacher stood in front of the classroom and said, “The Jewish people have observed their 5,759th year as a people. Consider the Chinese, for example. They have only observed their 4,692nd year as a people. What does that mean to you?” After a moment of silence, one student raised his hand. “Yes, Dovid,” the teacher said. “Tell us what this means.”
“It means the Jews had to wait 1,067 years for Chinese food.”