Authenticity and the last Jew on Earth: Colin Marshall talks to novelist Joshua Cohen

Novelist Joshua Cohen is the author of Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, A Heaven of Others, and now Witz. The new book follows the cross-country (and international, and possibly even interplanetary) journey of Benjamin Israelien, born with a beard and glasses, already nearly a grown man. After a Biblical plague on Christmas Even 1999, Benjamin becomes the last Jew on Earth. He’s first celebrated, then marketed, then turned upon. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]

Cohen1 I want to — oh god, where do I even start with this book — talk a little bit about the experience I had when I was looking up the reactions to it. Gaving read it, an experience I would characterize as being enjoyably lost in it, I found a lot of people saying things like Dan Friedman said in the Forward: “It's a shame no one will read this book.” That's what you might call damning with faint praise. Is this the reaction you've seen? I can almost not believe that's what people are writing about it.

No, that's not what I've seen. Just like the book itself is a provocation, there have been a few reviews that have sought to provoke as well. I think that was intended more as a provocation than a true statement of Mr. Friedman's beliefs, but you'd have to ask him. I've expected a lot of the responses. Some of the responses have been fear or this begrudged respect, and then, of course, there have been the good reviews that have been heartening. Book reviewing in America today is such a fraught profession where you're paid a few hundred dollars to read a book of many hundreds of pages and then reduce it to 300 words that will go through three editors and eventually find its way in a newspaper or onto a web site. To expect, three months after a book this large, a book ten years in the making, the reactions to be comprehensive or in any have intellectual depth or clarity is a little more than I would expect, and I've worked as a reviewer for years.

Indeed, and the first reaction you mentioned was fear. What is this fear rooted in?

Well, I think it's gigantism. I think people don't want to read things this long. I think people don't want to read things this verbally dense. But also, politically, the subject matter tends to frighten. People feel compromised. When you tell them you wrote a book about the last Jew in the world, they don't know how to take it. They don't know whether it's a piece of propaganda or a satire.

Yes, that's what's always mentioned first: “Joshua Cohen has written this book Witz about the last Jew on Earth.” Technically, that's a very valid point to make about the content, but at the same time, reading it, I wasn't thinking so much about the speculative scenario of “What would it be like if there was one Jew on Earth?” That particular Jew stopped being was I was thinking about. I started thinking about the language. It became almost entirely, for me, about the language. Is that a reaction you would expect from a reader?

Oh, I don't know what to expect from a reader. I know I wanted the book to be about its language. I wanted the book to interrogate its own materials, mostly because I think any Jew in America today sort of doubts the fabric of his or her own religion. There's just so many ways of identifying as Jewish today, so many conflicting ideological ways, certainly so many conflicting political ways, that the manner in which one can be Jewish that can encompass all of these is language, this enormous instrument of language which is a mixture of Yiddish, Yiddish English, show-biz schtick, stage patter, the translations of the Bible into this sort of high King James thing that has come down in Reform Judaism. The language is just so rich, and it combines so many political points of view and religious observant points of view that the book had to be about its language and had to immerse people in that language.

When you began writing the book nearly a decade ago, did you know this book had to be about its language?

Oh, sure. The people I want to be part of exist only in language. There was no doubt from the beginning that this book was going to live and die by the word, by the sentence, that there was going to be an attempt to pile everything into it, linguistically: all the languages of the diaspora, all the languages of the liturgy. It was going to have to be a private language, ultimately. When you write a book that's very long, you tend to to think it's a very public a book, a book that wants to accomplish the world. The idea was to have a book that took the form of a very public book, but in a very private language, in a language that nobody necessarily speaks in but that is my personal concoction of the languages of the diaspora, of the languages of Jewish tradition, of scripture, of the language of my family, and certainly the language of media, of the Borscht Belt, of Jewish comedy, of film.

Hearing about the language you've made in this book, I think about myself. I'm not Jewish. I certainly haven't spent any time immersed in Jewish culture. But I still enjoyed the language, and I still enjoyed the book. It seems like that's somehow something I shouldn't have been able to do. Have you heard reactions from non-Jewish readers, about them still enjoying this stuff full of resonances for people who are Jewish, people who know Judaism, but the ones who don't — at least if I'm going to use myself as an example — still find it funny, still find it smart? I guess that's a good thing, but is it something you designed in?

If you'll forgive me, the question behind that question is, “What kind of reader am I writing for?” The truth is that I don't think about the reader. I certainly don't think if I'm writing for a Jewish audience or a non-Jewish audience. I don't think I'm writing for an audience at all. I'm writing to satisfy myself, and I'm writing to my own standard, my own pitch. This book certainly would be different were I to gauge somebody's level of Jewish literacy. One thing I always think about is, if you read a lot of the Yiddish books that were translated into English right after the war, you see that all the Yiddish terminology and some of the Hebrew terminology given in italics. That served to take these foreign words and exoticize them even more.

I wanted to have no italic words. I wanted to incorporate any foreignisms, any exotic terminology, into the very flesh of the English, the very flesh of the book. When you do that, you can't think of the reader. You can only think of the effect it produces in yourself. I don't see any difference in a word in Hebrew or a word in Yiddish or a word in English. These are all words I would use interchangeably and are part of my pan-linguistic language, my own language.

There's a couple ironies here. Number one: the irony that, by taking away the buffer between the elements of Jewish culture you include, especially the words you pull straight from non-English languages, and as well, writing in this language you've made, not thinking about the reader, thinking in a way that makes what you think would be an insular book — both these things somehow made the book more approachable, not less. I felt like I inhabited it more, not less. Making it more foreign gave it less of that distance of exoticism; making it more personal to you has somehow made it more accessible to me. Does this make any sense whatsoever?

It does. I appreciate it as praise, and I would say in answer that were surrounded by explanation, we're surrounded by information, and I've had enough of it. My thought was, if anybody didn't know a word, they could look it up, and it's easier to look things up than ever. We live in a culture of information, a culture of information transmission, and beyond the very fact that there's the internet and we're all connected to these heights of knowledge, the conservative art products of our age just seek to condescend to us in explanation. They want to get on their knees and put their hands on our knees and slowly and patiently make sure the reader is never lost, because to lose the reader is to lose a sale.

My concept of the ideal book is a book that never explains, that never contextualizes, and that trusts that the reader is every bit as intelligent as the writer, or every bit as curious as the writer, curiosity being more important than intelligentce, and that they'll come along. I really feel that the old element of storytelling was suasion, was the idea to persuade the reader, to appeal to their curiosity. Now, it's a sort of calculating explanation, a patient plodding to ensure that the book is accessible on all levels to all types of readers. That's something I have no patience with. I can't read it. I don't care about it.

That's one reason that the third-person omniscient novel has grown very boring to me. The conservatisms in place when a peasant or middle-class person in Russia wouldn't know about the aristocracy and then they read War and Peace and suddenly know how the aristocracy lives — we know how everyone lives. We have magazines for this. We have newspapers for this. We have the internet for this. We have movies for this. Literature can't do that. We have all the information. We know how the other exists. Now we just need to know how they feel or, better, how an individual processes this information, how and individual refracts it and presents it poetically.

There's a concept here of trusting the reader, respecting the reader, as the flip side of what's seen as “challenging” the reader or “throwing down a gauntlet” for the reader. It is fascinating to me that I can read reviews of the book and they say, “Oh, Witz is challenging,” “Oh, it's going to be so hard.” Of course, yes: I had difficulty with it. It took me a long time to read, just because of the amount of text. There were many parts where I couldn't tell you what was going on. But I still found that, “Hey, this is really funny. This is text I've never read before. This is something different.”

I want to ask you this: when you're trying to trust a reader, when you're trying to assume they're as intelligent as the book they're reading, is there as much of a downside as the public discussion would say there is? “You do that, and you're never going to have anybody read it.” Does it actually turn people off?

I don't know. I can only speak for myself. Everyone has underestimated the reader. I don't believe I've ever been overestimated. I don't know the answer. Me personally, I'll read anything and take it for what it speaks to me. I honestly don't know how to answer that question. Take, for example, with all respect, this interview: so far, we've just discussed the reactions to the book and not the book itself. Truthfully, the entire context of how a book is received can't be obvious to the writer. Can't be obvious to me.

I've lived with this book for a decade. I have friends and family who've read it, and I have friends and family who haven't read it. Their reception or acceptance of rejection of the book is not an acceptance or rejection of me, nor is it an acceptance or rejection of any philosophy of literature that I have. The book exists and the book will continue to exist, and at a certain point it will find readers, or it won't.

Indeed. You talk about living with the book so long, and I want to go back to the beginning, back to the origins, the very seeds of Witz. We've talked about some elements of literature with which you perhaps have been dissatisfied. Perhaps this is a corrective. But what else formed the very seeds of this project when you first began it?

Certainly feeling that I was living at the confluence of two deaths, two mortalities. One is that I was born in 1980. I think my generation will be the last that will know, personally, survivors of the Holocaust. After they pass, all testimony will be second-hand: books, documentaries, recorded interviews, and so on. Yet people my age, people in the twenties, had the opportunity to meet, first-hand, the victims, and not only hear the stories, the testimony that has become stories, but also to see the triumph of life afterward, and also to see the toll. But certainly feeling that generation — which was my grandparents' generation, an immigrant generation — passing.

And then, at the same time, what has been sold to us as the death of the book, or at least the decline of the primacy of the book as an idiom, or a medium of communication of our culture. As the essential element of our culture. Living at the confluence of these mortalities, I began to realize that the way in which I was raised and the cultures in which I was raised were fading away. My house was full of books growing up, and suddenly I'm told that books are not in the future. My house was full of stories of a thousand years of European Jewry that formed my grandparents, and that generation is dying.

Then, when I was in my early twenties, I lived for a while in Central Europe and in Eastern Europe, worked for a few newspapers out there and magazines and did a lot of reporting on the Jewish aspect of a number of these capitols in countries after the fall of communism, what was happening to the elderly Jewish communities — what was left of them — of Prague, of Budapest, of Warsaw. Spending a lot of time on trains crossing the eastern part of that continent, looking at cemeteries that were destroyed for ice hockey stadiums or Holocaust survivors that weren't receiving health benefits. Also just taking in the landscape.

Those were all antecedents to the book. And then, of course, the reading, the reading I've always done, the reading I've done in Jewish literature from a number of these languages. The idea that I wanted to bring to an end that period of my life, to write a terminal text of that period of my life, a terminal text about the terminal. I don't want to live thinking about the Holocaust. I don't want to live thinking about books to which I've given my life disappearing. It was an attempt to frame all of these thanatopsical thoughts between two covers.

Standing at the confluence of these two deaths you discuss — this doesn't seem like the work of a man who, at that point, actually accepts at least the “death of the book” as you've termed it. This doesn't seem like the work of a man who thinks the book is going away, in all seriousness. Is it?

Well, I don't know. The book is not leaving me. No one's going to come to my house and seize my books. I probably can't give my books away. I don't know. I don't know what to say. I do know that I think people are reading less. That I have friends who read less now than they read ten years ago. I don't know. I have no predicitons to that end, but I certainly don't see many books like my book, and I'm not saying that from a postion of egotism. It's an observation. I see books that are packaged. I see books that look like books. I see books that smell like books and books that feel like books, but I don't hear the music of books from them. I hear some sort of calculation. I hear some sort of market judgment. I don't know. Or at least I haven't been able to read many contemporary novels, or novels about my contemporaries.

This makes me ask something I just have to know about: some of the articles I've read about you and about this book have also taken the line that “Joshua Cohen does not like any of your favorite authors of Jewish novels.” I don't want to sensationalize any statements you've made here. I want to ask how much of the actual writing of this book — not the press, not the reviews — was driven by a reaction of yours to what people have called “Jewish novels”?

Cohen2 Oh, a lot of it. Certainly the press aspects of it sensationalize it, and certainly you shouldn't give interviews when drunk, but the writing of the book was absolutely a reaction against the happy endings of Holocause literature and of the Jewish novels that I grew up reading. The sense that one can write about an enormous historic catastrophe and yet frame it in “I lived to tell the tale” terms just doesn't seem important to me anymore. I'm sure it had its cultural function, but it doesn't resonate with me. I prefer the Yiddish literature of the Holocaust to the American literature of the Holocaust. Certainly the writers of, let's say, radical negativity have always appealed to me over writers who try to find a sense of meaning where there isn't one, where there's just a void.

I find that most of the Jewish art, let's say, tends toward a sort of sweetness, a treacly or saccharine sweetness, that tends to value a poetic feeling over historical fact. I was kind of impatient with that. Not that I'm a fan of historical fact, because it's an entirely counterfactual book, but I don't like the idea of exampling one fictional character's happiness without, in some way, conveying the idea that that happiness is had against a backdrop of the suffering and deaths of millions.

Nobody has called Witz a happy book, or a book with a sunny outlook, certainly. But at the same time, reading the book, I was laughing a lot, I was really enjoying it, and I at the same time felt happier about the possibilities of literature, despite the bleakness of the book's content. This is a contradiction I'm not sure I can reconcile. I don't even know if I have a good question to ask about it, but what can you say about that kind of reaction, which, at least for me as a reader, was predominant over the course of this? This book is impressively innovative with text and yet, at the same time, it's not a book that should be making me happy in any sense. I feel like I should come away more sad than I was before. What do you think's going on there?

I think it's the whole 20th-century education thing, the laughing through tears, the gallows humor. It's everything that we — meaning the world, not just Jews — learned from Jewish European culture, especially East European culture, which is the idea that your only weapon is humor, that it's no consolation, but it is a defense. It's all of that Ashkenazi weakness that Israel rails against, but for me, it's an essential lesson.

It's also an inheritance that I'd like to question, the idea the everything can be laughed at, that powerlessness is the great humorous, beautiful, tragic, heroic response to power, and that in powerlessness is great power because of the mechanism of humor that can embarrass people in power, that can humiliate the oppressor. These are all ideas that come very natural to me, and I think that's behind the concept that you can read something very depressing but still find humor in it, still find dignity in it, and even some sort of redemption, even if it is a stilted one.

But also, there's a criticism of that. There's an implied criticism, because I'm not sure that laughter-through-tears inheritance is useful. I'm not sure it's politically useful. I certainly think it's better that Israel has an army than it has jokes. I think armies are sometimes more effective than jokes. But it's an attempt to find out how I feel about that inheritance. It was osmotic. It was the idea that, whenever anything bad happened to you, you would immediately find the humor in it, because you were just an abject creature, and that being a victim is a funny thing. I don't know how well that serves me. I certainly know that it might have created a good book, but it might not have created a good person or a well-adjusted person.

I take it it's no coincidence that, at the core of Witz, we find a powerless character, a character who in a sense is powerful because he wields influence over the world by his very existence, but it's nof influence he can actually use. It's a powerful powerlessness, if that makes any sense?

Yeah, the whole idea is that he's a person that has no interest in Judaism, no knowledge of Judaism, and yet is the last vestige of Judaism. It's terrible to be a conscious symbol, to be a symbol who's constantly reminded that they also should be a human being, or could be a human being. That's the idea with Benjamin Israelien.

This character is one that I can't quite stop thinking about, because of a lot of thing, but number one, the image of a character born with a beard and glasses obviously is one that sticks with with you, but in the same sense, it makes one wonder about the origins of this character. Can you tell me about the process that got you to the point where you knew this would have to be the type of man-child at the center of the book?

There was no thinking behind it. It was just, “How many clichés and stereotypes can we boil up in a pot, pour into a skin, and sew it up?” It's the tradition of the schlemiel, the tradition of the schlemozzle, of the guy who can do no right, the man who would lose even his own shadow. It's helplessness, but it's also that great absentminded transcendence you see in so many Jewish intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals being the only heroes in Jewish life, really, at least in the European sphere. All of that came very naturally. There was very little conscious construction. The character needed to be a fully formed archetype.

The world that he finds himself in becomes one where Judaism is kind of a Judaism of — kitsch is a word that gets used a lot, but I think of it as the Judaism of superficial stuff, of an accretion of detritus in a world where most of the Jews are gone. As far as the way this world would look, is this something you knew when you started Witz, or is it something that developed as you wrote it? You found this was the world it just happened to become as you started from your premises and worked outward?

I think it was Novalis who said that every book should contain its counterbook, its opposite. It was my thought that this book had to show a world in two sections, a world without Jews in which all of the cultural institutions fall apart, a world in which all of the banking institutions fall apart, in which everything goes to shit, to rack and ruin. And then there was the counterbook. There's the scripture and then the negative scripture, where people repopulate Jewry by converting. That very clear, very schematic structure was there from the beginning. The details filled themselves in as I wrote, and again, it was a very long process of writing. Actually, it was a short process of writing; it was a very long process of rewriting.

But the book needed to be structured as a joke, or as a series of jokes, but really, it was a proposition: all the the Jews die. And the proposition is complicated and complicated and complicated as propositions are set up in jokes are, and this furnishing of a punchline is as long as the setup. There's a punchline that essentially reverses the punchline in saying, “You want to hear something funny in response to this? We're going to give you a funny reality, a reality in which a world without Jews becomes a more Jewish world.”

The idea of structuring the book in that way, as a joke — obviously everybody who hears a translation of the title, and you can see in the book as you started that it's pointed out. This is a book where there doesn't seem to be just one structure. There's sub-structures here, it seems to me. You had this notion of the book structured as a joke; where does it go from there, in terms of thinking about the ways you want to structure the structures below that? It seems, in the reading experience, you can see on the surface that there are structural changes. Was that a natural progress from this idea of structure as joke?

The book is structured as a joke in the sense that it's cut in half. It's just cut right down the middle as a world without Jews and a world of all Jews. It's the thought of, “Let's have the beginning of a book be none and the end of a book be all.” The local structure, let's say, was born from the idea of the Jewish calendar, of leading some sort of — what's the word? — diachronic life.

The book itself combines two concept of time, structured according to the Jewish calendar, and certainly it takes into account the New Year and Passover and begins on the ever of the millennium, the secular New Year. All the Jews die out on the eve of Pesach, Passover, representing an alternate New Year. Also, the book is structure according to the progress of the Bible, of the Torah. There's that large section, the Exodus section, where Benjamin Israelien is wandering across America, throughout the southwest. It was an attempt to overlay the calendar with Torah narrative as a reflection of what it means to live a double life.

Also, you'll notice that the secular calendar itself ebbs as the book continues and gives itself entirely over to the Jewish calendar. That accounts for the local structure, and there are all sorts of niceties to keep grad students scurrying for years, though that wasn't the intention. Mostly the intention was to gratify me, which might be even more narcissistic. But the book was rigorously structured only because, when you're writing in a highly verbal, highly allusive style, it's very easy to go on forever and ever. Though some people might believe I've gone on forever and ever, there are reasons I begin where I begin and end where I end.

There also does seem to be a practical governor here, in the sense that — correct me if I'm wrong, but — I've read that you wrote the original manuscript longhand?

I wrote large portions of the original manuscript longhand. The original manuscript I wrote was a couple hundred pages but soon ballooned to a few thousand pages once it became, like everything else today, computerized. I still write first and sometimes second drafts of things longhand, absolutely.

Why is that? What does it give you in terms of the way you can process the language while you are crafting the language?

Well, you never know if what you do is because of superstition or because you believe it truly works. I think that when you write by hand, you tend to write by ear, and when you write on a screen, you tend to write by sight. You want the words to look a certain way on a page when they're so neat and the font is so uniform and you can move things around. But the only guide when you write by hand — especially when your hand is as sloppy as mine is — is the ear. That's what I tell myself, but I don't know what the truth is. Sometimes it's fun to write in bed. Sometimes it's good to write on the train. Sometimes you have to write standing up, waiting for your drinks, you know?

Indeed. Adaptability to various settings is an important quality in a writer. There's something I want to get into that maybe verges on a little bit too abstract, but it still was an issue that I couldn't put down while reading Witz. Being someone who's not Jewish, who doesn't come from a Jewish family, a lot of my encounters with Judaism have been through literature. In a large way, for me, people talking about Jewish subjects is almost exclusively the domain of books, of texts, of stories.

I don't know what resonance that has in the wider world, but Witz did seem like a pretty big break even from Jewish-ness as a purely literary entity. Since you come from the background, I don't know how much you would have thought about it as purely represented in books, but is that a subject that crosses your mind, the way that you have, yes, Judaism the thing itself, but also the thing whose ambassador to a lot of people is mainly in books? Literature is where I got a lot of this stuff whose references I understood in Witz in the first place.

I've never been interested in ambassadorship, because I've always believed that it presents some sort of false face. I don't want to write a representative Jewish book. I don't know what a representative Jewish book is. I think it's the Torah, but if you read the Torah, it's insane; it has nothing to do with Jewish life today. I don't know. I will say that I've never been interested in the public face of something. I've always been interested in what goes on behind it. Whenever I'm on a tour, I know the last person I have to listen to is the tour guide, you know? I'm not interested in the official response, in the official version, in the press secretary, in the talking head.

I like shop talk. I like the way people talk behind counters. I like the way people talk in kitchens. I think that shows the true face, the authentic face, not in the sort of Marxist history-from-the-ground-up way, but just in the way that people are honest. When you're composing something for consumption on a large scale, or at least for consumption by people with a large range of capabilities and a large range of experiences coming at it from different backgrounds, you water it down. You never get the true product. I've never once thought about writing anything representative. I've never once thought about giving someone a book that can show them what Judaism is. And in fact, if you read any of these books like What is Judaism?, these airport-type books, they don't communicate any aspect of Jewish life to me. I don't think they would to anyone.

The essence of any idea is always at its periphery and never at its center, because its periphery shows that someone is alienated from it yet is, to some segree, inexorably attracted to it or part of it. It's that tension that can actually be made universal, because anyone can understand the tension between feeling you're part of something and feeling you're not part of something, an individual and some sort of participant in the collective. I think people emotionally respond to the periphery, yet fool themselves into wanting a broad statement, a sort of center. I'm not sure how much that had to so with the dissemination organs of publishing, or whether it's just the idea of having to put on a public face and conduct yourself. I don't know what's that from, but I know I've always been interested in what goes on in back, the man behind the curtain.

You bring up that word “authenticity,” and it's a word I overhear brought up in conversations to do with Judaism: “What is authentically Jewish?” A lot of these very broad questions. I take it, then, these are the notions of authenticity you are precisely not concerned with?

Exactly which notions of authenticity are you referring to?

Exactly. Maybe that's the core of my question.

Yeah. Whose authenticity?

Maybe there's a meta-question of authenticity that's more interesting here. It's articles I see flit by on the internet where people will write, worrying a little bit about how we define what's authentically Jewish and what isn't. Yeah, what authenticity is authentic? Your brain kind of turns off at a certain point, but what level of that conversation interests you, if any?

All levels of that conversation interest me. I think authenticity is the great subject today. I think the beginning of modernity has this interest in authenticity, when we find that we can reproduce things, when we can make multiple copies of an artwork, we suddenly ask ourselves, “What is the authentic?” We become sort of medievalists interested in the relics of saints. We want the original manuscript that then becomes the book, or the sketch of the original painting that then gets reproduced in every textbook and on everyone's computer screen. We're interested in authenticity, but now it has left the realm of the product, left the realm of the object, and entered the realm of the subject. What is is to be an authentic person?

We live in a time of incredible freedom, and in a country of incredible freedom, where all of these ethnic categories and religious categories that had kept people, controlled people, and persecuted people but at the same time provided them with comfort for generations have eroded. We are mixed-race, mixed religion, mixed linguistic. It's a huge, beautiful, jump-up-and-down-in-the-piss-puddle mess. This sort of hybridity is the great American contribution. I would in no way question the value of it. But also, we need to recognize that what comes from that freedom is a sense of loss, not only the idea that all of these signposts and guides have been eradicated — we don't know what's expected of us, what we should do, what the laws governing our behavior are, the laws governing what we should eat, when we should eat, when we should pray, when we should sleep, what we say when we have to go to the bathroom — all these things have gone away. We need to realize that they've left us with a sort of spiritual void that can't be filled by purchasing power, and can't be filled by… I don't know. They can't be filled. Maybe they can be filled by art that questions notions of authenticity.

One of the great pleasures of watching the Obama election was that, here's a man who comes from everywhere, which is to say, to come from nowhere. Yet he found the root, the narrative, that got him elected: how this was the most American thing in the world. From that, he created this picture of an all-American family. He made himself an all-American family. He married into a sort of Chicago dynasty and has this picture-perfect American family with children. They live in a nice house and he worked his way up and became the President of the United States of America. This is a man who came from nowhere. And yet, he can only find meaning in a sort of embrace of this American authenticity, this stable family. But I think there has to be — I'm not going to psychoanalyze the president, but — some sort of void. A questioning of who I would've been in another situation, who I would've been in another context, who I would've been when there were less threats to freedom, let's say. People talk about the threats to freedom, and they're very afraid to talk about the threats of freedom. But I think there's no doubt there is some sort of void.

And when you ask yourself questions about who you you would've been if you were in some other set of circumstances — how much sense do you find it makes to ask yourself a question about who you would be if you were someone else? That original you kind of disappears, does it not?

Oh, sure. These are all insane fantasies. I, for example, even just being Jewish, am a mess. My mother's Jewish, my father's Jewish. As far as I know, Jews going back forever. And yet, within that I'm a complete mess. My grandparents on one side are German Jews from Cologne, very wealthy, very assimilated, three-piece suits, kind of a Hanukkah tree for Christmastime. On the other side, they're basically Hasidic Hungarian peasants — Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Ukranian, right on that border. Within every purity are a thousand mongrel idioms straining against each other, devouring each other, claiming precedence.

It's a useful exercise to think how you would've been, but I'm not really sure it's anything but an exercise. The point of the exercise is to realize that everyone creates for themselves their own tradition, and that we have the freedom to create for ourselves our own tradition. But within that, we probably shouldn't abandon — and this is going to sound terribly conservative, but — certain values that have remained constant, remained useful. By “values,” I mean nothing that could be associated with the Republican party. I mean things like literacy, things like responsibility to cultural memory and to collective memory.

When I think about this book — and thinking about it hasn't really slowed down for me, especially since, of course, I was preparing to interview you. But even after this interview, I don't think it's going to be out of my mind any time soon. I don't think the book is dome with me, in a way. Yes, I have read the words on the pages, but at the same time I do feel I can and will be drawn to re-enter it at a variety of points, just to experience the language of different parts of it. I feel like I can; I feel like I'm allowed to go back in wherever, to exist in it for a while. How much of that could you consider a recommended reading practice of this book? I feel like it's almost meant for me to do that, you know?

Sure, there are scenes, there are set pieces. Certainly there are discontinuities in the text that would lend themselves to being read as excerpts, read separately. I didn't really write a book that was supposed to be an encyclopedia or a dictionary, a reference book to be dipped into, but how about this: if anyone makes it through 800 pages, they can read wherever they want. With my blessing.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.