Hughes offers a worthwhile study of Neusner’s life but little about the substance of his work.



The life story of the father of modern Jewish studies.

In this respectfully balanced biography, Hughes (Jewish Studies/Univ. of Rochester) explores the life of Jacob Neusner (b. 1932), a renowned scholar of Judaism and a controversial figure in the American academy. Born in 1932 to a Reform Jewish family in Connecticut, Neusner soon showed significant academic promise, which would result in his education at Harvard, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Oxford, and Yale. Hughes goes to great lengths to set the stage for Neusner’s entry into post-biblical Jewish scholarship, explaining that he was among the first to enter the field from a critical, secular standpoint as opposed to rabbinic or yeshiva routes. As such, he had to struggle for acceptance and basically created the field of Judaic studies that exists today. Neusner’s academic career took him to a variety of universities, and in each place, he caused substantial waves through his groundbreaking views on Jewish studies and his own personality, which Hughes describes as “colorful, mercurial, controversial, [and] often bordering on the outrageous.” From the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Neusner moved on to Dartmouth and then to Brown, where his interpersonal conflicts with administrators, faculty, and students reached a fevered pitch, causing his early retirement. He completed his career with appointments at the University of South Florida and Bard. Hughes also covers Neusner’s forays into conservative politics. The author presents an interesting and widely accessible life story that should appeal to readers interested in American Judaism, Jewish studies, or the academy itself. However, he provides only scant details of Neusner’s actual contributions to his chosen field. “It is unfortunate that when Neusner is remembered,” writes Hughes, “it is primarily because of his notoriously difficult personality, and not necessarily on account of his massively important contributions to the study of rabbinics and religious studies.”

Hughes offers a worthwhile study of Neusner’s life but little about the substance of his work.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4798-8585-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: New York Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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