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The more things change

Local novelist examines text, technology, and memory

Author Dara Horn’s new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, features some of Judaism’s great thinkers, including Moses Maimonides, Solomon Schechter, and — Josie Ashkenazi?

Who?

Horn, a resident of Short Hills, makes computer guru Ashkenazi the focal character in her latest book, which considers how technology can serve as a blessing or a curse to memory.

Horn will discuss A Guide for the Perplexed at the [words] bookstore in Maplewood on Thursday evening, Oct. 10.

The fictional Ashkenazi is the creator of The Genizah, a digital archive that collects and organizes every single moment of people’s lives. Her accomplishments have brought her wealth and fame but have also made her the target of terrorists, not to mention the antipathy of her less-talented sister, Judith.

If Josie Ashkenazi is the primary subject of Guide, the Genizah is a close second. Horn travels back in time to include Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher (author of his own Guide for the Perplexed), who “contributed” to the actual Cairo Genizah, a massive collection of Jewish manuscript fragments found in a synagogue in the Egyptian capital in 1896. She also throws in Schechter — the rabbi, scholar, and educator (1847-1915) and architect of the Conservative movement in America — who travels to Cairo to investigate the potential treasure trove at the behest of some British benefactors.

After her previous book — All Other Nights, a Civil War spy story — Horn wanted to write a contemporary novel about how memory has changed over the generations. “Now, there’s a sense you don’t have to remember someone’s phone number anymore or someone’s e-mail because it’s in your contacts; everything is public,” said Horn in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News. “To me, what’s more interesting about it is what used to be private memories are now public memories…and this idea that everything can be recorded.”

For example, she said, 20 years ago, people would shoot a roll of film for a special occasion and put their cameras away; with digital photography and smart phones, however, the opportunity to take pictures quickly and cheaply is ever-present, so little goes unrecorded.

‘Medieval Facebook’

 

Because of her background in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Horn knows social media is not a new phenomenon, referring to the Genizah, which she describes as “the medieval version of Facebook.” Most of the items discovered in the ancient cache were “trash: laundry lists, sales receipts, children’s school exercises…the ephemera of daily life.” The real-life Schechter brought back 200,000 documents from Cairo and “there’s still material that hasn’t been classified or even read.”

Just as Horn had to do major research about the Civil War and life in the South for All Other Nights, she inundated herself with information about computer coding, software, and contemporary and 19th-century Egyptian history for Guide. She discovered “how similar their lives are in a lot of ways you wouldn’t expect.”

“Everybody thinks they’re living in modern times. Twelfth-century Cairo was the ‘text capital’ of the world. This was the cutting edge of science and technology.”

Horn said, “The culture in the U.S. is always about the new,” imbued with the thinking that what happens to contemporary America “is completely unprecedented. Of course, in traditional Judaism, this is exactly the opposite. In a sense, nothing new ever happens after the time of the Bible. We’re just repeating these stories out of the past.”

The fear of unwelcome intrusion offered by opportunities afforded by a phenomenon like the Genizah is an old fear, she said. Plato’s Phaedrus warned that the written word would destroy society’s memory because they would no longer have to commit stories to memory.

“I’m not afraid of technology,” said Horn. “I’m not one of those people who think that technology is robbing people of their souls.” In fact, Horn said, she is a product of it: Her parents met in 1966 through the world’s first computer-dating service.

For more information about the author and her work, visit darahorn.com.

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