One Bay One Book: Dara Horn’s time-tripping novel kicks off a year of reading

Dara Horn has kept notebooks since she was a girl. She wanted records of her accomplishments and challenges, she says, from the monumental to the mundane: a personal history she could pore through whenever she felt like it.

“I had this fantasy of turning life into an archive,” says Horn. “I thought if only we could record everything, if we could look back and see whatever we wanted to see, the good and the bad, we could preserve time in that way.

“Now, of course, social media has made my dream come true … and turned it into a nightmare,” she adds with a laugh. “I feel fortunate that I’m 36, because the stupid things I did when I was young were never recorded. For young people right now, this is going to be their entire lives.”

What effect is 21st-century technology having on how, and what, we remember? What are the implications of living in a time when, increasingly, a person’s every move can potentially be tracked by a computer? Is it changing the stories we tell each other — and ourselves — about our pasts?

It was with these questions in mind that Horn, who holds degrees in Yiddish and Hebrew, and has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and Sarah Lawrence College, approached her fourth novel. “A Guide for the Perplexed,” published this month, pulls off the feat of being at once incredibly modern — rooted authentically and almost unnervingly in current events — as well as biblical in scope.

That’s one reason Jewish LearningWorks chose “A Guide for the Perplexed” as this year’s One Bay One Book selection. A project of the Jewish Community Library, the program involves eight months of readings, book discussions and other interactive events at schools, JCCs, synagogues and libraries throughout the Bay Area — meaning people will be reading and talking about it through next spring.

Horn will help kick off this year’s programming with a reading and launch party on Monday, Sept. 23 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Flitting deftly back and forth among three different narratives, fact and fiction, and a span of 900 years, “A Guide for the Perplexed” is a portrait of one troubled family, an exploration of ancient Jewish text, and a meditation on how history is kept and passed on — the ways we inevitably uncover the same stories over and over again.

Dara Horn photo/brendan schulman

Josie Ashkenazi, the modern-day protagonist, is a brilliant software developer who has been locked in a tempestuous, volatile relationship with her jealous older sister, Judith, since childhood. She’s found success (along with a handsome husband, with whom she has a daughter) by inventing Genizah, a software program that records a user’s every living moment. When she’s invited to Egypt to serve as a consultant for the Library of Alexandria digital archives efforts, Josie is kidnapped and presumed dead, setting off a chain of events in which Judith threatens to takes over her life.

Horn then takes us to Egypt in the 1890s, when the real-life Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter (after whom the Conservative movement’s day school system is named) gets a tip from two elderly sisters about a trove of documents that turns out to be the real-life Cairo genizah, a repository of sacred Hebrew texts. Now archived in libraries around the world, the genizah held some 300,000 Jewish manuscripts and other artifacts from medieval Middle Eastern history, preserved in a synagogue storeroom for maybe 1,000 years.

It’s Schechter’s research that introduces the novel’s third narrative — that of Maimonides, the 12th-century Sephardic Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar. One of Maimonides’ best-known philosophical works, “The Guide for the Perplexed,” in turn becomes part of what will determine Josie’s fate.

Horn, who lives in New Jersey with her husband and four young children, says the sisters’ narrative slowly formed around the biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. But modern-day concepts of how we record life kept colliding with thoughts of Horn’s studies on the real-life genizah, bringing up questions about what we choose to remember and why.

“I’d really been thinking about how much we lead our lives online, in part because my husband’s an attorney who specializes in electronic discovery,” Horn says of her inspiration. “And a decade ago, if a company got sued and needed to give lawyers the relevant documents, it was ‘Here’s a box of papers.’ Now with everything online, there are

10 million documents and it’s actually impossible for a person to look through it all — so it turns out saving everything is almost like saving nothing.

“That’s part of what I found funny about this most recent scandal with the NSA,” she says, referring to the National Security Agency tracking citizens’ phone calls, online visits and other electronic activity. “Everyone’s so upset about being recorded, but they [the government] really don’t have the ability to read all the data.”

Parallels emerged with the Cairo genizah, where, alongside historically monumental Jewish texts, there’s also “a lot of garbage, a lot of children’s schoolbooks that show them learning to write,” Horn says. “It’s not really an archive. It’s crammed with so much mundane junk, it’s kind of like medieval Facebook.”

When Horn wrote the book, her Genizah software was purely fictional. Now, she says, it exists in Google Glass. Certainly the themes will resonate in the tech-savvy Bay Area.

More than 50 schools and organizations are gearing up to read and discuss Horn’s book. Last year, One Bay One Book’s inaugural year, drew 48 partner organizations and more than 1,000 individuals to participate in discussions about Nathan Englander’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” another book whose stories left themselves open to a range of interpretation.

“I’m excited about [“A Guide for the Perplexed”] because of how rich it is,” says Howard Freedman, director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. “It’s a story set in today’s world, but it’s also an intricate conversation with our Jewish past. It opens windows to so many discussions, so many questions, and so much older writing as well. I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this, but it’s a gateway drug to classic Jewish text,” he adds with a laugh.

Organizers expect an even bigger turnout for this year’s events, which will include — among many contributions from local academics — a talk by Deena Aranoff, a professor of medieval Jewish studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, discussing the post-exodus Jewish relationship to Egypt; and Tricia Hellman Gibbs, a physician and Jewish scholar discussing Maimonides’ role as a doctor.

Another big topic will be technology in modern life, which is one reason Horn says she’s especially excited to discuss the idea of the Genizah software with readers living in the Bay Area, where so many people — including many recent Israeli émigrés, like Josie’s fictional Israeli tech-engineer husband — work or have worked in high-tech.

As for the young protagonist who’s the head of her own software company, Horn says she chose to write a book with female characters at its center in part because her readers noted that her last three novels centered on men.

Also, “I wanted to write about a female software developer, because I kind of think that’s the new version of a female mountain climber or explorer. But I also wanted to write a book about a female developer without having it be remarked upon, or be the focal point of the book. That’s just who she is.”

Finally, as power dynamics between characters shift, she wanted readers to “reconsider who the good guys and bad guys are” by the end of the novel.

Fans of Horn’s work — which includes “The World to Come,” winner of the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for fiction — say “A Guide for the Perplexed” is among her most entertaining books. It is an adventure novel, after all. But the author also pays close attention to word choice, writing with an outlook that she says is like “writing English as though English were a Jewish language.”

“Every language has an archaeology of belief, even if native speakers don’t hear it,” Horn explains. “When you say someone’s going to ‘go the extra mile,’ you’re quoting Jesus’ disciples; if you say ‘It’ll happen for better or for worse,’ you’re quoting the Anglican marriage ceremony. You hear it every time someone sneezes.

“In Jewish languages, that kind of linguistic archaeology is drawn from the Torah and other Jewish sources. So what I look to do is embed those kinds of references, infuse Jewish texts — like the book’s title — into the writing without hitting you over the head with it. It’s not my intention to sit there and teach you a class about Maimonidies … but then he emerged as a linchpin of the plot.”

Similarly, Horn didn’t set out to hearken back to Torah stories with her plotlines. But she says questions of memory and preserving the past are difficult to avoid once you’ve studied Judaism.

“A core premise of traditional Judaism is that after the Bible, nothing new ever happens,” she says. “It sounds absurd in part because the whole premise of American culture is that everything that happens is new — that everything that happens here is unprecedented. The American dream is that it doesn’t matter who your parents were; you can do anything you want.

“Judaism says the most important things in your life happened thousands of years ago, and there’s an assumption that you see over and over again in text that history repeats itself. The Torah commands people not to forget their past, to actually re-enact it.”

Take the High Holy Days, says Horn. “In a lot of religions there’s only one day of judgment. Judaism is ‘Oh, it’s the day of atonement, again!’ Passover, ‘We’re free from slavery, again! ’”

It’s fitting, then, that “A Guide for the Perplexed” ends on a note that suggests a cycle beginning anew — the idea that the oldest stories in the book are never really buried. It is, says Horn, just part of who we are.

Dara Horn will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., San Francisco. $15.

One Bay One Book

“A Guide for the Perplexed” by Dara Horn (336 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95)

On the cover: Author Dara Horn  photo/brendan schulman

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.