Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Slogging Through "The Source"

My book club will discuss James Michener's The Source on Feb. 17.  That means, of course, that we must read it, or at least attempt it.

You might ask, "How did you come to choose a book that's over 1000 pages?"

Well, about 6 months ago, we were reminiscing about books that had influenced us, and we talked about reading The Source--at least two of us read it long ago, and we talked about learning about the Middle East by reading Michener.  I innocently said, "I wonder if we'd still see it as so revelatory now."

And thus, a plan was born.  We decided to read it months later so we'd have time.  And now, we're most of us racing against time.

Last week, one of the book club members asked me, "Have you finished it yet?"

I said, "Humanity has just developed agriculture.  I'm nowhere close."

I first read the book in 1983, and as I reread it, I'm intrigued by how much history is there, and yet, years later, when I would rediscover that history, like reading Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman, I remember feeling this shock of never having heard of this history of goddess religions before.

And yet, clearly I had.  I read The Source before I went to college, and much of that history is there in that book.

I do remember when I first read the book, I didn't really like the first one to two hundred pages.  I was reading the book to understand the more recent history of Israel, how the Jews formed a state and why the state of Israel was so contentious as a concept throughout much of the Middle East.  I remember reading Leon Uris, and before that I spent much of my formative years devouring books about the Holocaust. 

So, it makes sense that the earlier history just washed right over me.  This time through, I'm both enjoying the history lesson and finding it all a bit tiring.  The narrative often gets lost or overwhelmed by all the background.

I read a lot of Michener back in the days of high school, when I had a lot more reading time.  I loved the sweep of them, the feeling that I learned so much at the same time that I got a good story--or a series of good stories, all bound together by place.

When I was young, I felt I had plenty of time to read, both in the present tense, and in terms of what I wanted to read before I died.  I no longer feel that way.  I begrudge Michener a bit, for all the relentless history, much of which is repetitive, that bogs me down.  I keep thinking about all the other books I could be reading.  I keep feeling like I'm running out of time, even though I know I'm likely to end up with more time to read in retirement than I'll really want.

At some point, I'll likely say more about the religion in the book, because it's a fascinating study of religion and how religious beliefs developed.  If you've ever wondered how humans developed an idea of the Divine, and how that idea split into all the gods that we see in the ancient world, Michener gives us a great window into that world.

I'm just now to the time of Constantine, so I look forward to seeing how Michener shows us those splintered religions coming back together into more whole forms.  In other words, in the very ancient world, we see people with one ultimate god (El, and variations on that word) but with some more specialized gods, gods in charge of specific aspects of life, like fertility--and then later, even more specialized like fertility of the olive groves.  Ultimately, we see hundreds, if not thousands of gods--and yet, here in 2012, there's only one or two major world religions, Hinduism most prominently, that worship a plethora of Gods.

I look forward to discussing this with my book club, because we have such a diversity of religions represented.  We have an atheist, a Hindu, at least two Jews (one of whom has been on a dig in Israel), a Catholic, and the Lutheran me.  We meet on Feb. 17, and I'll report back afterwards.

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