ambivalence

To prepare for the current podcast series, I frontloaded much of the research, knowing that my pace of gathering new information would slow once I was spending time preparing and recording the episodes themselves. As a result, I read and read and read, I read until I felt like I had a good grasp not just for the dates and personalities, but for the historical, sociological, religious, and economic factors throughout the period about which I’d be talking.

And so, finally, after I had read 12 books and probably 200-300 articles, papers, diary entries, and so forth, I got started on episode 1. But I kept reading. For my very first crack at the inaugural episode, I ended up writing it almost word for word, 35 pages of colloquial writing that I would use as a guide as I recorded. But as I alternated between reading and writing, I finally reached a point in my research where I had to admit that the perspective and emphasis I settled on for the episode were laughably amateurish, and very often just plain wrong. This was an epiphany for me: When I started, I had read probably 10,000 pages on the topic in a dozen books and all those hundreds of articles, but when I look back on my first draft notes and thoughts, I just shake my head. Ten thousand pages and I still didn’t know shit.

It made me think of all the other topics that I haven’t read nearly as much about, but that I have waxed poetically upon to indulgent friends ad nauseum. I would often act as if I had a firm understanding of a topic because I had read three books on it! I mean, unless someone is a real deal expert on a topic, reading three separate books on a single issue is a great deal more thought and research than we put into most things. But I have had it proven to me, through first-hand experience, that even after a dozen books and shorter pieces by a hundred authors I remained incredibly naive about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It made me never want to speak on any subject ever again!

As time went on, my research piled up – past 20 books, 30 books, 40 books, 500 articles, 1000 articles… – and I reached a point where most of the new stuff I was reading no longer had anything to offer. I was digesting entire 400-page books and considering it a worthy success if I gathered a handful of previously-unknown quotes and anecdotes from it. I had things down pretty well, and felt like I would be pretty comfortable discussing most of the main and side-issues regarding pre-1948 Palestine with anyone out there.

But, every once in awhile…

Every once in awhile I still come across a book that just blows me away, and I have no choice but to call a temporary halt to production so that I can read and fully internalize it. I received such a book in the mail four days ago and I’m already on my second reading. It’s called A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present, by Zvi Gitelman, a professor of political science and of Judaic studies at University of Michigan. I’ve already ordered the rest of his books and am about to start the next. I highly, highly recommend this book, as it annihilates many myths – from both sides, that is, both anti-Semitic canards, and outright denial regarding Jewish participation in the Soviet tragedy – and does so in a compact, lucid style that makes the book itself a joy to read. If you have any real interest in the topic, this will be on the list of 3-4 books I would make you read.