Every so often, a book scratches an itch that you didn’t even know was there, and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is such a book. Those of you who have either been around for a minute or know me in the real world are aware that an earlier version of me wanted to be a college professor. I triple majored at IU, in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, which is where I hit a wall when I realized that I liked being in class a hell of a lot more than I liked independent research. But I still have a couple of bookshelves about religion, and along with that is a fair number of volumes about Jewish history.
The Weight of Ink tells two parallel stories about two women scholars, a young, unmarried Jewish woman in the mid-1600s, when women knowing how to read and write much less participate at the highest levels of scholarship was forbidden, and a modern-day scholar of seventeenth-century Judaism, suffering from Parkinson’s and nearing retirement. A cache of documents is found in a seventeenth-century home, and the owner calls his former professor in to look at them, and the book takes off from there. Ester and Helen’s stories are interwoven throughout the book, along with Helen’s assistant Aaron, a postgraduate who she more or less grabs at random because he is able to read the right languages to help her with her research.
Mix in some Shakespeare, some Spinoza, a blind rabbi, the Inquisition, Sabbatai Zevi, and a little bit of fire and plague and you’ve got yourself a hell of a book. I’m making this sound a bit more like a detective novel than I probably should; this is indisputably capital-F Fiction, and may indeed be a litratcher, as (I hope) Hilary Custance Greene described it when she recommended it to me. But … yeah, if you’re going to drag me away from nonfiction and genre fiction, writing a book about seventeenth-century Jewry, making translation a bigger part of the action than one might expect, and making the two modern-day figures scholars is a key with a very specific shape that nonetheless opens one of my locks.
Or something; that may be too overwrought of a figure of speech, I’m not sure. At any rate, while it’s a bit slow-moving, which may not be surprising to those of you who just read the description, and it’s a bit on the dense side– it took me over a week to read, which is really rare for a 560-page book– I loved this book a whole lot. Kadish writes about seventeenth-century London like she lived there, and everything about this really worked for me. I hope to hell it actually was Hilary who recommended I read it, because I can’t find the comment anywhere, but I owe her one.