Every semester, I end up teaching for a class that is assigned three topics, one of which is superstitions. After a few frustrating searches for the origins of our fear of Friday 13th or the idea that the full moon brings out the crazy, I have to tell the students that they need to look deeper for research about how the human mind sees patterns where there might not be any real correlation between events. On the other hand, sometimes there is meaning in the patterns. Our past behavior predicts our current and future choices. Dara Horn’s astonishing novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, dances between these two extremes of interpretation. I was floored by the profundity of this book.
The novel spans a thousand years. We begin in our near future, with computer programmer Josie Ashkenazi. She has decided to go to Egypt to work with the resurrected Library of Alexandria to help them catalog their collections with Genizah (more on this in a bit). In 1895, linguist and scholar Solomon Schechter works to recover documents from the Cairo Geniza. In the distant past, Moses Maimonides tries to cure the sultan’s asthma, mourns his brother, and ponders free will.
Josie’s software, Genizah, is named for the Cairo Geniza. A traditional geniza is a room where observant Jews store documents that contain the name of god, but are no longer useable due to damage. They cannot be destroyed because this is forbidden. Some genizot became repositories for any document that had Hebrew characters. This is what created the Cairo Geniza. When Schechter finally got his hands on this geniza, there were thousands of crumbling documents—so many that it was almost impossible for him to make any meaning from them. Josie’s Genizah is designed to not only document users’ lives but catalog them so that users’ can revisit their pasts, find lost things, and repeat good patterns of behavior and avoid bad ones.
At the beginning of A Guide for the Perplexed, Josie and other characters repeatedly assert that pattern-spotting can lead them to deeper meaning. As the novel progresses, one might start to think that patterns mean that events are connected. Horn includes Maimonides’ thoughts about free will and determinism, firmly planting the question that there might not be such a thing as free will. In the narrative, names and relationships and stories are repeated, reinforcing the idea that there is no such thing as coincidence and everything really does happen for a reason.
But this thesis inverts itself by the end of the book. At least, I think it does. I know Schrödinger’s thought experiment gets misinterpreted all the time, but this is only because the misinterpretation works so well as a shorthand for understanding how opposites can be true at the same time. In Maimonides’ book, Guide for the Perplexed, he posits the idea that free will might exist just because we humans thing it does. An outside observer (or someone using Josie’s Genizah) can see the larger patterns that explain why we behave the way we do. From the outside observer’s perspective, there is no free will because our behavior is determined. Yet from the perspective of insiders, we’re winging it. We have free will because we decide how we act in the moment. Which is true? Can’t they both be true at the same time? Truth depends on where one is observing from.
Another thesis also emerges at the end of the novel as the characters deal with issues of forgiveness for tragedies they may or may not have caused. (It depends on where they think the tragedy started, etc. etc.) Forgiveness is possible only when we re-write the past, according to Horn’s version of Maimonides. We change our memories so that we can let go of resentment, hurt, guilt, and grudges. If we can’t change those memories, we can’t really forget and, therefore, can’t really forgive.
A Guide for the Perplexed is so beautifully written. As I read it, I could feel my thoughts shifting and rearranging themselves as it manipulated me (in a good way). This book has given me so much to think about that I know I will be re-reading it often in the future.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who need to let go of superstitious thinking, militant atheists and fundamentalist believers, and readers who wonder if everything is a matter of chance.