An interview with Dara Horn
Your novel is about a software developer who creates an application that records everything its users do. Where did that idea come from?
When I was writing the book, it was fiction! (Six months later, it’s called Google Glass.)
Since I was a child, I’ve had a fantasy of turning life into an archive, of writing everything down so that nothing could ever be lost. Now, of course, social media has made my dream come true—and turned it into a nightmare. We usually think of information overload as a modern problem. But because I moonlight as a professor of Hebrew literature (I have a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish), I know this has happened before.
A little over a century ago, a Cambridge professor named Solomon Schechter discovered a stash of medieval documents in a Cairo synagogue. Because of a religious law against destroying Hebrew texts, synagogues usually have a storage space called a “genizah”—a “hiding place” for damaged books and papers that can’t be used but also can’t be thrown away. This Cairo synagogue was a thousand years old. It had a genizah room containing a massive document dump—and no one had cleaned out the room in over nine hundred years. The Cambridge professor, in typical imperial British fashion, packed up more than 100,000 documents and brought them back to Cambridge. Some of them were priceless literary treasures. But most were things like sales receipts, ads, recipes, school projects. . . . This was not a library. This was the medieval Facebook, crammed with so much mundane junk that you could reconstruct an entire world from it—except that merely cataloguing it took more than eighty years.
Memory is the foundation of identity, but the way we become who we are isn’t through total recall. It’s by curating our memories—by choosing, out of that bottomless well of information, what’s worth saving.
Much of your book takes place in post-revolutionary Egypt, where your software developer winds up getting kidnapped. Did you set out to write about the Arab Spring?
No—I started writing the book before the Arab Spring, and then I had to change my plot! But it turned out to be very lucky, because it gave me a chance to write about an astonishing moment: when one of the oldest civilizations was suddenly forced to face a new world where everything is on the record.
Part of my book takes place in the Library of Alexandria, which you might remember from fifth grade social studies as the largest library in the ancient world (and which later burned to the ground). But what you didn’t learn in fifth grade is that the Library of Alexandria was reconstructed ten years ago as a two-hundred-million-dollar complex, with servers that have archived every webpage ever created—sort of like how the pharaohs were buried with all their organs perfectly preserved.
The story inside the kidnapping plot is about the kidnapped woman and her jealous sister. Why are sibling relationships so important in this book?
The novel’s plot is inspired by the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers—set in contemporary times, and with women instead of men. I think it’s deeply important that some of the world’s oldest stories are about sibling rivalry, because siblings are people who share a past but not a future.
For me, sibling stories are personal. I have two sisters who are published writers and a brother who just won his second Emmy. Luckily we are all very close, and none of the rivalries in this book are drawn from my own life. But I credit my siblings with teaching me the power of storytelling. When we were children, the four of us would torture our parents during dinner by talking endlessly about our days at school. One day our mother put a kitchen timer on the table and said, “From now on, each child gets five minutes to speak.” My sisters and brother would then stand up and perform their days as five-minute comedies, five-minute tragedies, five-minute operas.
I think that today everyone worries about time disappearing—about missing opportunities, or about recording every moment online forever. But at those dinners, my siblings taught me what happens, if you’re lucky, to days that disappear: they turn into stories.
What’s a “Guide for the Perplexed”?
My book is named for a famous work of philosophy—a book whose rough drafts were found in that Cairo storage room. Its author, Maimonides, was a twelfth-century religious scholar, and also a doctor serving the Egyptian sultan. In his time, Egypt was the tech capital of the world. In his book, he tries to reconcile religious faith with a very modern high-tech life, and he asks the question we’re still asking now: Are our lives determined by forces we can’t control, or do we have the free will to determine our future?
Of course, as any parent knows, we definitely can’t control the future. If we could, I wouldn’t have spent last Tuesday stopping my four-year-old from climbing out the window and explaining to him that wearing a superhero cape does not actually mean he can fly. But I think the superpower we do have is our ability to control the past. In my book, the stories of the philosopher whose work was left in the storage room, the professor who found it, and the kidnapped software genius who stores every fragment of our lives—all their stories converge to reveal that ancient human power. Recording everything is the same as recording nothing, because it makes memories meaningless. It’s the act of choosing what’s worth saving that turns a lifetime’s worth of memories into a story.
You have an academic career in Yiddish and Hebrew literature—languages that are rarely studied in the United States outside of religious communities. How did that affect your writing a novel about technology and memory?
When I was in graduate school, I noticed that many of my fellow humanities graduate students were plagued with doubts about their work—“Does the world really need another dissertation on Shakespeare?” But with my work, I had the opposite problem: If I don’t read this stuff, who will?
In Massachusetts, there’s a National Yiddish Book Center that collects Yiddish books from dead and dying Jewish readers around the world. They’ve gathered more than a million books, and now they’re digitizing them. The same thing is true of the Cairo Genizah, that massive haul of medieval documents from the Cairo synagogue. There’s an Israeli institute that’s now scanning and cataloguing it all. But what’s amazing about it to me is the greater question: who will read all these things? As a scholar, I’ve used those digital archives myself. But I look at the vast number of artifacts available and I’m also overwhelmed. It would take years to even begin to scratch the surface of the material there, and only a handful of people can even read them at all.
In the past few years as social media has exploded, I’ve seen this same problem emerge in people’s personal lives. You used to get out your camera ten times a year, take twenty-four photos at a time, put them in an album, and you were done. Now I have photos of every second of my family’s life, but I can’t possibly look at them all. It creates a kind of paralysis because it makes it impossible to create a coherent story for our lives. I think my background in these languages has made me very aware of what it means to choose what matters from our personal past—which is what all of us have to do now, in a more conscious way than ever before.
Several characters in your book suffer from asthma—one in the twenty-first century, one in the twentieth, one in the nineteenth, and one in the twelfth—and the disease’s treatment becomes a key point in the plot. Where did that come from? Why does the history of medicine matter in this book?
Three of my four children have asthma, so I’ve clocked many hours in the emergency room. My husband had it as a child, and his treatment was completely different from our children’s—inhalers weren’t available until he was twelve, so he had to get adrenaline shots. As I researched the life of Solomon Schechter, the Cambridge professor who revealed the Cairo Genizah to the world, I discovered that he had asthma—and when he was collecting these dusty medieval parchments, he kept collapsing and had to use a nineteenth-century respirator. And then as I read about the twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides, I found that he had written a book on asthma treatment for a member of the sultan’s royal court. It was like a long chain of people who couldn’t breathe.
What fascinated me about it was that everyone always thinks they’re living on the cutting edge of science. We’re convinced that we know the real facts and that the people who lived before us were superstitious idiots. The fact that we will someday be our own grandchildren’s superstitious idiots is very humbling to me. My book is really about that weird and constant persistence of the unknowable—even in this information age.
You have four children, ages eight, six, four, and one. How do you find the time to write?
After my fourth child was born last year, I created an app that actually dilates time. If you buy my book, I’ll give you one.
- Josie’s Genizah software categorizes memories by themes like “entertainment” and “travel” and carefully curates what it records in order to bury the unpleasant and the ugly. Do our minds work this way? Would you subscribe to Genizah? How have other technologies already changed how you experience things and remember them?
- What is the significance of dreams in the novel? Does it make sense to catalog them in Genizah along with daytime memories, as Nasreen wants to do? Do you think they are “mental garbage” or “a window to a world beyond what a waking person could perceive”?
- Maimonides tried to reconcile faith and reason in his writings. What role do religion, rational thought, and intelligence play in how the characters see themselves and others?
- Josie designed her software to record patterns in human behavior, which she thinks can be used to predict future outcomes. Maimonides believed that, as the ancient rabbis expressed it, “Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is granted.” Are their beliefs compatible? Do you believe that you are in control of the choices you make?
- When Josie is putting together a Genizah of Tali from memory, she realizes that the Tali who emerges is very different from the one captured by the software at home. What does this suggest about Josie’s feelings toward her daughter? How does their relationship differ from Tali’s relationship with Judith?
- One of Cairo’s unique features is its vast necropolis full of living squatters, but Nasreen says, “All cities are really cities of the dead.” Do you agree with her? Do you live in a place where you can feel the generations that came before you?
- How do Josie and Judith and their relationship change over the course of the novel? Which of the sisters do you most sympathize with?
- Schechter says, “Every human being, in the end, becomes the opposite of an archive.” He also describes himself as a palimpsest—a piece of parchment on which one text has been inscribed over another. What does he mean by using these metaphors, and how do they apply to himself and others? Do they also apply to the novel itself?
- The book is full of encounters between people of different backgrounds: Judith and Itamar, Schechter and the Scottish twins, Mosheh and the vizier, and Josie and Nasreen, to name a few. How do these people view each other? What cultural differences and worldviews come to light in their conversations?
- There are four pairs of siblings in the novel: Judith and Josie, Schechter and Srulik, Margaret and Agnes, and Mosheh and David. How does the novel explore themes of jealousy, ambition, success, and love through the siblings? Did their relationships remind you of your relationships with your siblings?
- In what ways does the novel’s narrative parallel the biblical story of Joseph? Do you think this correspondence enhances the power of the novel? In general, are biblical stories relevant to the present or to understanding the challenges of modern life?
- Did Judith deserve Josie’s forgiveness in the end? Did Josie deserve Judith’s? Did the final chapter about Tali change the way you felt about the outcome of the story?
- Like historians piecing together the past, several characters wish to bring the dead back “to life” through bits of memory, writings, photographs, and recordings. Is this possible? How have you dealt with the death of someone you loved and the artifacts—such as letters and photographs—that were left behind?
- How do the three stories—of Josie and Judith Ashkenazi, Solomon Schechter, and Mosheh ben Maimon—intersect and relate to one another? How does Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed echo through all the layers of the novel?