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Wednesday, February 03, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: First impressions
At SBL Seth told me that in exchange for a review here (and/or in a journal) his publisher would be willing to send me a copy of his new book:
Sanders, Seth L. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

How could I refuse, the pre-publication hype and Seth's own descriptions of the book suggest that I'll either love or hate it. It seems it addresses my passionate interest in the intersection of culture and technology, especially writing and communications technologies. And it is focused on the "invention of Hebrew". My only sadness was that I had to wait till I returned home from a ten week working trip/holiday in Thailand and other interesting places. I'm home, and along with other goodies the book was waiting for me :) I'll post the review here in several parts, and I'll follow my usual procedure for reading a book (rather than for writing a traditional review, which aims to become a seamless whole) and post piecemeal as I read.

So first I looked at the most important bits (at least for getting an overall idea of a book):
The Invention of Hebrew is an attractively produced small volume (171 pages of text - no small is good, big just means more waffle like an airport block buster a waste of time, and in an academic book probably not entertaining either). The paper feels nice, though the print could be larger and sharper or I could be younger and sharper. It has a short but useful looking index and a bibliography. (Don't you hate books where you have to hunt the notes for the first mention of a work you need to consult!) Priced at $50 but the publisher (University of Illinois Press, who have a strong stable of interesting Bible related works now) it is even better value at Amazon for $40. By only complaint so far - and if you read this Seth please pass it on to the series editor - is that it follows the idiotic habit of listing the notes at the back and numbering them separately for each chapter. (This device developed in the BC period when it was hard work for poor writers and editors to keep track of all the notes and difficult for typesetters to place them at the foot of the relevant page. Computers changed all this. But graphic designers like "clean-looking pages" and actual users are not considered, once we have bought a copy publishers have no interest in our reading experience. Readers of academic texts need references, so either use the Harvard system of inline references, or use footnotes!)

The publishers blurb claims that Seth's book is groundbreaking: "absolutely innovative", "makes new knowledge", "first book to..." It also suggests that the work has an interesting thesis that Hebrew was a "self-conscious political language" promoting "a source of power previously unknown in written literature: 'the people' as the protagonist of religion and politics". Which is nicely sweeping and in a bookstore would lead me to open the work.

The preface is not at all one of the dead and dull ones that give "preface" a bad name, it is lively, quasi-autobiographical, and tells us that Seth intends to address loads of interesting questions:
The table of contents reads as if the book were a collection of unrelated essays:
  1. Modernity's Ghosts: The Bible as Political Communication
  2. What Was the Alphabet For?
  3. Empires and Alphabets in Late Bronze Age Canaan
  4. The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel
The four chapters are enclosed by an "Introduction" and a "Conclusion", but their titles do not strongly suggest their coherence and progression. Each looks interesting but they do not obviously work together. However, the sort of questions foregrounded in the "Preface" suggests that the blurb may not be exaggerating, this could be a ground breaking and interesting book. So I am hoping the "Introduction"will reveal how the chapters work.

All in all, I can hardly wait to read the "Introduction" and "Conclusion" tomorrow!

(But today I must make more progress on my chapter for The Gospel and the Land of Promise. My chapter will either be titled: "'Exile away from his land:' is landlessness the ultimate punishment in Amos?" or perhaps: "Land and earth, judgement and gospel in Amos".)

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