Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Chosen

You know how every so often you read a book and you get so excited about it that you want to tell everyone? Well, on Saturday I reread The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, and I just have to talk about it.

The story is about how Reuven Malter befriends Danny Saunders after the latter hits a baseball into his eye during a religious-tension-charged baseball game, and how their friendship develops as they become men. It's about New York during WWII, and the formation of Israel afterward. It's about the boys' relationships with their and each other's fathers, and the variable nature of silence. It's also about pain, loneliness, and choosing your own path.

Why should everyone (yes, that includes you) read this book?

First of all, saying that the characters were "good" will not suffice. The characters are complex and fully alive, fully human.

Second, it's no use saying that you don't read books that deal with religion, because the parts that relate specifically to Jewish culture and learning don't detract or obscure the meaning of the book at all. It's not that they're background, because they're not, they're essential as premise and context. But I'm from a completely non-religious background and I didn't have a problem following the plot.

Third, this book will make you want to learn. No kidding. When Danny is studying Freud and Reuven is struggling with a passage in his Talmud class, you see (or at least I saw) that putting effort into something, studying for depth instead of breadth, is immensely rewarding. I don't know if I can apply myself to anything we're learning in school right now with that kind of dedication, but I'm planning on approaching the study that I actually care about with that same intensity.

When I do, I plan on applying what Danny remarks - some things are meant to be studied, not read. And they have to be studied with a commentary (paraphrased from p. 181).

Fourth, the book will make you want to have a long conversation with someone, more a discussion than a debate. As much as this book is about the silence between Danny and his father, what I got out of it also was the good relationship Reuven has with his father. They talk and they study together and their discussions help shape Reuven's mind and actions. A lot of clarity can come from saying things out loud.

Maybe you'll feel lonely after reading the book, and realize that you don't have a friend like what Danny and Reuven are for each other. Maybe. But at least you'll know what you are looking for.

There's a quote from Danny that's sticking in my head - the third time he visits Reuven at the hospital, when they're just starting to be friends, he tells Reuven about how he's been reading secular books secretly and says, "I've never told this to anyone before...All the time I kept wondering who I would tell it to one day. ... If you'd've ducked that ball [that Danny hit straight at his face, and which landed Reuven in the hospital] then I would still be wondering" (p. 86).

This quote strikes me, perhaps because just a little thing like that, like trying to stop a baseball out of pride (since Danny's team had been pretty insulting before), was such a strong signal to him that Reuven would be a good friend. It's in the brief moments that we reveal ourselves, and that might be strong enough to cut through differences that go deeper than the surface but not all the way to a person's deepest level of character.

And that is this book's power. Yes, its setting is New York during WWII; yes, its premise and characters rise from an orthodox Jewish background; but those things are crust and mantle, and The Chosen penetrates all the way to the core.


  1. The Chosen... just a brilliant book. Chaim Potok knows what he's doing. You should read My Name is Asher Lev, another book by him. Just... just brilliant.

    I found a close connection to Reuven when he almost lost his eye. I'm half-blind in my left eye due to a birth defect (cataracts), so I understand his terror at losing that amount of vision. Not many people understand that. Your eyes.... they're so precious. If you injure your eyes, your body works to fix them overtime. The body loves to be able. It has to be able to see. What would we do, where would we be, without our eyes? Stuck in the mud like the axolotl. Our eyes, our vision, it's our greatest asset... but also our greatest weakness, for when it's taken away we become next to helpless, useless...

    So I take good care of my eyes. I protect them. If I were to lose any vision in my good eye, I would lose all of my dreams. The ability to draw and paint, to read, to drive, to read music. It's a horrifying future. I think that realization is part of what draws Reuven and Danny together, if that makes sense.

    I wrote a paper last year on The Chosen, and if I remember right my topic was the differences between Reuven and Mr. Malter's father-son relationship and Danny and Rabbi Saunders's. Very fascinating. The book has just so many layers... It was hard to stay on one topic XD I just wanted to analyze it all!

  2. This is one of those books that I never want to return to the library, except I do and I want to put it in a very prominent place just so more people can read it...I definitely want to read more by him. Thanks for the book suggestion!

    I shudder to think of anything bad happening to my eyes. Not being able to choose when to be surrounded by darkness, and instead having that all the time...it's a scary thought.