For those who fear that books are losing ground to new media, the JCC of Central New Jersey offers reassurance: At an institution many associate more with fitness and physical activity, the Good Reads literary program has become a popular attraction.
The latest evidence came on Dec. 18 at the fourth annual One Book One Jewish Community lecture. Despite the icy weather, the program — featuring author Joshua Henkin talking about his novel The World Without You — drew a crowd of more than 40. When he asked who had read the book, almost every hand in the room went up.
Amy Warsh, the JCC’s cultural arts and education director, said, “Through our membership with the Jewish Book Council, we’re offered a selection of hundreds of authors. They’re either Jewish authors or their writing contains Jewish content. We carefully selected a variety of authors who will be bringing a variety of perspectives on a wide range of topics. There’s something for everyone.”
The next book event, on Jan. 5, will feature Mark Russ Federman, author of Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built. Other events will include Daniel Bergner, What Do Women Want?; Jane Gershon Weitzman, Art & Sole; and Marion Grodin, Standing Up: A Memoir of a Fun (Not Always) Life.
For the One Book event, a committee of members considers the range offered by the council. “We try to choose a book that will have broad appeal,” said Janice Weinberg, who cochaired the Dec. 18 event with Gayle Nettler and is also chairing the next one.
Most in attendance to see Henkin were JCC members, but some people came from further afield, including about 10 members of a book club based in Highland Park. Larry Pargot, a club member who initiated the idea to come to Scotch Plains JCC, said, “I really liked the book. Some people didn’t, but they came because we heard Joshua Henkin’s a very good speaker.”
“I didn’t like his characters,” one audience member said after Henkin’s talk, but the author “was just delightful. He’s so open and articulate.”
Henkin also wrote two other well received books, Swimming Across the Hudson and Matrimony, and was a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for The World Without You. He was also the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Wallant’s daughter Leslie was at the JCC event and shared a warm greeting with Henkin.
Henkin acknowledged that some authors dread the obligatory speaking circuit, but he enjoys meeting his readers.
“I’m pretty social,” he said, chatting while he signed books after the talk. He’s a teacher too — he directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College — so discussing his characters and the writing process comes naturally. “Some groups are tougher than others,” he said. “I thought this was a pretty responsive crowd.”
Henkin was emphatic that The World Without You — about an affluent, largely assimilated Jewish family whose members gather at a summer home in the Berkshires to mourn their dead son, husband, and brother — isn’t autobiographical. On the other hand, he conceded, as an observant Jew himself, the Jewishness of the main characters — who include a daughter who has become an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel — came easily.
“It’s a world that I’m familiar with,” he said. And the initial inspiration was personal. A cousin of his died before he was born, but he observed and was intrigued by the long-lasting effects of the loss and how differently it affected a parent and a spouse.
As to why he writes, given that he has a paying job and three young sons, Henkin said, “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be as happy. I write every day, whenever I have time.”