Manal al-Sharif’s journey in Saudi Arabia, as told in her memoir, Daring to Drive (Simon & Schuster, $26), is an extraordinary story of perseverance and transformation. Her book begins with al-Sharif’s arrest in the Saudi city of Khobar for driving while being a woman. As the events unfold, al-Sharif makes the danger she faced quite clear. A lone woman in the Saudi criminal justice system has few allies or resources, to say nothing of rights. She leaves us in suspense concerning the outcome of her trial in order to recount how she became a feminist activist. Al-Sharif endured poverty and abuse in Mecca. Over the years her burgeoning sense of self, especially as it was expressed through art and literature, was squashed under the heel of an ultra-conservative Saudi interpretation of Islam. Amazingly, all was not lost. Slowly al-Sharif became an opponent of oppression. She got an education. She learned the skills needed to obtain a highly technical job in Saudi Aramco, the nationalized oil company. She learned how to drive. She became independent in a culture that effectively forces women into isolation. Finally, when all she had achieved was again threatened by a man reminding her of her place in Saudi culture, she began to fight back. Through this incredible memoir, al-Sharif illustrates that change is possible or, as she puts it, “the rain begins with a single drop.” Even in the desert, the rain will come.
Masha Gessen’s breathtaking history of Russia from the end of communism to today is a detailed analysis of what initially looked like a revolution but that, in the end, only brought the country full circle. Chronicling the shifts from glasnost and Gorbachev through Yeltsin and on to Putin’s efforts to re-establish a Greater Russia, The Future is History (Riverhead, $28) doesn’t recount a story of the iron curtain being torn apart and rewoven as much as it charts the condition of a patient with “a recurrent infection.” The disease is totalitarianism. Its toxins include terror and ideology, secrecy and repression. Those it afflicts suffer a host of symptoms, including constant anxiety and depression, both economic and emotional. These combine to turn ordinary individuals into the hollow, traumatized Homo Sovieticus, a creature too insecure to make demands. While this species seemed to die off with the Soviet Union, Gessen shows that, like Soviet-style totalitarianism itself, Sovieticus has survived. Her analysis puts this survival into the contexts of both political theory and psychoanalysis, showing first how totalitarianism took hold and continues to hold on, and then describing exactly how this repression breaks a society. While she invokes leading theorists such as Orwell and Arendt, Gessen grounds her account in the stories of seven people and their families. If her focus on a psychologist, a sociologist, a pioneering gay academic, a philosopher, and a Pussy Riot activist emphasize the social sciences, this is no accident. One of Gessen’s most striking points about the Soviet system is that it deliberately erased sociology and related disciplines, thus robbing people of the tools they needed to see, define, and understand themselves.
While no reproduction matches being in the presence of an ancient manuscript and experiencing “the weight, texture, uneven surface, indented ruling, thickness, smell, tactile quality’’ and sheer aura of a rare book, Christopher de Hamel says, his sumptuous Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin Press, $45) surely comes close. Anything lost in the rich, full-color images is made up in de Hamel’s spirited, illuminating text. One of the world’s top authorities on medieval manuscripts, de Hamel has frequented the world’s finest reading rooms. He’s a veteran of Sotheby’s and the former librarian of Cambridge’s Parker Library, home to the Gospels of St. Augustine. The first of the dozen meticulously presented manuscripts of this dream collection, the Gospels are the “oldest non-archeological artifact of any kind to have survived in England.” Mining these treasures for information about script, pigments, bindings, conservation techniques, and more, de Hamel turns palaeographic details into fascinating cultural narratives. Textual clues in the Codex Amiatinus reveal that “the oldest complete copy of the Latin bible,” housed in Florence, “was…made in England.” It looks like a suitcase and weighs 75 pounds. The Book of Kells, “the most famous book in the world,” is riddled with errors and inconsistencies, which prove that it was meant to be admired as a superlative art object rather than studied as a text. Among the other highlights of this timeline of books “characteristic of each century, from the sixth to the sixteenth,” are the Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian transcription of a classical astronomy treatise that commemorates 18 March, the medieval Christian anniversary of the day of creation; the literally shimmering late 12th-century Copenhagen Psalter; the 13th-century Carmina Burana, profane love lyrics with images so realistic de Hamel completed in fifteen moves the depicted layout of a chess game; and the oldest surviving manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, replete with the “mysteries of medieval publishing.” As de Hamel uses these works to trace wider historical arcs of politics, war, literacy, class, and the shift from religious to secular cultures, he gives us an incomparable lesson in how many ways there are to read a book.