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The Best Books of 2000

The Best Nonfiction Of 2000

December 03, 2000

"Few figures in Western history have been the subject of greater controversy than St. Paul," writes John Gager. "Few have caused more dissension and hatred." Gager would know. A professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of a previous work on Paul and the origins of anti-Semitism, Gager is a nonobservant Christian whose stated passion is to untangle the myths of the past and challenge conventional wisdom. As Gager sees it, Paul has been unfairly credited with repudiating Judaism and replacing it with what we now call Christianity. For centuries, Paul's message has been misinterpreted in large part because for centuries people assumed that Paul was telling Jews that the teachings of Christ supplanted the laws of Judaism. Not so, says Gager. Far from preaching to Jews, Paul addressed Gentile audiences and told them that their status as non-Jews would not prevent them from being saved.

The argument makes sense, on both logical and intuitive levels. Only a post hoc reading of Paul could have led to the conclusion that he was a fervent Christian bent on persecuting the Jews. By giving us instead a Jewish Paul bent on rescuing the Gentiles, Gager shows that 1st century Judaism wasn't an insular sect but a proselytizing faith. This interpretation effectively removes anti-Semitism from the Bible, where it never belonged in the first place. In forcing a reconsideration of the second-most-pivotal figure in the history of Christianity, Gager has done a great service.


Dateline: Pyramid Lake, Nevada

By A.J. Liebling

Edited by Elmer R. Rusco

University of Nevada Press:

140 pp., $12.95 paper

For those who love him, each new publication of A.J. Liebling's writings for The New Yorker is a cause for celebration. This volume collects under one roof four pieces published in 1955 as a series called "The Lake of the Cui-Ui Eaters." In 1949, Liebling went to Nevada to obtain a divorce from his first wife. Rather than stay in Reno, he moved to the Pyramid Lake Ranch, a dude ranch for divorcees, and the cast of characters--the women, the children and the Paiute Indians who work there--is beyond hilarious. "I have never been reluctant to buy a lady a drink," he writes, "but there were thirty-eight ladies in residence at the ranch, and this offered a problem in economics." "My cringing amiability reminded them of their husbands.... I turtled my head between my shoulders and dined from a slight crouch...." Liebling becomes interested in the Indians' fight with some white settlers over their land, over the cui'ui fish that only live in Pyramid Lake and which the Paiutes depend on. Liebling can make a Senate bill amusing. No wonder he has been compared to a tall glass of dry champagne.


Presence of an Enigma

By Jean-Luc Steinmetz

Welcome Rain: 488 pp., $35

The life of Rimbaud presents us with a trajectory of relentless motion, a balancing act involving the tension between the I and the Other in the human soul: a shaping of destination rather than a destiny. This life is not divided by a silence--before and after; its borders are fluid, the journey a whirlwind, and the poetry a set of sign-posts at the edge of the vertiginous road.

Jean-Luc Steinmetz has produced what may be the most comprehensive and readable biography of this problematic poet; for, as Delmore Schwartz once said of Rimbaud: "What we have, whether we want it or not, is a complex moment of Western culture, rather than merely an interesting life or interesting kind of poetry." Steinmetz gives us all the famous and infamous events--the repressive childhood, the school and hoodlum years, the Verlaine affair ending in gunshots, the African odyssey and the grotesque finale in which, old before his time, he dies worn-out in a Marseilles hospital bed. All of this resonates in an elegant prose that is richly varied in tone and texture. This elegant biography is a work of affectionate devotion and unflinching honesty.


Driving America's Great Highways

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster: 208 pp., $25

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