A Guide for the Perplexed

by Horn Dara,

Book, 1977



Call number




New York : Harper & Row, c1977.


While consulting at an Egyptian library, software prodigy Josie Ashkenazi is kidnapped and her talent for preserving memories becomes her only means of escape as the power of her ingenious work is revealed, while jealous sister Judith takes over Josie's life at home.

Media reviews

“A Guide for the Perplexed” has three overlapping narratives. The first is a retelling of the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, as seen through the lives of the present-day sisters Josie and Judith Ashkenazi. The Genizah...leads to the book’s two other narrative threads, both
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inspired by real-life people: the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides, whose “Guide for the Perplexed” explores the relationship between faith and reason, and the 19th-century Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter, who (before he became a leader in the American Jewish community) gained academic fame for his 1896 discovery in Cairo of the world’s best-known genizah: a synagogue’s storage room for documents that, for religious reasons, can’t be thrown away.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member nosajeel
I thought that Dara Horn's A Guide for the Perplexed was fascinating, originally and generally excellent--although not all-the-way towards that feeling where you feel that everyone you know should read the book, although many should.

The book alternates between three stories that are all
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thematically linked. The main one is set in the present, or the very near future, and is about Josie Ashkenazi, the founder/CEO of a Facebook-like company that invented an online archive that it calls a Ginezah that catalogs everything from pictures to videos to social media from a person's life. Jodie goes to Egypt to help the revitalized library of Alexandria digitally catalog its holdings but is kidnapped and forced to work for a local strongman. The second story takes place in the late 19th century and is about Solomon Schechter, the Romanian-born Cambridge scholar who helped discover and start to catalog the Cairo Genizah, an ancient storehouse attached to a synagogue that contains damaged/forgotten documents and books. The third story is about Moses Maimonodes in twelfth century Egypt.

All three sets of stories are linked in a number of ways. Maimonides writes books that Schecter gets in the Genizah and Josie reads in captivity. All three stories also play off similar themes, including sibling rivalry, with younger siblings being more liked and successful than their older siblings, as well as common threads like asthma and its treatment. Much of the story is retellings of fragments of the story of Joseph, including Josie being thrown in a pit and left for dead, being held captive in Egypt, and reading people's dreams and attempting to predict the future. But the story is not in any way a one-to-one map with the Joseph story.

Overall, the themes are fascinating, the plot is reasonably interesting, and the characters are reasonably original, but it sometimes holds together a little uneasily.
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LibraryThing member eenerd
This book started out with a bang but became distracted by its historical leanings. The main story thread, about two sisters-Josie the genius golden-child and Judith the second fiddle failure-is engaging and interesting and a page turner. The historical backstory threads are promising in the
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beginning but fizzle out, and are more a distraction to the story than an enhancement. Similarly, I could do without all the philosophy and theological debate, it didn't add to the story either.
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LibraryThing member greyduck
A Guide for the Perplexed marries historical fiction, religion, and a modern day suspense story in such a way that had me on the edge of my seat! I found the story entertaining and intelligent, exploring the complicated relationship between siblings, brilliantly weaving the parallel stories
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together. I also learned a few things about religious history and scholarship. I recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member MarkMeg
A blend of contemporary thriller with earlier Jewish history. Josie, the computer expert goes to Egypt to help develop an organizational program for the resources in the Alexandria museum. She is abducted and held in the Valley of the Dead. Her death is faked and she texts on her captors phone. Her
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sister comes and saves her and the sister dies in the save. In the meantime there are flashbacks to Solomon Schechter and the Rambom. It is predictable and the characters are not well drawn.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Three stories: Judy and Josie, two sisters operating on envy and genius; Nineteenth century Jewish professor obsessed with preserving documents from 12th Century Jewish thinkers; and Maimonedes, wrestling with fate and responsibility and the death of his brother. Tensions between siblings is a
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consistent theme, as well as free will vs. fate, responsibility vs.external controls. In the foreground is the exciting plot of wealthy Josie, whose genius and success have made her a famous computer magnate and guru. When she travels to the Alexandria Museum to assist with their enormous archiving organization, she is kidnapped and presumed dead, leaving behind her sister to fill the void with her husband and daughter. Suspenseful, thought--provoking, with some lovely turns of phrase throughout, this is a most engrossing read. I felt that the writing of the climactic scene, while providing a satisfying resolution, was overly sensationalized. Highly recommended nonetheless.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Like other novels by the talented Dara Horn, this book has layers upon layers that challenge the reader intellectually without pulling you away from the story.

This book is, on one level, a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into bondage in Egypt by his jealous brothers. If you
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haven’t read that story in a while, I won’t mention many more parallels, lest it be spoilery. But in a nice twist, rather than Joseph, we have a story about Josephine (or “Josie”), and her envious sister Judith. At Judith's encouragement, Josie leaves her husband and young daughter behind to travel to Egypt, and there she is kidnapped by revolutionaries.

It is also a story about memory and the gates of perception. What becomes our sharpest memories about ourselves and others, and how does that choice or phenomenon affect our interaction with the present and the future?

Tying these two themes together are two other themes. (Horn is always complex, making the title of this book sort of a double entendre!). One theme is a fictional retelling of the historical discovery of the Genizah in Cairo. A Genizah is a repository of memories: in the Jewish religion, any object inscribed with the name of God cannot be destroyed, so synagogues designate rooms as repositories for marred, worn, or otherwise damaged documents they could no longer use. This storeroom is known as a Genizah, or “hiding place.”

Josie has created a computer program to store memories which she calls Genizah. It has been wildly successful. It takes any input - including documents, notes, pictures, and videos - and categorizes them, putting them behind visual “doors”. The more labels or categories one adds to the data, the better the program can sort and retrieve any memories or ideas. Then it can generate patterns so you can see persistent behaviors and themes and perhaps even predict future outcomes. And if we can save the past, and “recreate” people from these memories, haven’t we in some senses “resurrected” them from the dead? And what about the converse: is Hell just oblivion? Is that what we all really fear?

All of this is echoed in the fourth theme, the great 12th Century work of philosophy by the Jewish scholar Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed. Because of his adaptation of Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith, Maimonides influenced a number of scholars who came after him, including the noted Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In the [original] Guide for the Perplexed, a copy of which was [actually] discovered in the Cairo Genizah, Maimonides considers the reconciliation of ideas about God's omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence with (a) the problem of evil in the world, and (b) whether or not this could mean that mankind has free will. As Judith Plaskow (Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College) once wrote, the most salient existential dilemma is not how a supposedly good and omnipotent God would permit evil in the world, because we cannot know the answer. Rather, she suggests, a better question is how, given the reality of evil, we deal with it. And how then do we justify faith or lack of faith? What stories do we tell ourselves? These issues become critically important to Josie after she is kidnapped in Cairo, and because she has with her a copy of the Maimonides work, it helps her understand her fate.

Evaluation: I told you there are four basic themes, but actually there are others as well. There are contemporary (or perhaps, more accurately, timeless) ideas explored about marriage and parenting and sibling rivalry, for example. Horn incorporates so many clever layers into this story that it would take a book of my own to explicate them all. If you like intelligent fiction; fiction that makes you think about religious, philosophical, political, technical, and personal issues and how they intersect, Dara Horn is one of the best authors I know who makes this happen. In addition, the story itself, without any layers or higher meaning at all, is a good one; one that is thought-provoking enough on its own to provide endless conversation for a book club or with a reading partner.
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LibraryThing member Maggie.Anton
I didn't know how to rate this novel. The writing is superb, but the characters are mostly unlikeable, especially those in the modern subplot. Yes Horn wove the 3 parts together well, but I couldn't stand the modern one and eventually skipped those chapters altogether to concentrate on the
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Maimonides sections. While this book is supposed to be based on the biblical Joseph story [albeit with sisters Josephine and Judith], at least the Bible has an uplifting ending of forgiveness and redemption.
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LibraryThing member laurieindra
Liked it. Not super, but good. It goes in the library now.
LibraryThing member raizel
Slight SPOILER: While the rest of the book was interesting, what I found most important was the very end: In many stories and in real life, we often want to paint a false, pretty picture of a person and his or her relationships with others, not realizing the negative consequences of doing so. To
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not spoil everything in this story, let me give an example from another one: A man meets the woman who had an affair with his father when he was a child. She tells the son that they broke up because the father loved his family too much to stay with her. Actually, she broke off the relationship. The problem is that the son had grown up feeling unloved and rejected (as he should have) and now was being told that his view of the world was wrong.
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LibraryThing member Zoes_Human
A bittersweet tale of sisters with a layering of stories that reflects the stratum of their relationship. It is both intricate and evocative. The darkness of the story and ethical complexity of the cast may lack appeal for those who prefer characters of more clear cut morality. Personally, I prefer
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unidealized protagonists.
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LibraryThing member DanTarlin
Beautiful book set in three time periods- the main story, in the present day, is about Josie, a brilliant and beautiful high achieving American woman and her older sister Judith, a relative failure, always in Josie's shadow. A second thread follows Solomon Shechter in around 1900 as he learns of
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and takes into position a trove of ancient documents in a "genizah" in Cairo. Among those documents are some written by Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar of 12th century Egypt, and the book also devotes a few chapters to an imagined life of Maimonides and his brother David, a merchant.

Josie's story is fiction, while the other two are mostly accurate historically. Josie is kidnapped in Egypt while working there, and Judith struggles with her own complicated feelings about her sister. While being held, Josie reads a copy of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, and muses about the role of God in the world.

The story is really about sibling pairs- Josie and Judith. Solomon Shechter and his twin brother in Israel. Maimonides and his brother David. And one more sister pair revealed late in the book that I won't spoil. In the Afterward the author talks about how this was really her version of the biblical story of Joseph- I see how that fits, in that Joseph was hated and envied by his brothers, as Josie is hated and envied by her sister.

Beautifully written, a compelling read.
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Original publication date



0393064891 / 9780393064896

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