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Book-making: Part two

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on April 23rd, 2017

When last we left off, I was in search of a narrative that would weld the various elements of my research into a book.

Book cover, Set in Stone.

Book cover, Set in Stone.

Finding a through-line and devising a plot took me to lots of places. It had me perched precariously atop a fire escape on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see what I could see of the silhouette of a now-vanished stained glass window that had once featured the Ten Commandments in the round.

It also took the form of a class field trip to Trenton, New Jersey, where my students were charged with locating a six foot monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capital. You’d think that would be a walk in the park, but it took some doing. The monument, somewhat the worse for wear, was tucked away in a thicket of trees.

My pursuit of perspective brought me even further afield to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio, whose holdings include an allegedly ancient relic of the Decalogue exhumed by amateur archaeologists on the eve of the Civil War, and to Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Its glorious sanctuary features a 1905 piece of Americana in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments against the background of El Capitan rather than Mount Sinai.

Closer to home, my search for an overarching framing device took me to the steps of the United States Supreme Court where, nearly a century after the Moses-in-America stained-glass window took shape, champions of the Decalogue brandished cardboard versions of the tablets as they circled the courthouse, anxiously waiting to hear whether or not the public display of the biblical code was constitutional.

It would be nice to say that once I settled down to the business of writing, everything — the stained-glass windows, archaeological relics, faux Decalogues and the primary and secondary literature that I had consulted over the years — fell into place, enabling me to coax a coherent narrative out of so many disparate bits and pieces.

No such luck. Another year came and went and then another…

Eventually, though, thanks to the alchemy of writing and a lot of staring at the computer screen, things came together. I found my voice and a structure to contain it. And behold: a book.

From → Ten Commandments

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