What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Pär Lagerkvist (Sweden, 1951)
  • BOOK READ: Barabbas, translated by Alan Blair

I’d never heard of Pär Lagerkvist before embarking on this project, but as I bummed around town with Barabbas, one of his most celebrated novels, two friends of mine said, “Oh, I read that.” That hadn’t happened with, say, books by Carl Spitteler or Harry Martinson. Though book and author had been completely unknown to me, others apparently were fully engaged with Lagerkvist and Barabbas, right under my nose.

It’s like Christianity in this way. Jews like myself can sometimes forget just what a big deal Christians are. Well, that’s not quite putting it right—we aren’t blind to the Pope, or Santa Claus, or other manifestations of the Gentile Juggernaut. But if you don’t grow up learning the basic precepts of Christianity, you end up knowing the trappings but not the theology of, in the West at least, the dominant culture. Even reading the New Testament won’t let the story of Christ sit in the brain the way it does in the Christian psyche. I’m someone who wishes I’d had more religion in my public schooling, if only so that, in college, when we were all studying Jonathan Edwards, I didn’t have to say, “OK, remind me. They roll the rock back, and…?”

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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