Ben Nelson is a very busy man.
Not only does the professor of English and Comparative Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck lead five different book groups each month, each with between 18 and ‘5 participants, but in addition to chairing his department and teaching three courses he delivers about a dozen lectures every month as well.
When The Jewish Standard spoke with Nelson, who has taught at FDU since 196′, he was about to conclude a five-part lecture series at the Englewood Library in honor of Jewish book month. He was also scheduled to review Philip Roth’s novel "The Plot Against America" at his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Closter.
And, he noted, books are not his only interest. Nelson speaks frequently about the Jewish theater, and he recently offered a lecture series, "The Crucible of Justice Four Trials That Rocked the Jewish World," at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
What makes this professor run?
"I enjoy it very much," he told the Standard, tracing the genesis of his interest in Jewish literature back some 43 years. "It was a specific event," he said, relating how a friend who belonged to a synagogue on the west side of Manhattan asked him to lead a discussion for the shul’s young marrieds’ group.
"It was 1964 and the book was [Saul Bellow’s] ‘Herzog,’" he said. "I couldn’t get through it."
Realizing, however, that "it was wise to read the book" since he had to lead a discussion on it, "I picked it up again, read it, and was bowled over." Since then, he said, he has re-read "Herzog" at least 10 times.
Nelson credits "word of mouth" for the many invitations he receives to speak. And, he said, while most of his material involves Jewish life, he speaks on other topics as well. For example, he recently offered a lecture series for the National Council of Jewish Women on three women (Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, and Zora Neale Hurston) who shocked the literary world.
"I won’t speak about a book unless it has something beneath it," he said, explaining that he has rejected some books, such as "The Da Vinci Code."
"It’s got to be more than just a good read," he said. "The question is, can I add something to what the reader will get from it?" The professor said he does not have a favorite genre, but he knows that he "can’t get into science fiction."
Nelson said that "nothing substitutes for a real book" in the hand. "I’m dead set against books on the computer," he added, although he acknowledged that he sees a role for books on tape. "When something strikes you, you need to be able to sit and look at it again and again," he said. With a nod to the pervasive power of taste mediators such as Oprah Winfrey whose book recommendations carry tremendous weight with the buying public Nelson said, "It’s a pleasure to see ‘Anna Karenina’ on the paperback bestseller list."
His own favorite authors include "the usual suspects Malamud, Roth, Bellow, Singer" but also the British author Ian McEwan and novelists John Updike, Anne Tyler, and Cynthia Ozick. "Malamud may not be the best, but I love his work," said Nelson, affirming his belief that Philip Roth is "the best novelist in the world today."
While there certainly is no shortage of new Jewish literature, Nelson said, he’s "not sure we’ll see the tremendous interest of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. After World War II and the Holocaust," he explained, "Jews became a metaphor for victims and survivors. Writers who would have been more parochial could now reach a wider audience," spurring a generation including the novelists Norman Mailer and Herman Wouk.
In the ’50s and ’60s it was common to see the works of Malamud, Bellow, and Roth on The New York Times bestseller list, said Nelson. Now, "it’s something of a shock, a pleasant surprise" when a book with Jewish content makes the list. According to Nelson, "there’s been a change of focus, with more interest in detective fiction. People are less willing to work."
That having been said, the professor pointed to a new generation of American Jewish writers, including Nathan Englander and Allegra Goodman, whom he called "a very good group." Also noteworthy, he said, are the Israeli novelists A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and David Grossman.
Announcing that he plans to retire from full-time teaching at the end of the spring semester, Nelson said he will continue to teach a course or two. "I have a passion for literature," he said, "especially Yiddish literature." Noting Bernard Malamud’s comment that "Jews are the very stuff of drama," the professor said that as his "swan-song course, I’m going to teach the Bible as literature go to the source, the very stuff of drama. After that, everything is theme and variation."