Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
WHAT: Reading from her new book “36 Arguments for the Existence of God”
WHEN: Reading at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Standish Room of the Science Library at the University at Albany’s Uptown Campus; seminar at 4:15 in the Standish Room.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 442-5620 or www.albany.edu/writers-inst/
Author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein feels we’re living in a time that seems to glorify dumbness. “And it’s up to authors to fight against this,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Boston. “If the writers don’t do this, then who will?”
Since 1983, Goldstein has written nine books, and every one of them has been intellectually challenging and also entertaining to read. Her newest book, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” (Pantheon Books, $27.95, 402 pages) involves one of the great debates of our time, the clash between faith and reason.
“I really wanted this book to enter into the contemporary debate,” said Goldstein. “The questions and answers in this book are all about theology and or philosophy, the large questions, and I’m thrilled with that.”
After writing this book, she became worried that it might not find a publishing house. “I’ve always wanted my books to explore issues beyond a superficial level,” she said, “which can be difficult in this age when there is so much fear about ideas, when intellectuals are accused of being elite and out of touch.”
The book has been selling quite well. “I think there are many people out there hungering for substantive fiction,” said Goldstein, “and after this book tour I’m very optimistic. There were many people who came out to meet me and talk about the book. They had wonderful questions about the book. We had one event at Cal Tech and there were over 400 people there and many of them had read the book and were excited to discuss it.”
On Tuesday, she will read from her book at 8 p.m. in the Standish Room of the Science Library at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier in the day she will conduct a seminar at 4:15 in the same room. The free events are being presented by the New York State Writers Institute and the university’s Center for Jewish Studies.
The idea for the book came to her about 15 years ago when she thought of the name of the character, Azarya. “I thought of this young boy, a child of extraordinary genius born into a conservative religious community that simply couldn’t recognize his talents,” she said.
For years she kept thinking of the boy with his prodigious intelligence living in a community that would not allow him to flourish. “This boy became more and more vivid to me,” she said, “and it hurt me so much to think about him. I thought I’d write this as a short story, but I just couldn’t sit down and do it because I thought it was going to be too sad.”
Becoming a book
It was only after working on her nonfiction book “Betraying Spinoza” (2006) that she felt she could turn the boy’s story into a book. “Baruch Spinoza was such a hero to free-thinkers everywhere,” she said, “and after working on his book I began to see this boy in a different way and gradually this story came to life.”
She knew the book could be deadly to read if she didn’t incorporate some humor into it. “I think everything’s funny when you stare at it long enough,” she said. “The humor makes this book much easier to read. Humor is a valuable tool for many things. I taught philosophy for many years, and it’s very abstract. As a teacher I knew that by using humor I could make philosophy more understandable. Humor kept my students focused, and if they were listening, then they were learning. The same also works for literature.”
Much of the humor in the book comes from the witty dialogue between the characters. “I don’t start writing till the characters are so real that I can hear them,” she said. “When the characters talk to each other, I’m just taking dictation.”
Goldstein spreads her satire around as she pokes fun at atheists, believers, intellectuals and just about everyone. “I guess I’m really being critical of people, communities and organizations that keep others from attaining their full potential,” she said. “Poverty and many extreme religions often prevent people from attaining all they could be.”
She knows this firsthand because she grew up in a religious community. “I went to an ultra-orthodox all-girls high school. We weren’t expected to go to college, and we were expected to get married right after school and start having kids. At that school the worst thing you could study was philosophy because it taught you to question everything.”
In the late 1970s Goldstein was one of the few women doing work in the philosophy of science field. “And then I wrote that book ‘The Mind Body Problem’ (1983) and I had no idea anyone would pay any attention to it,” she said.
The book became a best-seller, which caused problems with many of her philosophy colleagues. “That book was a big blow to my academic career,” said Goldstein. “I had been trained to be an academic philosopher, and in my field novels and especially writing them was considered frivolous.”
She is not teaching right now, and has enjoyed her college visits to promote this book, especially visits to philosophy departments around the country.
“This book, more than any other I’ve written, has created quite a stir in philosophy departments,” she said, “probably because of the appendix I’ve included at the back of the book that lists and refutes 36 arguments for the existence of God. There’s some real philosophical work in that appendix.”
After focusing on nonfiction the last few years, this novel was fun to write. “I like narrative, but I also like writing books about ideas,” said Goldstein. “With fiction I can bring in personalities to make the book of ideas more interesting to read. Fiction is often a more effective way to write about ideas rather than a straight forward philosophical book.”
For more information about the talk, contact the New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620 or go to www.albany.edu/writers-inst/.