Radical Re-readings

By Nora Krug
Sunday, March 23, 2008

OUR UNDEMOCRATIC CONSTITUTION Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) By Sanford Levinson | Oxford Univ. 249 pp. $19.95

Sanford Levinson's manifesto Our Undemocratic Constitution is organized around a bold idea with a fast approaching deadline: that by the end of 2008, a referendum be submitted for a constitutional convention to re-evaluate -- and possibly rewrite -- the country's founding document. Though this suggestion may be a rhetorical conceit, Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School and a constitutional scholar, uses it to highlight a serious point: The Constitution "is a human creation open to criticism and even to rejection." In his clear and emphatic book, he spells out exactly what he finds wrong with the Constitution -- a list that includes the electoral college ("an undemocratic and perverse part of the American system of government") and the Senate ("an affirmative action program for the residents of small-population states"). He also advocates for a system, other than an election, by which the public can remove from office a president in whom it has lost confidence. Levinson acknowledges the idealism of his proposals but encourages critical reflection. In an afterword new to the paperback edition, he answers his critics and invites them to visit his blog, where they can re-evaluate -- and reject -- his ideas, too.

JOSEPH'S BONES Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible By Jerome M. Segal | Riverhead. 306 pp. $15

In Joseph's Bones, Jerome M. Segal asks readers to engage in "a sustained act of will": to put aside what religion and history have taught them about the Bible and approach the sacred text as a "self-contained literary work." A senior research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Segal is not the first thinker to examine the Bible through the lens of literature, but he focuses his study narrowly, on the first six books (the Hexateuch), and more specifically on the story of Joseph's bones, which he contends offer "a distinct and radical perspective on the most central of questions: 'Who are the Israelites?' 'Who is God' and 'What is happening between them.' " His answers to these questions are complex and often surprising -- and controversial. He posits, for example, that "the Hexateuch is not God's Word" but is "mankind's message to itself about being-with-God" and that this "people's book" tells the story of "an insecure deity of limitless power but perhaps of limited insight." Segal may not convince the most traditional readers, but his provocative analysis is intelligent, even-handed and thorough.

From Our Previous Reviews:

* Mischa Berlinski's novel Fieldwork (Picador, $14), a 2007 National Book Award finalist, is "an intricate whodunit," explained Terry Hong, in which a journalist -- also named Mischa Berlinski -- searches for clues about the mysterious death of an American anthropologist in Thailand.

* The Testament of Gideon Mack (Penguin, $15), by James Robertson, is a novel that "claims to present the memoir of a hardworking Presbyterian minister who never believed in God," wrote Ron Charles, but ends up "a deeply unsettling story that will prick the faith of the devout, shake the confidence of atheists and haunt those of us who hover uneasily in-between."

* In the biography Leni (Vintage, $16.95), Steven Bach "finds the truth behind the lies" about the controversial filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, noted Charles Matthews.

* Polish-born poet Zbigniew Herbert has long been a "secret pleasure," wrote Anthony Cuda, but The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 (Ecco, $16.95) "leaves no doubt about the place of Herbert's work in 20th-century letters, which rivals that of W.H. Auden or Elizabeth Bishop in its originality, imaginative breadth and humane vigilance."

Nora Krug is a regular contributor to Book World.

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