By – April 26, 2017

In many ways a book about books, The Weight of Ink sur­pris­es with delights that are grad­u­al­ly revealed. At first it might seem almost nec­es­sary to take notes to fol­low the com­plex plot, but soon the read­er will become absorbed in this rich opus of impres­sive breadth. 

The beau­ty of this sto­ry is in the vari­ety of its milieus and sen­si­bil­i­ties. As we fol­low our female pro­tag­o­nists of both the sev­en­teenth and twen­ty-first cen­turies — Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, respec­tive­ly — we also wit­ness the goings-on of a ven­er­a­ble and drafty house of a rab­bi in 1660s Lon­don, and glimpse the mod­ern life of a cheeky young Amer­i­can man with heartrend­ing trou­bles of his own. Per­haps most piv­otal­ly, we see an Eng­lish girl’s time vol­un­teer­ing abroad on a kib­butz in Israel in the years after the war of inde­pen­dence. In spite of a gulf of over 300 years, these char­ac­ters depend on each oth­er each for their own rea­sons, any of which we in the present day can find par­al­lel in.

The images of these dif­fer­ent times and places, brought to life at once through painstak­ing detail and acces­si­ble prose, are star­tling­ly clear, even cin­e­mat­ic. Sup­port­ing roles, too, are far from dull. Much more than mere foils, even minor char­ac­ters are fas­ci­nat­ing in their own right. Mary, at first unlik­able in her child­like coquet­tish snob­bery, even­tu­al­ly finds her way into one’s heart. Riv­ka, a ser­vant and sur­vivor of Pol­ish pogroms, is not sim­ply loy­al, but also intrigues with a time­less intel­lect and will. The men in Ester Velasquez’s and Helen Watts’ lives whol­ly deter­mine the cours­es of their uni­vers­es. Indeed, per­haps too much for com­fort, but believ­able nevertheless.

Weighty explo­rations of what it is to be Jew­ish and to enter inter­faith rela­tion­ships in mul­ti­ple time peri­ods are inte­gral to each of these sto­ries. Is there mer­it to keep­ing with­in the tribe? Are there, regard­less of time, place, or com­mit­ment, bridges that those who would will­ing­ly enter the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty from the out­side can nev­er tru­ly cross? Cru­cial­ly, what does it mean to choose sur­vival over mar­tyr­dom? These ques­tions play out in the char­ac­ters’ per­son­al lives con­cur­rent­ly with Ester’s philo­soph­i­cal for­ays into the nature of God. No stone is left unturned in either study.

Kristin Gib­bons is a librar­i­an at the Den­ver Pub­lic Library. She attained her MLIS from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver, and her BA in Anthro­pol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado Boulder.

Discussion Questions

Read­ing Group Guide copy­right © 2018 by Houghton Mif­flin Harcourt

  • Describ­ing the impact of his blind­ness, the rab­bi says to Ester, I came to under­stand how much of the world was now banned from me — for my hands would nev­er again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink, a thing I had loved since first mem­o­ry” (page 196). For the rab­bi and for Ester, ink means many things — among them free­dom, com­mu­ni­ty, pow­er, and dan­ger. What does the writ­ten word mean to you? Is it as pow­er­ful today, amid all our forms of media, as it was to the rab­bi and to Ester?

  • The nov­el opens with a quote from Shakespeare’s Son­net 71: Nay, if you read this line, remem­ber not / The hand that writ it.” Which char­ac­ters in the nov­el choose to give anony­mous­ly, or with­out receiv­ing any cred­it? Would you be will­ing to have your most mean­ing­ful accom­plish­ments remain anony­mous or even be attrib­uted to oth­ers? In today’s inter­con­nect­ed world, with pri­va­cy so hard to achieve, is there any­thing you would write or say if you knew your words would be anonymous?

  • In order to write, Ester betrays the rabbi’s trust. Yet in her final con­fes­sion Ester says, Yet I would choose again my very same sin, though it would mean my com­punc­tion should wrack me anoth­er life­time and beyond” (page 529). Is Ester’s betray­al of the rabbi’s trust for­giv­able? When free­dom of thought and loy­al­ty argue against each oth­er, which should a per­son choose?

  • John, Manuel, and Alvaro off er Ester very dif­fer­ent sorts of love. What does each off er her, and what sac­ri­fice does each require? How might you answer this ques­tion for the love between Dror and Helen?

  • Both Helen and Ester fear love. How do they wres­tle with this fear? Could they have made choic­es oth­er than the ones they made?

  • In what ways does Aaron mature over the course of the book?

  • Do the moti­va­tions of Ester, Helen, and Aaron change as the sto­ry progresses?

  • Ester’s life is shaped by wrench­ing choic­es between the life of the mind and the life of the body. Can a woman today freely choose to com­bine love, moth­er­hood, and the life of the mind, with­out unac­cept­able sacrifices?

  • What sto­ry do you imag­ine Dror would tell about his expe­ri­ence with Helen?

  • Ester grows up in a com­mu­ni­ty of Por­tuguese Inqui­si­tion refugees who are fierce­ly focused on ensur­ing their safe­ty in the New Jerusalem” of Ams­ter­dam; they place great impor­tance on reviv­ing Jew­ish learn­ing and they give their harsh­est pun­ish­ment to Spin­oza for his hereti­cal pro­nounce­ments. When Helen goes to Israel, she encoun­ters Holo­caust sur­vivors strug­gling with the lega­cy of their loss­es and the need to estab­lish safe­ty in their new home. In what ways are these com­mu­ni­ties sim­i­lar, and in what ways are they different?

  • What clues does the author include as to the iden­ti­ty of the true grand­fa­ther of the female scribe? Did Liz­a­be­ta (Constantina’s moth­er) make the right choice in refus­ing to play on his pity and beg him to keep her and her daugh­ter in London?

  • After months of chaf­ing at the Patri­cias’ strict stew­ard­ship of the rare man­u­script room, Aaron has this epiphany: And as if his own trou­bles had giv­en him new ears, Aaron under­stood that her terse­ness was love — that all of it was love: the Patri­cias’ world of metic­u­lous con­ser­va­tion and whis­per­ing vig­i­lance and end­less polic­ing over fuck­ing pen­cils” (page 541). What sorts of love are on dis­play in unex­pect­ed ways in The Weight of Ink? In what unex­pect­ed ways does love show itself in your own world?