55 of 59 people found the following review helpful
From the epigraph:
"It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe [...] can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil -- which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama." --Richard Feynman
In THE LANGUAGE GOD TALKS, 94-year-old (!) Herman Wouk explores that cosmological stage and that human drama, and does it mostly through stories, including memoir.
He begins with science and the Big Bang, setting the enormity of the stage by recapping space exploration (including the race-for-space and the shuttle disasters) and the telescope's estimation/definition of the universe. He includes anecdotes about prominent scientists, including their theology (or not), particularly physicist Richard Feynman, who Wouk met while researching the Manhattan Project for his 1970s WWII novels (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). Then he moves to the Small Bang (the birth of the mind, exemplified best through art, he says) and explores dramas in his own life through prompts from Tevya, Confucius, Job, and characters in his novels.
It's a small book with an agile, imaginative voice that's easy to read. But it's not necessarily simple to understand -- vignette-ish and symbolic, with a whole-is-greater-than-its-parts feel that invites a re-read. I came to this book new to Wouk, and developed an admiration, even a fondness, for him, and an interest in his previous works. This book seems directed to pop-sci fans and religious believers, but I think philosophers and lovers of literature (especially those familiar with Wouk) will like it more.
(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2010
The Language God, Talks on Science and Religion by Herman Wouk is not so much about God, but the gentle philosophical musings of the author as he looks back on his life. He writes about his meeting with a theoretical physicist, Richard Phillips Feynman, which seemed to have quite an impact on his life. The author obviously has an interest in the heavens, but in a secular way, as he discusses space exploration. He describes his witness to the liftoff of Apollo 11 and what he believes is the future of space travel.
I was quite moved as I read his account of viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls in an underground wing of Jerusalem's Israel Museum. This was not an easy book for me to read and understand, but I will accept the blame as my own shortcoming. Herman Wouk is an intellectual - and I am not.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2010
Chances are, this is the closest thing we are going to get to a Herman Wouk autobiography. Not that The Language God Talks sets out to be any such thing. Its intention is to explain why Wouk believes. Sure, Richard Feynman, with a father born in Minsk same as Wouk's father was born in Minsk, refused to have a bar mitzvah. Sure the popular science Wouk reads--and Wouk apparently reads a lot of it--mostly considers belief unnecessary, when it bothers to consider the matter at all. Sure modernity's arrow is in the direction of non-belief. Wouk believes, he revels in the complexity of the Talmud, he adores the Prophets and the Psalms, he actually goes to the synagogue on a regular basis. Those of us with a soft spot in our hearts for this tradition don't see that explanation is necessary or perhaps possible. But we're not the ones writing the book.
To be honest, if you are really interested in the arguments for belief or non-belief there are better places to go. What this book has that the others don't have are fascinating snippets of autobiography. Wouk's encounters with Richard Feynman. How Wouk conceived the novels on WWll, and how the conception changed as he was trying to put it together. How he met the man who showed up in the novels as Pug Henry. How Wouk researched the books for years and years, and how at one point he considered himself in a race to finish them in the time he had left. Even hints on who were the originals of the characters in The Caine Mutiny. And along the way, how Wouk sought out Raul Hilberg, and how the University of Vermont, where Hilberg taught, had no idea that a great historian resided in its midst.
Somewhere in the book Wouk tells the story of an engineer who spent all his professional working life in Australia, which he has come to love, and who eventually decides to retire to his native state of Nevada. Before he leaves, he looks around, knowing he might never see Australia again. Wouk doesn't hide what he is doing. He is lovingly looking around at his own creations, as if he might not see them again. His own invented characters live for him. The book sometimes has an elegiac tone.
Of course he only talks about what he wants to talk about. There is lots, lots and lots he leaves out: his book, his privilege. Hint to those who write biography: here is an interesting subject, with a fine humanist mind, who lived in an interesting time. But we take what we can get. For those of us who care about his novels, this book, take it all in all, is worth it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2010
I'll echo the 4-star review of 3/31/10 by "litaddiction", with these additional comments.
I consider Wouk's The Winds of War /War and Remembrance and Inside, Outside among the greatest of books. Wouk, following the lead of Tolstoy's War and Peace, effectively conveys the history of the era as a side effect of telling the tales of his major characters. He is guided by the peculiar notion that good writing should be readable and accessible, even to readers lacking a PhD. (The funny thing about "War and Peace" is that, gosh, you can actually read and enjoy it, even though it's a big book and a classic. (Some translations are more readable than others; I linked the Rosemary Edmonds translation, which I liked.)) I think every American should pick up Wouk's WWII books at some point, and these books might be good candidates for high school reading.
When I saw the 94-year-old Wouk had written a book contemplating the relationship between Man and God, I was anxious to read what perspective and wisdom he had gathered during his long sojourn on this planet. This turns out to be a small book touching on big questions of science and philosophy and theology and history, interspersed with personal memoirs and connections to Wouk's literary canon. A central theme is a running conversation/debate (partly historical and partly imaginary) between Wouk and the (now deceased) physicist Richard Feynman, with Wouk seeking philosophical convergence between the model of a universe governed by natural law versus the human quest for spiritual transcendence. On the surface, Wouk's religiosity and Feynman's apparent materialistic atheism would seem incompatible, but Wouk pursues the notion that neither man is wrong and both can share and be enriched by a common philosophical structure, if only the proper framework can be found.
I think the way to appreciate "The Language God Talks" is to take it as a contemplative follow-up to Wouk's earlier works. That is, if you have his other books (or some of them) under your belt and found value in them, this will revisit and clarify and strengthen the themes therein. However, if you're not familiar with the earlier major works or weren't taken by them, I doubt this book will take root in your mind. It's a small book and it covers a vast turf; its ambition is far too great for it to stand alone.
As a postscript, the text mentions other unpublished works that Wouk has either completed or intends to complete, God willing. I'll certainly be watching for anything new he puts out. Additionally, fans of Wouk might be interested in Arnold Auerbach's 1965 (out-of-print) book, Funny Men Don't Laugh. The mention in TLGT motivated me to seek out an old copy, which I found quite rewarding. The apprenticeship to Harry Goldhandler described in "Inside, Outside" is somewhat autobiographical, and Auerbach was the friend who brought young Wouk in to work for David Freedman, the real-life Goldhandler. The true tale is told in Auerbach's memoir, although here Freedman/Goldhandler for some reason becomes "Lou Jacobs".
22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2010
This is a very small book. It has no table of contents, no forward and no introduction.
This book is written by a veteran novelist, so it reads well, but it is little more than an old man's reminiscences of his novel writing days provided as a broken up stream of consciousness. It fails to make any points about science or religion.
Chapter 1 contains a few anecdotes about Richard Feynman, Murray Gell- Mann, Steven Weinberg and their claim of no need for god. The "Language God Talks" is calculus, according to Feynman. Wouk tried, but failed to learn it.
Chapter 2 is about technology, not science: German V2 rockets, the space race with the USSR, Apollo 11, The Challenger disaster and Feynman's participation in the study, the SSC vs Space Shuttle funding and the Hubble telescope.
Chapter 3 is about George Elliot Hale, Henrietta Leavitt (Cepheid variable stars) and Edwin Hubble.
Chapter 4 is primarily about Wouk himself and his experiences.
Chapter 5 rambles all over the place: Steven Weinberg's "The First Three Minutes", much more about Wouk and his experiences, Feynman anecdotes, plate tectonics then he falls into the trap of the argument from incredulity, Feynman's non-Bar Mitzvah, dead sea scrolls and invariance (almost) of the Hebrew bible copying.
Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 is all about Wouk, his WW II participation and his novels.
Chapter 8 is the actual core of this book. These 20 pages are what the title is all about. It talks about Wouk and Feynman conversations. Wouk studying Talmud. The he drops into a bad version of the Anthropic principle argument for god, then a brief mention of Quantum mechanics argument for god then Wouk quotes scripture.
This is followed by an excerpt from One of Wouk's books, which adds little.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This book offers its readers a radically different view of religion than the notion that most people accept, but it is not entirely clear.
Herman Wouk is a famous writer who wrote best-selling fictional books such The Cain Mutiny and The Winds of War, and non-fiction books on Judaism, such as This is My God. He is also the author of successful plays.
Wouk is an observant Jew. He tells us in this book how he kept the rigors of Jewish practices in college and in the Navy, such as strapping himself in tefillin, phylacteries, every morning without being embarrassed, even though he shared accommodations with non-Jews; about his joys in studying the Talmud and how he likes speaking about it with others; and about going to the synagogue daily. Yet, despite his behavior and, perhaps because, unlike most people, he understands why he acts as he does, he accepts the findings of science and states that God speaks to people through science. Just as he described his own religious behavior in this book, he also describes the advancements of science, the big bang theory, the uses by Hitler of science, the atomic bomb, the musings of atheistic scientists. And he accepts the scientific findings as the truth, and sees them as the voice of God.
This is clear. He undoubtedly feels that religious people should not isolate themselves from scientific discoveries, and when the Bible states matters that are contrary to scientific findings, such as creation in six days only about 6,000 years ago, these statements should be understood metaphorically or as parables. It is also clear that Wouk is emphasizing that we should live a modern life using the scientific advancements.
But what is unclear is what he means by saying that science is "the language that God talks."
Is he saying more than what we just stated? How does God speak through science? What is God saying? Did God also speak through revelation and through the prophets? Should the understanding that God speaks through science change our behavior in any way other than what I indicated above? How should we act?
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2010
This book clips right along, like a stone skipped across a pond, landing on the moments in Wouk's life he has picked out from a vantage point only a few of us will ever reach: World traveler, renowned novelist, competent thinker, in his nineties.
The language referred to in the title is calculus. He (Wouk) was not able to learn it after trying on a few occasions. I was reminded of the student in "A Serious Man" who tells the math professor that he understands Schrödinger's cat, just not the math. The math professor explains that the math is the most important thing, that the analogy is just a way to provide access.
Calculus. If it is the language God talks He has a very limited audience. Of course it was Richard Feynman who said that, not Wouk, and I think part of the message of the book, written between the lines in a very indirect way, is that God speaks through all these difficult languages. Calculus maybe, but maybe also literature and suffering.
The crux of Wouk's message seems to come down to the story of Job as a unique story in religion because it shows a hero of a different sort. Job has the courage to stand up to God, to hold God accountable for the messy things like pain and suffering, and God never defends himself against these charges, only re-directs the conversation to His stature as being much greater than Job. "Fair enough," Job seems to say, "you are bigger than I am." and there is this dot dot dot, as in, "fair enough you are bigger than I am... so you should be able to fix things, and you haven't, so what gives?"
Wouk is saying, and the rest of the book is a round about way of supporting his premise, that God is not what we expect, is, perhaps, less than we expect. It is a theme that is going around these days.
The conversation in the latter half of the book with Feynman has a wonderfully enigmatic quality to it that touches gently on orthodoxy, the Talmud, and the uniqueness of the Jewish experience. While not answering any questions, it provides curious motivation to read the Talmud, to keep asking questions of each other, to talk about these important subjects before we die.
Not a bad little accomplishment for such a slender volume.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2010
The story told nicely weaves the fabulous bewilderment of Time and Space around certain biblical and war time stories of early and late "homo sapiens"(Wouk's terminology). It's a fun read taking a view of astronomy and Space Travel back to our human grounding in stories, religion, achievements (Apollo 11), recorded history as confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls and human experience such as World War II. The stroll is poignant as reflected upon by a slightly jaded but not pessimistic nonagenarian. The stroll is uplifting and framed around axes that involve Space (science), religion (mainly talmudic), communication (some literature), all displayed on one 183 page graph, and peppered with actual discussions and encounters. The book requires no knowledge of calculus.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2010
I thought I would gain some enlightening information about the Language God Talks and instead I got a story about how the author spoke to some Physicists and semi-reconciled his relationship between science and religion. There was definitely not enough depth on either of these stories. Marjorie Morningstar by Wouk is one of my favorite novels and it seems like Herman Wouk should stick to fiction story-telling. This book barely got ankle deep in the story or the science-religion discussion.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Herman Wouk at the age of ninety- four presents his thought about the relationship between Religion and Science. An Orthodox Jew who has had a lifelong interest in scientific development he makes his thoughts into a story. In this he follows the advice of the Israeli Nobel- Prize winning author Shai Agnon. Agnon told him to be a storyteller and not to focus on ideas. What Wouk in fact does is give us a small autobiographical journey including accounts of his conversations with famous scientists, most notably Richard Feynnman. Wouk recounts his meetings with Feynman, but then in the concluding chapter of the book which is the heart of the debate he creates a conversation in which he has Feynmann say what he believes Feynmann would have said. I am not sure that this is a fair or right thing to do. Perhaps a person of Feynmann's stature should only be quoted as saying what he actually had to say. In any case Feynmann stands for the position that Science and its methods do not need Religion, and that they have proven to be the way to truth. Wouk stands for the idea that there is another kind of truth, the truth given in Religious Literature and life. This also involves exploration and discovery but of a different kind. Wouk speaks of the great gifts he has had from being a practicing Jew, especially in regard to 'learning' He recommends to Feynmann the wisdom of Ecclesiastes as a way of enhancing his understanding of the world. Feynmann remains firm in his own position and Wouk does not invent an imaginary conversion. He instead speaks of the concept of 'Taiku' a term from Gemarra or Talmud study meaning that a dispute has not been resolved, but rather both positions stand. While wishing the thought involved in this work was of greater depth I cannot help but having admiration for Herman Wouk , his long career in literary creation, his integrity as moral human being , his American patriotism , his loyalty to the Jewish people and Israel.