The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Adventures in Algy-Land

Book of Numbers

Joshua Cohen

New York, NY: Random House, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

I’ve heard that Internet is ‘banned’ by the rabbis in various Jewish religious communities,” runs a typical question to’s Moshe Goldman. “Obviously, however, Chabad does use the Internet as a tool to serve G‑d. What does the Torah say about using this medium?” Or—to quote the title of that advice column—“Is the Internet evil?” (Goldman’s answer: No, it is neutral, like a knife.)

Such Jewish responsa (rabbinic Q&As) are abundant online: Tikkun runs a service, as does the Reform movement. They also appear in a fictional form in Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, as when a concerned reader writes to to ask if it is permissible to write out the name of God online. (Answer: Yes, because “the digitized Name is purely symbolic.”)

In a similar way, Book of Numbers attempts to sift through online phenomena in order to answer an array of similarly anxious questions about the Internet. The resulting novel is a eulogy for book culture, a polemic against the online-content economy that has replaced it, and an international, interreligious romp. (It’s also a breakup novel and a satirical pseudo-biography posing as a ghostwritten memoir.) It is interested in the place of the sacred (or that which has taken its place) in a culture increasingly premised upon degradation, searchability, and metrics.

To explore these questions, Cohen has created a fictional identity: Our narrator, also named Joshua Cohen (or “JC”), is a struggling writer whose struggles were compounded by the publication date—9/11/2001—of his first novel. He also shares a name with the founder of tech giant—a third Joshua Cohen. (Tetration is a kind of amalgam our modern tech empires: Apple, Facebook, and, most of all, Google.)

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Charles Thaxton is a freelance writer whose reviews and criticism have appeared in The Washington Post, The New Inquiry, and Full Stop.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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