My life has been about books. It was only as I became what is now known as a tween that the passion took hold, but since that time I’ve been addicted to them. As some readers know, I have a Goodreads account. Each year I try to take out a Goodreads challenge on how many books to read. That recently got me thinking; as an editor you read lots of embryonic books, but they don’t count. Being an editor’s a funny job. Not ha-ha funny, but the other kind. When I was having trouble breaking back into higher education, I ran across a quote that went something like this: What’s an editor? A writer who actually has a job. (Rimshot.) I have a tendency to take things literally, so I thought I’d discover lots of writers among professionals in the publishing world. I haven’t.
It could be that other writers keep it well hidden. I publish my fiction under a pseudonym and it may be that the other editors I know live hidden lives too. Somehow I doubt it. They check their email at midnight and all day long on weekends. One thing I know about writers is that we need time to write. If your workday is already eight hours and your commute is three-plus hours more, you won’t be checking work emails on weekends if you want to get any writing done at all. But what about the reading? Does it count when you read books that aren’t even born yet?
On Goodreads I enter my books by the ISBN. The International Standard Book Number (for which you have to pay, I’ve learned) is a tool used so that booksellers can keep track of titles with a unique identifier. The system is fairly recent (at least according to some of the books I read), and not all books have one. For those of us who read ancient documents, those can’t count either. Ilimilku didn’t think to stamp 13-digits on the bottom of his clay tablets. There’s no way to trace just how much s person reads in an actual year. I measure myself by my books. I get a profound sense of fulfillment when I finish one. That’s why I so often post about them on this blog. Books mean something. Call it a bad habit if you will. We’re outgrowing our apartment because I find it hard to part with books. There are those who spend their lives building arsenals. Then there are those who spend theirs building libraries. I know which I prefer.
Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. One of the categories for my 2018 reading challenge is a book you can read in a day. Maybe it’s just me, or creeping middle age, but books seem to be getting fatter these days. Despite the amount of time I spend reading, I’m slow at it and it’s a real struggle to find something I can actually finish on a three-hour bus ride. That’s why I thought of a play. Plays are meant to be performed in one sitting, so you should, in theory, be able to read one in a few hours. My first thought was Shakespeare, but the books of Shakespeare you can find these days all have added pages of commentary and interpretative material and the books seem to have put on weight since the Bard’s day.
So I settled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. My wife had a used copy from college days and I’d been wanting to read it for some years. Here was my excuse. Then the bus ride began. Starting Act One I was sure I had read this before. It wasn’t just an inkling, like déjà vu often is, but an overpowering sensation. Of course I could tell what was going to happen—I’ve read Hamlet a time or two—but it was more than that. The sense that I had not long ago read this very sequence of words was nothing shy of overpowering. Uncanny even. As I moved into the latter part of the act, the feeling went away. This was new territory after all.
Consciousness is mysterious. Even with all our instruments and equations and theories, we still don’t know what it is. Materialists insist it must be simply a function of the brain, but that’s certainly not what it feels like. One of the hazards of reading a lot in middle age is that some things do start to blend together in your gray matter. Research, for example, means reading many books on the same subject with repeated ideas common among them. For fiction, however, we often hold a higher standard. Uniqueness and creativity are highly valued, even if the play you’re writing is a riff off the old Bard. In the end, I was able to finish the play in a day’s reading on the bus. Staring out the window after I’d finished, I was thinking how déjà vu can be quite disorienting.
Biographies seldom cover millennia. Even if one were to try to uncover all the scant facts on old Methuselah at 969 years, it would still fall short of four digits. So Peter Stanford’s The Devil: A Biography takes the long view. Even with that lengthy perspective, there’s little that might be known about the prince of darkness. Even with a role in the Good Book his appearances are few and details are lacking. What Stanford does, of course, is outline, more or less, the history of Satan. This is no easy task since few ancient sources focus on trying to provide explanations for exactly who this might be.
As with most books by non-academics (and I don’t mean to sound snobbish here) there are some overstatements. Some of the details aren’t so finely parsed. It’s the big picture the author’s after and he does quite well when it comes to the modern era. Not only is there enormously more material from which to choose, there is also a great deal of literature and even headlines available to harvest. All writers that I’ve encountered on the subject make the point of demonstrating that news of what’s happening in the modern world suggests either the Devil exists or that something (or things) is doing a great job parodying such a character. When seeing evil in the highest reaches of the government it’s not so hard to believe.
The thing about the Devil is that he almost died out. In the nineteenth century when the explanatory value of science was firmly kicking in, and industrialization was making our live both easier and harder, the dark lord went underground. Humans seemed capable of making and claiming their own evil, and even the professionals—the clergy and formal religionists—had admitted Satan was most likely a metaphor gone wild. The birth of Fundamentalism, a movement that became prominent only in the 1920s, necessarily resurrected the Devil. The Bible does mention Lucifer, so he had to be real. Since that day he’s learned a lot. Protean to the extreme, he bears many guises. No longer beholden to a demonic tail, cloven hooves, or a pointy beard, he most often appears clean shaven and wearing expensive business suits. Borrowing a phrase from the Good Book, it’s by his fruits that we know him. Stanford’s biography shows its age a little, but when you’re covering a couple thousand years of speculation, being outdated is only a venial sin.
Maybe I’m too slow of thumb, but this ought to be simple. For many years I kept a small slip of paper in my pocket, along with a pen. Eventually I upgraded the paper slips to Moleskine notebooks since they’re harder to lose and the covers mostly prevent the smudging of my ideas. When something strikes me I don’t reach for my phone—by the time I enter the passcode, select the app, and try to type with fat thumbs, the idea’s gone. Instead I pull out my Moleskine, battered and frayed by the final pages, and my pen. The problem is I’m still enough of a working-class guy to lose pens. If a cord comes disconnected beneath my desk, I’m down there on my back fixing it rather than calling IT. Pens fall out of my shirt pocket on planes, trains, and automobiles.
A lost pen shouldn’t be a problem, but finding a pen that writes right away is. Like most people I have scores of throw-away plastic pens handed out by vendors with their company name on them. I prefer a good quality pen—the kind a family member gives you for your birthday—but they hurt when you lose them. I finally settled on a happy medium. One of my kin gave me a heavy-weight, refillable pen that has a robust clasp so it doesn’t slip out of my pocket, down between the seats of public transit vehicles. Refills, however, are another story. Who would’ve thought that I’d spend my time reading reviews on Amazon just to find pen refills that write the moment inspiration strikes? Well, I do.
Unlike those who whip out their phones to write things down, I still pull out my notebook. Nothing is more frustrating that feeling an idea evaporate while waiting for the ink to flow. My most recent refill is on strike most of the time, while that cheap pen from the health fair at work never seems to have a problem until it runs out of ink and has to be tossed into the landfill. I wonder if the Bible would’ve ever been written had Moses to rely on the poor quality of pen refills available before the common era. Maybe he had less commuting time, although I’d say 40 years in the wilderness qualifies. His stone tablets may have been heavier than my Moleskine, but his chisel was sure and his words still adorn courthouse lawns everywhere. Perhaps I’m too modern after all.
The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.
Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.
Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.
While I’m privileged and proud to have been part of one of millions protesting over the weekend with our nation’s youth, I can’t help but be a little reflective. Why does our world continue to shortchange women? You see, I had the honor to be a man invited to march in Washington, DC on January 21, 2017. I was there the day before, when the devil in the red hat assumed control. Helicopters were buzzing all over the place, flying low and dramatically over the scene. There were some small riots, to be sure, and I saw police action up close. The day of the march itself, however, all was peaceful. Including the skies. The helicopters were home, their blades drooping listlessly. The women marched. Few paid attention.
It’s hard to tell how many people there are when you’re in a crowd on the streets. There’s no stadium seat numbers to guide you. The National Park Service, which has metrics for counting visitors, probably knows best. As we thronged toward the capitol building we asked an NPS officer if they had any estimates. She nodded. “We’re estimating it’s 1.3 million.” When the headlines squeaked the next day all they said was “hundreds of thousands.” The White House was saying maybe 500,000. Of course, this was now the era of fake news. Nobody worth their testicles could say that the Women’s March drew more than a million to the capital, but it did. Because it was led by women, we have to scale the numbers down. It’s a trick employers use all the time.
This past weekend’s rallies and marches are being noticed by a reluctant press. Official estimates in DC are at a million. The Washington Post noticed that Metro ridership was “far behind” the Women’s March. Women are finding their voices. They were cheated out of the first female presidency by an electoral college that forever will bear the badge of shame for electing a candidate who lost by three million popular votes. People don’t like to be cheated. Women, who throughout history have been the victims of unfair policies upholding male privilege, are half of the human race. They number in the billions. Those who steadfastly hold to Trump—who’ve abandoned their tribe—have the right to be heard as well. They, however, must listen to their sisters. This is not about fiscal conservancy. This is not about unborn babies. This is about the most basic human right of all. We march because this is about the numbers. Women are equal to men. And we will march until the numbers are counted as they actually stand.
I’m standing in a haunted place. There was an act of violence here this week. Gun violence. A man died in this restaurant where I sat with my wife and had lunch just a couple of months ago. I’m in Princeton for a rally organized by a teenager. We’re here to tell the government we the people want sensible gun control laws. The website said they were expecting 500. Five thousand turned out instead. Princeton’s not the kind of town where you expect gun violence. Affluent and privileged, it’s the kind of place many of us go to get away from real life for a while—they’ve got the best bookstore around and you can still find DVDs at the Princeton Record Exchange. You don’t expect people to be shot dead here.
America’s perverse affair with firearms goes hand-in-hand with its refusal to ensure adequate treatment for the mentally ill. We give them firearms and wonder what could possibly go wrong. We elect the mentally deficient to highest office in the land and instead of reining him in, the GOP reigns with terror. They have shown time and again that they prefer NRA money to our children. They have sold out. And the word appropriately used to describe such a party good manners prevent me from inscribing on this blog. Republicans, true republicans, need a new party. Instead they refuse to call this aberration in Washington what it truly is. Thousands took to the streets yet again this weekend. This was my fourth rally or march since January of last year, and hey, government—they keep getting bigger.
“Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” So saith the Good Book. It’s a book the Republican Party has forgotten how to read. Especially the “evangelicals” who’ve betrayed their saintly name. While I’m here in Princeton, a few hours away in the sullied capitol of this once reasonable nation, half a million are on the march. And just as women led the way last January we’re being shown the truth that anyone can lead better then old white men. And the fact that the organizers of these protests are high schoolers, I am inclined to leave the last words to the prophet Isaiah, whom, for any Republicans who might be reading, is in the Bible: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”