Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

See Above

As we slide beneath the hegemony of technology, I’m impressed by the redefinition of vocabulary it demands.  Because new printing technologies assume, for example, that the XML (one of the many mark-up languages) is primary, directional references in texts are inadequate.  An example might help.  If you’re a human being reading a book, and the author has discussed something a few pages ago, s/he might write “see above.”  Now, it’s not literally above in the sense of being higher up on the same page (but it may be considered literally if the book is closed.   And lying face up).  The pages you already read are above those where you left the bookmark.  I remember the first time I encountered this language; having been raised a literalist (and a naive realist) my eye hovered over the header and I wondered about the accuracy of “see above” or “see below.”  The terminology soon became second nature, however, and I knew it wasn’t a literal reference.

In the days of XML (“eXtensible Markup Language,” therefore literally EML), the sense of play is now gone from writing.  I’ve heard editors explain to authors that, in an ebook there is no above or below because there are no pages.  A time-honored metaphor has been sacrificed on the altar of a tech that sees the world in black-and-white.  You can’t point vaguely in the direction from which you’ve just come and say “it’s back there somewhere.”  I sense, given all of this, that most copyeditors haven’t written a non-fiction book (for this is mostly an academic affectation).  As a human being writing, you get into the flow and you don’t think, “Ah, I mentioned that in paragraph 2749; I’d better say it’s there.”  And the reason you need to know the paragraph number is so the ebook can have a hyperlink.  The argument itself suffers for XML precision.

As someone who writes both fiction and non, I am bound to look at this from the viewpoint of a human author.  I’ve been known to paint and make sketches on occasion.  All of these forms of expression have flow in common.  At least when they’re good they do.   If you want to stop a project cold, just say “Hey, I’m writing!” and watch yourself drop like a cartoon character who’s run off a cliff and just realized it.  I’m sorry, I can’t point you to exact where that’s happened.  It’s in many vague recollections of many cartoons I watched as a child.  If the technomasters aren’t watching I’ll just say, “see above.” 

Taking and Giving

Dystopias are among my favorite kinds of literature.  Things tend to go wrong in human society, and although we’ve made great progress over the past couple of centuries, in many ways we’ve set ourselves back.  Dystopias are searching, thoughtful ways of addressing that slippage and they warn us of what me might become.  (Especially if Republicans remain in power.)  Lois Lowry’s The Giver is young adult literature, but I’ve been curious about it for some time.  Set in an undefined time and place, a highly structured society exists where things seldom go wrong.  There are no animals and people take pills to eliminate “stirrings” so that sex won’t complicate relationships.  Families are constructed by algorithm and children are assigned from a pool so they will match expectations.  In order to continue this bland lifestyle, memories have to be repressed in the person of the Receiver—the keeper of communal memories.

At first things seem pleasant enough.  Life, however, lacks color and music.  It lacks emotional engagement.  Those who, in real life, idealize the 1950s as before the madness of the sixties began, have trouble conceiving of how societies go wrong.  The dilemma is that no society is perfect and as time goes on we look for improvements.  For a very long time in American history, for example, nobody had bosses.  The majority of people were independent farmers.  They prospered by luck and hard work, but they worked for no one but themselves.  Now we mostly work for bosses who have bosses who have bosses in some kind of endless regression of power.  Our ability to change things is quite limited, even in professional positions.  Is this better than the uncertainty of farming?  With all the rain this year it might seem so.  Of such things dystopias are made.

The Giver follows a protagonist, Jonas, who when he becomes twelve is assigned to become the new Receiver.  As he gains memories of how things used to be, he’s fascinated.  Learning his society’s darkest secret, however, spurs him to try to make a change.  A lot of questions remain at the end.  (The novel is part of a series, as most young adult fiction tends to be, but it can be read as a stand-alone story.)  Those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two might be able to guess where this is going, but for younger readers to be introduced into the way of human problem solving this is a gloves-off approach.  Those accustomed to dystopias will find themselves in familiar territory.  As will those who live under Republican regimes.

Let It Lie

At the grave risk of over-simplifying, the list is brief: destructive scapegoating behavior, intolerance of criticism, concern with public image, and deviousness.  These characteristics, back in 1983 (note well the next year), were widely considered the description of evil.  Now look at the White House.  What do you see?  I know that I’m reading into the current situation, but how can one not?  I have never read anything by M. Scott Peck before.  Growing up I saw The Road Less Traveled on many, many bookshelves of friends and clergy.  I recently picked up Peck’s People of the Lie because, along with Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, it convinced many in my generation that demons actually exist.  At the time, still pretty much a Fundamentalist, I didn’t require any convincing.  Reading Peck’s People, however, in the era of Trump is a frightening thing.  And not just for the politics.

I always find books by psychologists and psychiatrists difficult to read.  I admit to having had a less-than-ideal childhood, and although self-healing is possible such books make me think I should spend my free time in therapy rather than writing.  In any case, People of the Lie is difficult in another respect as well—the labeling of evil.  Peck advocated for the scientific study of evil.  Good and evil, however, have generally been considered values rather than facts.  Science studies the latter while religion and philosophy deal with the former.  Not that lines in the sand are intended to be permanent.  Still, what one person calls evil may not be what others call evil.  Peck focuses primarily on narcissism and laziness as sources of evil.  He may very well be right, especially with the narcissism aspect, but some of the patients he described certainly didn’t seem evil to me.

Many aspects of this book could be discussed on a blog like this.  No doubt many of them will be, in sublimated form, in future posts.  Books, however, are part of the context in which they’re read.  In Peck’s day, the great political evil still fresh in many minds was the Vietnam War.  Today’s world, however, is one where Vietnam, Watergate, and even to a great extent the tragi-comedy of the W administration have all been eclipsed.  The cult of personality headed by one of the most obviously narcissistic individuals this nation has produced makes what Peck labeled “evil” seem perfectly normal.  And those who have the authority to do something about it either sit idly by, or worse, use it for their own means.  Roads less traveled indeed.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Adversaries

Satan isn’t who we think he is.  Inheriting a tradition from across centuries, it can be easily supposed that modern ideas help to explain the reality of that tradition.  Sorry, let me try this with more specificity.  The character of “Satan” does not occur in the Hebrew Bible.  By the time of the Gospels, however, he’s there.  We tend to use modern ideas of Satan to understand the enigmatic person of “the satan” in the Hebrew Bible.  Peggy L. Day explored this idea decades ago in her revised Harvard dissertation, An Adversary in Heaven: śāṭān in the Hebrew Bible.  Reading this took me back to those heady days when I consumed Harvard Semitic Monographs like breakfast cereal.  To those of us not from Harvard we pretty much knew what to expect, but we read anyway.  Scholars are like that.

In any case, Day here explores what is sometimes surprising to those who read the Devil back into the Hebrew Bible: the satan is mentioned in only four passages and in none of them is he “Satan.”  In Numbers the satan is identified as a good angel sent to knock Balaam off his ass.  In the book of Job the satan is a member of the divine council and he does his job by accusing Job.  Day shows, by the way, that his accusation is really against God and not the mere human sufferer.  Her outlook on Job is still amazing after all these years.  After Job, the satan appears in the short book of Zechariah to accuse Joshua the high priest of the restoration era.  He’s no Devil here either.  The final reference comes in Chronicles where instead of God tempting David to take a census a satan does.  By this time the reader already knows a satan is an accuser and need not be superhuman.

This monograph raises the perennial issue of how to understand ancient texts without chaffing under the weight of tradition.  The character of the Devil developed over many centuries and, when he appeared, he was only one of many iterations.  The New Testament made Satan “biblical” and later readers tried to explain the Devil (who came from Zoroastrian mythology) as part of the Christian divine economy.  In Judaism he went on to play a much lesser role.  Once Christian writers established this character, he was read back into the Bible, even where the original writers didn’t see him.  Day isn’t the first to have noticed this, but she handles it very well and her book is still thought-provoking after all these years.