Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Cloaking Device

America’s book is seldom read. Those of us who spend an unusual amount of time with the Bible know this from personal experience, but others are starting to notice too. Kenneth A. Briggs’ The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America is a rambling account of the way a variety of everyday people from prisoners to academics and clergy use, read or not read, and perhaps inwardly digest the Good Book. There are moments of stark insight in this book, but with no narrative arc it is somewhat easy to feel like you’re reading about what random people say about the Bible. I don’t need a book to tell me that I’m odd, but much of what I read here was old hat to a guy who grew up Evangelical, went to seminary but never got ordained, completed a doctorate and taught the Bible nearly two decades before being booted out of its company. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Perhaps redemption?

Briggs does provide some useful statistics, and not as maniacally as sociologists do. We learn that few people read the Bible and the numbers are declining. Still, people buy the Bible and tend to have multiple copies in their domiciles. It is cheaper than insurance, after all. Holy Writ, however, is an alien among us. Few people have any idea what it was like to live before smart phones, let alone before the smelting of iron. The concerns and dialogues of the Bible seem so terribly provincial and, to be honest, unenlightened (if one can say such a thing about divine revelation). Still, we won’t accept a president who doesn’t lay his (and it’s always his) hand on the Good Book and swear to uphold America.

The Invisible Bestseller gave me plenty of information to ponder. Some of the tales Briggs tells are interesting. Others are so mundane as to be stultifying. The overarching fact is that the Bible is an established object in our culture. Some take it seriously enough to read it and stick with it—this isn’t easy to do, and I speak from experience here. Such people are rare. After all, apart from getting you a hall pass out of Hell, the Bible doesn’t seem to do much for people these days. Still, when I take a moment to read the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t help but feel we might be missing some wonderful rhetoric by ignoring the Good Book so much. But then again, I’m fully aware that I’m the one that’s odd. Briggs’ book stands as a testament to a couple of testaments that continue to wield enormous power without ever being read.

Revisiting Frankenstein

There’s nothing like going back to the classics. Many people don’t realize that one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It has never been out of print. As a novel it has its issues, but the tale strikes something deeply responsive in readers. And the story may not be what you think. You see, the movies have made Frankenstein’s monster into something Shelley never intended. Indeed, today’s Frankenstein monster is pieced together from various monster images, just like the mad doctor’s original creation.

After a lapse of many decades, I decided to read Frankenstein again. It must’ve been in my tweenage years that I’d last done so. I recall putting the book down thinking how sad it was. Something happens, however, when you return to a book after a span of many years. This time I was looking for the mad doctor and hoping to determine if the monster deserved that title at all. The story won’t let any easy answers come. Victor Frankenstein is a young, impulsive man carried away by an idea. He doesn’t contemplate the consequences of what he’s doing. It’s like buying a dog without considering that you’ve just realigned your priorities for several years. Not noticing that his growing creation is hideous to the eyes until it’s too late, he simply abandons the creature without a word. (The parallels with an absentee father should be obvious.)

The creature—monster is a bit harsh—wants acceptance. He isn’t a mute brute with bolts in his neck. He’s not a robot. He is Adam kicked out of the garden with no Eve. He doesn’t start out evil. The rejection of his creator forces him to murder in a desire for revenge. Shelley’s world was deeply influenced by the Bible as well as Milton. Religious concepts are constantly under evaluation. The child of radical parents—her mother was one of the first feminists on record—Shelley questions everything here. No doubt in Victor’s mind he’s created a demon. Or has the monster created Frankenstein? Until the very final pages nobody else actually sees his monster, or at least hasn’t seen him and lived to tell about it. What fuels the creature’s fury is rejection. Evil doesn’t just happen in the world of the mad doctor.

Sympathies are divided in Frankenstein. We feel for the monster. His creator never apologizes. Never reflects that he somehow shares (or completely owns) the blame for the sad fate of that which he’s created. Living under a Frankenstein presidency, these unanswered questions hang thickly in the air. Lack of foresight seldom ends well. The monster isn’t always who you assume it to be.

It’s Okay

It once seemed improbable that an entire book could be written on one word. The first time I noticed this I was a doctoral student who’d run across the late William Holladay’s published dissertation on the Hebrew word shuv. Wow, I thought, an entire book on a single vocable. One syllable, nonetheless. Thus I was predisposed to read Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. The justification Metcalf gives for his “greatest word” award is the fact that OK is the most-used word of American origin world-wide. Even in languages with other scripts, there are ways of fabricating the “okay” pronunciation and everybody knows what it means. It’s really quite interesting. All the more so since OK first appeared as a joke. It’s now used by everybody in all seriousness. Just think of what one says to someone who’s been hurt or is ill. Isn’t the first question inevitably, “Are you okay?”

OK, you may be saying, but you say your blog’s about religion. Yes, and I’m getting to that, okay? Along about halfway through the book, Metcalf discusses how OK tends not to be used for products because it suggests mediocrity. An exception was James Pyle’s O.K. Soap back in the 1860’s. One of the ads included this affidavit: “The most intelligent classes in New-York use it. Editors of most of the religious papers patronize it.” I had to smile at that. Religious folk had, and sometimes still have (when they’re not too oily) the reputation of clean living. If you’re selling soap, you’re selling sanctity. It’s a very ancient connection. Anthropologists have shown time and again that purity is a concept that the religious own. Something about being worldly makes you feel like you should take a shower.

And it’s not only soap that makes okay religious. In the concluding chapter that describes OK as an American philosophy based on the “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” transactional psychological school, Metcalf notes we treat religions in just that way. Religious tolerance is saying “your religion’s OK.” That’s a lot to think about, considering that we’re talking just two letters here. And this book was written before the 2016 election, when tolerance was a word Americans were just beginning to understand. Maybe our hope is in getting OK back into circulation. After all, giving national security secrets away to Russia is okay. If you’ve got a Republican majority who’s going to quibble? Even Russians know what OK means, at least when it works to their advantage.

Write or Wrong

Lots of people write for lots of reasons. Some love it. Some hate it. Some can’t help themselves. For those who know me primarily through this blog, it may not be obvious which of these sorts I am. After having read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life I finally feel confident putting myself in category three. It’s not that I don’t like writing—I live for it. The kind of person Shapiro describes, however, is the one who defines their entire being through writing. Each day I post between 300 and 500 words on this blog. I’ve been doing it since 2009, which means I’m somewhere over the million-word mark. But those compelled to write will never be satisfied with just that. One does not live by blog alone, after all.

Once in a great while I get asked how many books I’ve written. Well, that’s not a question with a straightforward answer. Two of my books have been published. I’ve written at least ten. Some of them never made it from my desk to a publisher’s wastebasket. A few of them have. Like others who are addicted to writing, I can’t stop. Ironically, with a decade of experience working in publishing I’m not so good at getting my own work placed. Some of it is fiction. Some of it is non. Some of it is even poetry. If you’re a graphomaniac, I don’t need to explain any further. If you’re not, think of chocolate, or sports, or anything else you just can’t get enough of. That’s what it’s like.

Shapiro’s book, although not point-for-point, but more than not, is like wandering through my own gray matter. I had no idea that other writers—including a successful one like Shapiro—felt the same constant, nagging doubts and insecurities. I didn’t know that others considered staring off into the middle distance (there’s not always a window nearby) as work. Or that sometimes you write something and when you’ve finished it seems like it wasn’t you at all. Writers can be a trying lot. We tend to be introverts. We have odd habits (in my case, waking up at 3 a.m. to write on a daily basis). We tend to be able to spot one another in a crowd, but more likely as not we won’t say anything to each other. And strangely, we write even if we don’t get paid. With lifelong royalties somewhere in the low triple digits, economically it makes no sense to do what I do. Generally the world feels creative sorts aren’t terribly productive. It’s because we measure value differently, I expect. I’m glad to have met another traveler on this path although, as is often the case, our meeting will only be through writing.

See Around Us

There aren’t too many people that I consider personal heroes. Those that I do have earned the sobriquet in odd ways, I suppose. That makes them no less deserving. Rachel Carson became a hero because of The Sea Around Us. Published over a decade before I was born, it was a book that I treasured as a teen—or even as a tween, had the word existed then. I was no literary critic, but her style and lyrical writing drew me in and my own love of the ocean I’d never seen was kept alive through her words. Mark Hamilton Lytle, I think, shares my evaluation of Carson as a hero. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement brought out much of what I admired, and still admire, about her. A woman in a “man’s world,” she became a scientist with a gift for literary finesse. She struggled, she believed, and she died far too young.

Lytle’s book builds up to the publication of Silent Spring, which appeared just two years before Carson’s untimely death. I picked up Silent Spring as a tween as well, but only read it within the last few years. I knew this book had nearly singlehandedly launched the environmental movement, but as the shame of modern life constantly reminds me, I’d been too busy to read it. Born the year it was published, and not terribly far from where Carson herself was born, I had an affinity with the book that strangely kept me from it. It isn’t easy to read, even today. Especially today. With a government ignorantly rolling away all the environmental safeguards that six decades of careful thought have put into place, we need Carson now as much as we did in the 1960s. Her modern critics, as might be expected, tend to be men.

Carson showed that a woman can change the world. Those who disparage her stunning work claim that her following is a religion, not science. Carson was a rare scientist who saw that everything is interconnected. There may be some mysticism to this, but for those willing to admit it, we feel it to be true. On the eve of environmental degradation that will, in a perverse kind of justice, possibly wipe us out, we need to return to the fine words and clear thinking of one woman who took on industrial giants to give a voice to the people. We do have a right to determine what happens to our planet. Lytle makes the point that Carson was like a prophet. For me the comparative preposition can be removed altogether.

Kindling

Paula Cocozza, writing for The Guardian, describes “How E-books Lost Their Shine.” Like most inveterate readers, she says she has stacks of books growing like mushrooms after a summer rain, in her bedroom. I was working in the publishing industry (I still am, so please take no alarm at my rhetoric) when e-book sales plateaued. Then declined. “Industry analysts” were baffled. I wasn’t. The reasoning goes like this: e-books are light and cheap and amazingly convenient—why would anyone want something different? Those of us who love books know. If you know what I mean when I write “library smell” I’m preaching to the converted. More beguiling than new car scent, that first deep breath when you step into a library takes you places your physical body may never go. All those bodies of books gathered together let off a bouquet that insists you follow your nose to an earthly paradise. I just tried sniffing my iPhone. Nothing. No synapses fired. I’ve read books on it, but have I really?

Studies tend to show we have trouble remembering books read electronically. It’s just too fast. Wham-bam-thank you whoever you are. Let’s get on to the next thing. But books, as Cocozza writes, are slow. Publishing’s a slow industry. You submit your proposal, and the editor reads it. The editorial board discusses it. The book is written and sent to a copyeditor. Then a compositor or typesetter. Then a proofreader. Then it’s off to the presses. Printed, bound, and shipped. It can take a year or more. And when you curl up in bed with a book, furtively sniffing it, gently rubbing your fingers along its pages, drawn into a world not your own, plastic’s the last thing on your mind.

A few Saturdays ago I attended the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I go every year. It’s a big deal. People line up in advance. You step into the barn-like sales floor and it hits you—the smell of all those books. The aroma of knowledge. You can’t repurpose an e-book. You can’t sell it back because nothing was ever really produced. You purchased electrons, you’re stuck with electrons. Hit “delete” when the storage is full. All these books in this room are valuable. All for pocket-change. Many of them were wildly overprinted in the exuberance that naturally comes from being over-stimulated. Like kids about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Industry analysts are puzzled. If they’d get their fingers dirty by thumbing through a used book once in a while they wouldn’t be. Yes, its dusty, grungy, and probably laced with germs, but I wouldn’t trade it in right now for a Kindle, even if it costs me nothing.

Filling the Frame

Those who study the Bible have to reckon with the fact that someone else probably said it first. This is one of the inherent liabilities of studying something a couple thousand years old. Still, scholars have to keep their jobs, and so they come up with new ways of looking at something ancient. One of my favorite new methods is the use of movies to understand the Good Book. Clearly nobody in ancient times had any ideas about films, let alone stills, but still, they liked to tell stories. They have that in common with modern cinema. Although I’m naturally distrustful of collections of essays—there are so many of them and they are all of mixed quality—I decided to read Close Encounters between Bible and Film: An Interdisciplinary Engagement, edited by Laura Copier and Caroline Vander Stichele. I have to admit that I picked it up with some trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised in the end.

Like all edited volumes, Close Encounters is uneven. Nevertheless, a fair number of the essays are well done and insightful. The others may be insightful too, but my exile from academe has led to a drop in tolerance for method-heavy essays. They make me think the Bible should mean nothing to anyone but experts, which, if true, is a sad state of affairs for a world that depends on it for salvation. But I digress. The fact is movies quite often draw on similar collections of brain cells as do sacred texts. That’s interesting. Not only that, but flicks show just how deeply embedded the Bible is in western consciousness.

Having read many books on cinema and the Bible, I was pleased at how well this one seemed to flow. At times it’s as if that authors are struggling to find some common ground, but the realization that both sacred text and cinema are part of the cultural sphere suggests that the connections are there. More than that, they suggest that the Bible might still retain some relevance for modern people after all. Hollywood hasn’t lost sight of Holy Writ either. Just a few years back three major biblical epics came out in one season. For me this makes it clear that the stories of antiquity still speak to modern people. They have to be gussied up with CGI and big-name actors, but the underlying tales go back to a day before lights and camera were necessary for action. And we might learn something while our intention is simply to be entertained.