Thoughts on a Book Signing

I’m a small-town boy.  Having the opportunity to hold a book signing, even if nobody requested said signing at the event, in the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the country was an honor.  This is a prelude to the Easton Book Festival next weekend, in which I have two roles—part of a panel discussion and an individual presentation on Holy Horror.  Putting yourself out there when you’re a writer is important, even if nobody pays attention.  I thought quite a lot about it; horror movies are almost always successful, but do people like reading about them?  Well, some of us do, obviously, but the average viewer, probably not so much.  And then there’s the somewhat embarrassing juxtaposition of the Bible.  People know what it is, but don’t want to talk about it.

Two people stopped to chat at the signing desk.  One was an adjunct geology professor.  We discussed science and religion, which is something on which I used to teach classes.  He thought the book idea was interesting, but not enough to read it.  The Moravian Book Shop scheduled this on the evening of their sold out ghost tours.  Quite a few people came in for a Saturday night, mostly for the haunted Bethlehem walks.  The second conversation was with a ghost tourist who thought the book idea was unusual.  It is.  I admit it.  As I say in the book itself, “If you see something, say something.”  So it was with me, with Bibles in movies.  The bookstore did a nice display, but then, I have an awareness of the smallness of my impact.  No surprises here.

The thing that really struck me was just how many people avoid looking at you when you’re behind a table with your books.  I know I’ve done the same thing.  I’ve gone into bookstores when an event was going on, not knowing about it and having no interest whatsoever in the book being presented.  That’s the way these things go.  I wasn’t doing this to make sales.  McFarland isn’t the kind of publisher you use to make money.  For me it was all about the experience.  It was like seeing my name outside a church in Manhattan.  It doesn’t do anything for you materially, but at least you can say you had it happened to you once.  The signing was advertised in the local paper, and on its website.  Maybe someone out there took a glimpse and saw something that sparked their curiosity.  It doesn’t matter if they buy the book.  As a teacher at heart, it is simply the interest that I’m hoping to raise.

Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.

Trolls and Tolls

Fall creeps up on me every year.  I like to have an array of seasonal books to read so that when it arrives I’ll be ready.  With house repair costs this year I’ve had to curtail book buying.  That, and most of the titles on my to-read list are used books that seem to have become extortionately expensive since the 1970s.  In any case Cherie Priest’s The Toll stood face out on the shelves of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca and it caught my attention.  Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, this unsettling novel brings the reader into the liminal space of the dying small town.  There’s a bit of magic in Staywater, although everyone who lives there knows it hasn’t got long before it goes altogether.  And every thirteen years a monster comes.

Priest knows not to describe the nameless creature too clearly.  The monster seen in broad daylight can quickly lose its patina of fear.  This is some kind of supernatural swamp beast and everyone local seems to know it’s picking them off.  The outside authorities, however, pay no attention to small towns that have “nothing to offer” to the greater economy.  That aspect resonated with me as the erstwhile denizen of a community of less than a thousand.  I watched the dissolving of my adoptive hometown as the tax-base shrank to the point that they could no longer afford to pave the streets and decided to go back to gravel.  Once the oil refinery—what gave the town “value”—closed, outside interest disappeared.  Ah, but I digress from fiction.

The Tool is a moody novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s backstory here that remains untold.  Two of the protagonists are elderly female cousins who are comfortable with the spiritual world.  They are the past saviors of this little town in the swamp.  The other characters have all come to an uneasy peace with their periodic tormentor and they have nowhere else to go.  When the monster strikes against unwary outsiders the locals don’t welcome outside attention.  Those acquainted with small communities know that’s what life is like.  Attention brings cash, but often unwelcome change as well.  One of the more haunting aspects of this novel is the number of threads left dangling in the wind.  Not everything is resolved, and life goes on much as it always has, without or without the monster.  A moody read, this ghost story has, it is clear, a deeper message.

Digital First

Publishers these days are all yammering about being “digital first.”  Now, I use technology when I write these days, despite the fact that I am coerced to shut down programs at 3:30 a.m., my writing time, because tech companies assume people are asleep then and that’s when upgrades happen.  Still, even as an author of the modest academic sort I know the unequalled thrill of seeing that first printed copy of my book.  Authors live for that moment.  It’s our opiate.  Publishers don’t understand that.  Five years back or so I had a novel accepted for publication.  (It never happened, but that’s a long story.)  At one point the publisher changed its mind—post-contract!—and decided that my story would be only an ebook.  They tried to make me feel better by saying they thought it would do well in that format.

Who wants to hold up a plastic device and say “Look what I wrote!”?  It makes about as much sense as smoking a plastic device.  No, writing is intended to lead to physical results.  Even those of us who blog secretly hope that someday someone will say, “Hey, I want to publish your random thoughts as a book.”  As long as it’ll be print, where do I sign?  In some fields of human endeavor there are no physical signs that a difference has been made.  Is it mere coincidence that those who work in such fields also often write books?  I suspect not.  Writing is a form of self-expression and when it’s done you want to have something to show for it.  All of that work actually led to something!

Since I work in publishing I realize that it’s a business.  And I understand that businesses exist to be profitable.  I also know that technology sits in the driver’s seat.  Decisions about the shape of the future are made by those who hold devices in higher regard than many of us do.  I’m just as glad as most for the convenience of getting necessary stuff done online.  What I wonder is why it has to be only online.  The other day I went looking for a CD—it’s been years since I bought one.  At Barnes and Noble about all they had was vinyl.  I’m cool with records, but my player died eons ago.  I had to locate a store still dedicated to selling music that wasn’t just streamed or LP.  That gooey soft spot in the middle between precomputer and 0s and 1s raining from the invisible cloud.  I went home and picked up a book.  Life, for a moment, felt more real.

Weird Publishing

It’s a weird world.  Publishing, I mean.  In the early days of shock and angst after Nashotah House, when it had become clear that UWOsh—the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh—wasn’t going to hire me full-time after a full-time year there, I considered that classic fall-back of the academic—publishing.  I wasn’t exactly clear on what an editor did in those days, but I was pretty sure I could learn.  Gorgias Press hired me and after just over two years, downsized.  I’d been in publishing long enough at that point to have learned about Transaction Publishers.  Housed on the Livingston campus of Rutgers University, where I’d been teaching for a few years at this point, Transaction had been founded by the sociologist Irving Horowitz.  Now that Gorgias was out of the picture, I contacted Transaction out of the blue and landed an interview with Horowitz himself.  Although he was most cordial, it didn’t lead to a job offer.

Eventually I was recruited by Routledge.  I was about to learn the nature of publishing in a whole new way.  Early in my time in the Taylor & Francis group (they had a letter signed by Walt Whitman in one of the board rooms) I learned that presses grow by acquiring other presses.  I suggested Transaction, only to be told it was too small of a “concern;” Taylor & Francis preferred larger fish.  When Routledge downsized I found myself again applying to Transaction.  Irving Horowitz had passed away by this point and before I could make an appeal, I was hired by my current employer.  There I have been ever since.

The other day I had cause to look up Transaction.  It was with some surprise that I learned they had been acquired by Taylor & Francis and merged with Routledge.  I’m sure that my suggestion of that acquisition had nothing to do with it, but I pondered what would’ve happened had I been hired by Transaction after Routledge cut me loose.  A few years later I would’ve found myself working for Routledge again.  And likely I would have found history repeating itself.  Publishing is a fairly small industry.  Books are a low-margin commodity (it pains me to type those words, but that’s the way the business world sees them).  Not too many people are interested in a company that has to sell lots of a specialty item in order to make them profitable.  Consumers tend not to buy books in bulk.  My time in publishing has been about connections.  And some of those connections are just plain weird.

Fall Festivals

Now that it’s October, it’s officially okay to be scared.  Determined to fight my fright of hubris, I make brave to mention that I have two appearances scheduled for the first ever Easton Book Festival, coming up from the 25th to the 27th.  The Festival has turned into quite an event, with some 200 writers taking part.  I got involved by being in the right place at the right time, for a change.  Authors are being brought in from as far as New York City, Vermont, and Massachusetts.  I know from experience that even Manhattan is a trek.  I contacted the organizers back in the summer since I have an autumn book that came out in late December last year.  For the festival I’ll be involved in a panel discussion “Poets as Prophets—Merging Art and Religion” on Saturday, and a presentation on Holy Horror on Sunday.

Like many people who write, I’m shy and not naturally good at promoting myself.  The other day while out for a walk my wife and I were run by by a group of shirtless high school guys, presumably on the track team.  It felt like the gallimimus scene from Jurassic Park—we’re smaller folks, and these confident, athletic sorts were not.  It felt like an object lesson to me.  Some of us are born with genetic dispositions to grow large and to feel confident.  Others not so much.  When we watched the caber toss at Celtic Fest last weekend, the contestants were all well over six feet tall, which I suppose makes sense if a caber is in the cards for you.  As they showboated for the crowd, I knew a small display with my book was just up the hill in the Moravian Book Shop.  Like me, in the shadows of the shelf above.

Perhaps my only regret about the Easton Book Festival is that I don’t have a fictional novel to present.  Well, I do, but it isn’t published.  Lately I’ve been exploring that wall of separation between fiction and non.  In the kinds of books I read in the fall, the wall is more of a hurricane fence.  And it’s only about waist high at that.  Holy Horror isn’t an academic book, it just plays one on the market.  If it were a standard academic title I wouldn’t have put it forward for the Easton Book Festival; people come to such events to be entertained as well as to learn.  This one will encompass pretty much all of downtown Easton for the weekend.  And that weekend is just before Halloween, when the wall between worlds is especially thin.

 

Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.