Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Happy World Book Day

In times of distress, as well as of joy, I turn to books. Since about November there have been more of the former than the latter, so I’m cheered that today is World Book Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designates World Book Day to promote literacy internationally. If only the White House would pay a little more attention to the UN maybe the world situation would improve. In any case, books are always worth celebrating. At any given time I’ve got three or four book-reading projects going on simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously; I have books I read in the morning, different books for the bus ride, and books I read before bed. Often there are others scattered in there as well, such as books that I take with me in case I get unexpectedly delayed somewhere and want something to read. It’s a life full of books. It’s a wonderful life.

I can’t imagine enduring the mental vacuity that must come from not reading. It sounds like torture to me. Yes, I’ve occasionally been caught up in the action-packed episode of travel and adventure (or what passes for adventure for a guy like me). Hours spent with other people in locations not at home when there’s something to do every minute of the day. But then, when the fun’s over, I open a book. I read before bed even when I’m traveling, and since I’m an early riser I read before anyone else is awake. It’s a form of communion. Having access to the intelligent minds of others is a rare privilege that shouldn’t be scorned. World Book Day should be an international holiday.

Books, strictly speaking, didn’t necessarily originate as sacred texts. Very early in the process of writing, however, such holy documents began to appear. Civilization itself grew through the cultivation of writing. Bibles, Qur’ans, Books of Mormon—for all the troubles sacred texts may cause, they’re reminders of the importance of reading. And once reading starts, it’s impossible to stop. Reading is resistance to the Zeitgeist that’s haunting the politics of the day. Had voters been informed, it is absolutely certain, neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened. We need to read, and be seen reading. Ignorance is the final enemy to be defeated. Celebrate World Book Day. Wish people happy World Book Day. And for the sake of civilization itself, get caught reading.

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

Who Knows What?

Nobody likes to have their shortcomings pointed out. I suspect that’s why many people might find Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters a little uncomfortable. Nichols doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he claim to be an expert on everything. What he does claim, however, is very important. He shows how America has taken a distinctly hostile attitude toward experts and specialists. Somewhere along the line hoi polloi began to mistake everyone has a right to their opinions for “everyone has the right to be an expert on what they express in those opinions.” This isn’t a new problem, but there’s no doubt that the Internet has exacerbated it. We’ve got people arrogant of their lack of training claiming alternative facts that are “just as good as” established facts. One of them resides in the White House. There’s no arrogance in claiming you have extensive, highly specialized training if you do. It’s a simple, non-alternative, fact.

A perfect book for our times, The Death of Expertise should be—must be—widely read. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who’ve already decided that with the Internet giving them a voice they’ve become the gurus of a new generation of the “Know Nothing Party.” The rest of us, however, should read and ponder. Nichols doesn’t shield himself in his ivory tower—he admits there’s plenty that he doesn’t know. He’s not shy, however, in saying he’s an expert on what he does know. I remember when facts used to stand for something. Winning at Trivial Pursuit was a matter of pride. Now everyone’s a contestant on Jeopardy and Alex Trebek has taken the express train home. All answers are right, for all people are experts. Seems like we have a surplus economy in arrogance these days. And that surplus just keeps growing.

An area where Nichols isn’t an expert is religious studies. He wouldn’t claim he is. I did find it interesting, however, that when he wants to make some of his strongest points he quotes C. S. Lewis. Any evangelicals out there should read The Screwtape Letters again and check what Nichols says. Lewis would not have been a Trump supporter. Not by a long shot. And he uses the word “ass” in his books, even when he’s not referring to literal donkeys. He may have been onto something. We have an anti-expert president who has appointed anti-experts at the head of major government agencies. He anti-expertly launches missiles at Syria illegally. C. S. Lewis was an expert Anglican. 45 may be an expert of the sort Lewis wasn’t afraid to name. We need to be educated. Read Nichols and give our nation a fighting chance. There’s always more to learn.

Publisher’s Breakfast

I recently had the opportunity to discuss publishing to a room full of academics. (Ooo, I can feel the envy rising already!) Although I discuss books quite frequently on this blog, I generally don’t discuss publishing much. One of the reasons is that publishing isn’t easy to tie into religion sometimes. Another—and this may be the bigger factor—is that publishing is work. This blog, which is technically a form of publishing, is more for letting my mind wander outside the paddock after being penned in at work for too much of my adult life. Still, I’m glad to give publishing advice for those who want it.

The focus of these talks (of which I’ve given precisely two) is how to get published. My main approach to this question is to point out that higher education and publishing are diverging rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put, publishers need to make money. Having been on the receiving end of tuition statements for a good deal of my life, I have no doubt that institutions make ready money. They may have trouble meeting the costs of all those administrators for whom they keep creating positions, like any good business, so each semester the bill creeps up a bit until suddenly you realize your bank account’s empty and you’d better get to commissioning some more academic books. After all, this is all about money, is it not?

Like many in higher education, I courted academia as a hopeless romantic. I believed that love of subject and ardent devotion with ample proofs of said love would woo the academy into a permanent relationship. I’ve always been an idealist. Now I’m on the side of the desk where colleagues approach me to ask favors. It’s kind of like The Godfather, really. Only those who kiss Don Corleone’s ring tend to do so knowing that favors require some kind of reciprocity. The academy may not welcome you but would you mind helping us out now that you’re in a position to do so? No fear of horse heads here. Perhaps by now you understand why I don’t write much about publishing on this humble little blog. The focus of The Godfather, after all, is really young Michael Corleone and his devolution from an upstanding citizen (shall we say “academic”?) to a mafia crime boss. I’ll leave the other side of the equation blank. Trade secrets, after all, are worth money.

Dark Lite

Maybe you’ve noticed it too. While certainly not universal, many forms of Gothic cultural expression (novels, movies, television, etc.) have a playfulness to them. As if taking the genre too seriously might be a misrepresentation. Even Edgar Allan Poe can be caught smirking from time to time. I’ve often wondered about this unusual combination of darkness and light. Catherine Spooner obviously has too. In Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of the Happy Goth she takes on a number of these cultural expressions—both Goth and Gothic—and tries to understand the lighter side that they often present. Sometimes it’s comedy and sometimes it’s irony, but those fascinated by darkness aren’t always as gloomy as they seem.

This book is a real hodgepodge of both British and American explorations of the smiling dismal. It’s a cultural contradiction, maybe, but it certainly feels authentic if you look closely enough. Although Spooner doesn’t discuss it directly, I couldn’t help but think of that great progenitor of the Gothic—the medieval church. Perhaps it was the very real fear of the plague and the nearly constant warfare of the time in Europe, but liturgy, when done right, has a palpable darkness to it. References to ourselves as “miserable sinners” begging God to “have mercy upon us” clearly call to mind some of the deeper elements of the Gothic sensibility. Having attended Anglo-Catholic services for years I came to know many who were compelled by this intensity. A Gothic chasuble is a thing of beauty forever.

Spooner, however, focuses on popular culture. Beginning with the Goth movement of the 1980s, a subculture formed that brought much of this darkness to light. She’s careful to point out that being Goth isn’t the same as being gloomy all the time. It is an expression of creativity, and, as Spooner notes, closely associated with Steampunk. Such things, however, require a recognition on the part of participants that in order to taken seriously, such expressions must become part of daily life. There are risks, however. Even in enlightened cultures we are not yet fully tolerant of those who are different. And really, much of the book is about this—accepting those who are not like ourselves. There is quite a bit going on here that’s beneath the surface. And depth is something the world could use a bit more of. There’s nothing wrong with having some fun while acquiring it, either.

Superstar Detective

One of the reasons I accept reading challenges is that they take you places you otherwise wouldn’t go. Not all the books I read for the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 challenge make it onto this blog (to find the full list you need to see what I post on Goodreads.com), but some I can’t help but talk about. My wife had noticed a book that ended up in her Christmas stocking and for which I had admitted curiosity: J. Bradley’s Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. Now, Jesus is no stranger to fiction. In fact, he appears in lots of books as either the main character or as fulfilling some supporting role. In some books you have to really squint to find him. In others he’s obvious. In Bradley’s novel he’s a bit of both.

There’s a good bit of theology going on in the background of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. As the title suggests, Jesus functions through a new incarnation in the body of a, well, boy detective. With some assistance from a criminal uncle and Saint Peter, he investigates bizarre murders and other crimes. There seems to be an ulterior motive, however, since he’s trying to get his father to own up for all the suffering he’s caused humanity. That’s right, this book is a modern theodicy.

Theodicy is a word for considering how a single deity can be both all powerful and all good. Since there’s plenty of suffering in the world we all experience, the question naturally arises: why doesn’t God do something about it? Theologians are fond of reminding us that we can’t see the bigger picture. It’s like global warming—it’s easy not to believe since we only live a few decades and the climate takes a lot longer than that to react to our pouring toxic stuff into the ecosystem. Maybe, theologians say, we have to suffer because we don’t see everything. Only God does. The boy detective disagrees. The deity in this story is truculent and culpable. A strong-willed divinity. If he doesn’t sound familiar, take another look at the Bible. I don’t know if J. Bradley has any theological training—I don’t even know his first name—but it’s clear that he’s down here with the rest of us wondering how all the pieces fit. And where there are clues it’s not a bad idea to call in a detective.

Being Boarded

It might seem superfluous to be reading about pirates when such serious issues face us these days, but my answer to most of life’s problems is to look at the history. Besides, like many people in the early new millennium I was swept into the swashbuckling romance of the purified pirate. I suspect, given the time period, that I hadn’t really thought of pirates for a couple of decades. I knew that in reality a pirate was simply a thief on the seas, a bloke on the water who had looking out for number one down to a capitalist science. I thought maybe Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates, by Neil Rennie, might say a bit about the most famous fictional pirates of the modern era, but alas (or “avast”?). For a book that says in its cover copy “the long dissolve from Captain Kidd to Johnny Depp,” it has only a single paragraph about the modern Hollywood pirate from the Caribbean. That’s not to say that the historical and fictional information aren’t interesting—I especially enjoyed the chapters on Long John Silver and Captain Hook, and women pirates—but the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Rennie does a good job of exploding myths that mostly trace their origins to a bottleneck of historical sources on the subject. It’s good for academics to revisit the origins of ideas, I find. Beginning with the days of Henry Every, the early material is quite interesting. I had no idea that Madagascar was such a pirate haven, being mostly aware of the Caribbean variety. But there are also contemporary swashbucklers about.

Consider, for example, that our country seems to be run by pirates. Thieves are those who claim for themselves what they have no right to take. We have a president and cabinet who are pretty much all of that description. We also have majorities in both houses of congress who seem, on many issues, willing to climb aboard a stolen vessel. In Iceland they have the probity to call themselves “the Pirate Party.” At least you know what you’re getting when you cast your vote for those who say what their intentions are so obviously. Not that Trump didn’t make clear in his words and deeds of a lifetime that he would only look out for himself. People can’t be troubled to check the facts, though. It’s better just to let your anger drive you when you’re behind the curtain. Who looks at Wanted posters anymore? Of course, I would say that. I’m the kind of person who looks at history to solve problems.