Fantasy Land

As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate.  I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far.  Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations.  As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer.  Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field.  I didn’t know that, of course.  Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.

I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies.  There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire.  I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things.  Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive.  Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself.  My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.

Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared.  Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions.  I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so.  As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city.  I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch.  And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all.  If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.

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.

Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.  

Wag the Book

I was pulling together a bibliography, you know, like one does, when I realized just how outdated the usual formats are.  Particularly the trinity invoked at the end of Chicago/Turabian—city: publisher, date.  Now, to their credit a number of more recent formats have dispensed with the “city” part.  Most presses have multiple offices and even those of us in the biz can’t always tell which one produced the book, which was, in all probability, printed elsewhere anyway.  Why list the city?  In this internet age, no physical copy of the book may have even been in the office.  The real problem, however, is the date.  Scholars want to know when something was published.  Publishers want to prolong the copyright (seventy years after an author’s death apparently isn’t long enough).  They can do this by using the next year as the copyright, as long as a book’s published in the latter half of the year.

Maybe you’ve had this happen too.  You put a book in your bibliography which, at the time, has a date a year later than it is in real-time.  You’re writing the future, apparently.  Or maybe publishers are just optimistic.  The fact is it’s a fiction.  Citations were invented so that you could find where an idea originated.  Dates can be important for a book that’s gone into multiple editions and you want to be sure to look in the correct one.  I had any illusions about permanency shattered when I realized that publishers routinely fix errors in books with no indication that they’ve done so.  It used to be that, if you knew how to read the printer’s key on the copyright page you could even figure out which printing of a book you held.  All of this fun disappears when we go electronic.

This sense of temporariness is problematic.  People ask me “Why don’t you get a Kindle?”  Books are an investment.  Consider iTunes.  How many times have you had to “rebuy” a song because you changed devices?  Or has your battery died right in the middle of something?  Have you tried to sell an MP3 you no longer listen to in a yard sale?  Books are physical objects—more than the words they contain.  They may be dated before they’re published, but they do have staying power.  Besides, citing an electronic source, what with broken links and all, is a tenuous business.  Those who write books want some indication that what they labor over for so long has a real presence in the world.  Even if you can’t say, precisely, when or where it was published.

Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Revisiting Mesopotamia

As a refresher on my own ancient history, I picked up Tammi J. Schneider’s An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.  This was one of those books that spawned several internal conversations simultaneously as I realized just how much modern lenses color our perceptions of past societies.  Before commenting on that, however, a few necessary points must be made.  Our knowledge of Mesopotamia is in its infancy.  There are only a handful of universities around the world that have the resources to prepare young Assyriologists adequately.  Once prepared, those young folk will be introduced to the job market of those with far lesser education because there are practically no jobs in the field.  Seems a poor way to treat the civilization that invented wheels, arches, and beer.  Or so I’ve read.  In any case, many tablets in ancient languages have never been translated because there simply aren’t enough people to do it.  Any conclusions, therefore, must remain tentative.

Ancient religion in western Asia was extremely political.  From our perspective, this seems odd—although it’s happening again in real time.  Ancient societies relied on the cooperation of religious and political leaders and each institution helped the other.  They didn’t have the added complication of monotheism to deal with.  In trying to keep all the gods happy, they simply reasoned that if things fell apart, another god had grown to a superior position.  Certainly they believed the gods were there—we do too.  We call them cash, the stock exchange, and commodities, but we still worship and adore.  And they keep the government going.  (I kind of liked it better when they were old-fashioned gods; at least they had sympathy for the human condition.)

After getting to know the gods, Mesopotamians recognized that humans were to do the work for them.  Gods, after all, owned the land and priests and kings were powerful individuals.  You didn’t want to cross them.  Rituals were developed to ensure the smooth continuation of seasons and agriculture.  As Schneider points out, we don’t have enough information to understand all of this.  Our information comes from across millennia and from locations sometimes hundreds of miles apart.  If this is a puzzle well over half the pieces are missing.  We glimpse people like us, trying to survive.  Gods are unpredictable, but you can try to read a liver or two to find out what’s on their minds.  And some of the kings thought they were gods.  The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same.

Drowning in Words

One of the features of this blog, which as inclined more lately toward books of all sorts rather than simply religion, is that I only write one post per book read.  There’s no law that says this should (or must) be the case, but I’ve held myself to that standard for about a decade now, and if I have trouble recalling a book this blog is generally a kickstarter for my memory before hauling myself off to the attic to find the physical copy—long live print!—to do a bit more detailed work.  This method sometimes leads to crises of my own making.  Long books take some time to get through.  And despite the action-packed picture you get of my life from this web log, many long weeks are spent doing work and I can’t really share the details here.  And so it goes.

Like many people I read multiple books at a time.  Although I have a kind of general plan, the actual books being read at any one time often depend on my ability to lay my hands on a copy.  And since I’m in the final stages of Nightmares with the Bible, I tend to prioritize books I really should read in whole for that tome.  I also read (and write) fiction.  Normally I reserve my fiction for bedtime reading; it’s more pleasant to prepare for sleep with an engaging story that I know isn’t factual enough to haunt me.  Sometimes the fiction is a long book too.  Two lengthy books going simultaneously feels like trying to pass a truck going uphill.  Or swimming underwater.  The insistence of the necessity of taking a breath (writing a blog post on a book) strains against me as I look up and see the surface still some distance away.  Drowning in words, however, isn’t that bad.

As I confessed to a friend the other day, I am a graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  To do that it helps to read incessantly.  At any one time I’ve got several books going, and I’ll let you know when I reach the end of any of them.  This is, I suppose, the bookish life.  Ironically I read more now than when I was a professor.  Those days were filled with lesson prep, teaching, and reading student papers.  Grading tests.  Fulfilling administrative duties.  On the days when I feel like lamenting my lack of time (and those are most days) I need to remind myself that a great deal more of my effort is now spent with books than it used to be.  You’ll have to trust me on that since I don’t always get to write about reading until the long books are done.  And that’s okay by me.