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I was pulling together a bibliography, you know, like one does, when I realized just how outdated the usual formats are.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.

The Heart of Publishing

My heart goes out to academic authors.  It really does.  They labor over a book important to their field and see it come out costing near triple digits and wonder why it’s not in the local bookstore.  There is, however, a very wide gap between academic and trade publishing.  It is bridged here and there by authors who value readers over reputation, but unless you deliberately try to learn how all of this works, it is bewildering.  Academics, you see, are area specialists by and large.  You don’t write a dissertation on the Bible, for example, but on a specific part of the Bible (New Testament or Hebrew Bible).  And within that section your specialization is not a single book, but often a small part of a book, or a theme.  I’ve seen dissertations written on a single Hebrew word.  Specialization.

With all of this tight focus, it’s easy to forget what browsing in a bookstore’s like.  Even with some of the incredible brick and mortar stores in Edinburgh, technical books had to be ordered—this was before Amazon.  When you check the books of colleagues out of libraries it doesn’t always occur that you do this because libraries are the only places that buy such books.  And with the explosion of doctoral degrees in shrinking areas of studies (there are no jobs here, folks!) the number of published dissertations has skyrocketed.  Even advanced scholars forget the average reading public would find their work impenetrable.  It’s not going to be in the local bookstore, and it costs so much because it sells so few copies.  I do feel for academic authors.

In addition to all the area specialization, it would make sense to research the academic publishing industry.  Yes, it is an industry—it has to try to turn a profit when sales are minimal.  And with so many books being published, libraries can’t keep up.  The end result is high prices.  I’m as guilty as the next academic at wishing economics would just go away and leave me alone.  I want to believe in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.   That’s not the way the world works, however.  At least not the publishing world in a capitalistic context.  The internet itself has become competition.  Much of the information’s out there for free.  So your academic book, when it comes out, will be priced out of your comfort range (been there, done that).  It’s not that your publisher doesn’t believe in you, but that they have to try to turn a profit.  All it takes to understand why is a bit of research.

Not that kind of book.

Digging Bad?

Academics, as a rule, focus on books by other academics.  Theirs is a specialized vocabulary with specific goals (tenure, then an Ivy League position).  It’s easy to see, sometimes, why they distrust books by those of us outside the academy.  We aren’t as constrained, and can say some speculative stuff.  I just finished Evil Archaeology: Demons, Possessions, and Sinister Relics, by Heather Lynn.  Now, most academics I know won’t take seriously a book where the author is cited by “Ph.D.” on the cover.  That’s a sure sign of trying to impress a lay readership.  This book is clearly heartfelt, and personal, but it does raise a host of questions regarding sources and details. I found myself wondering where the author found out so much about Pazuzu when I, who hold a doctorate in ancient West Asian studies, had such trouble locating sources.  Then I checked the bibliography.

Even academics have been known to cut a corner or two, now and then.  For my last book I didn’t have access to a university library so I had to make do with what I could get my hands on.  (JSTOR is not cheap for individuals, in case you’re wondering.  If you teach and you get free access from your library, you don’t know how lucky you are!)  So it is with my present research.  I muddle along, often buying used copies of the books I need, sometimes from eBay.  Researchers can be driven that way.  Lynn’s book covers a lot of territory, and not all of it seems related to demons.  Little of it covers archaeology in any detail.  But then, it’s not intended for academic readers.  I learned a thing or two.  I also distrust a thing or two she claim (having once been in the academy), but there’s no doubt she’s trying to do a service in this book.

Demons cut a wide swath.  Lynn discusses bits and pieces from here and there, and at times her treatment is rather a gallimaufry of anecdotes.  There are interviews, personal experiences, and urban legends.  It does seem hard to believe that scientists worldwide are studying demons in order to explain illnesses, though.  For me, finding a new book on demons just when I was finishing my draft on the same topic, it was imperative to read what she had to say.  It’s clear she’s seen some of the same movies I have.  I like to think that, as an inbetweener I can still read academese as well as regular writing.  You always find interesting things there in the middle.

On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.