In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news. Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach. One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts. Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads. They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves. I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen. Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold. And the results can be quite sobering.
The news isn’t all bad, though. I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think. I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books? I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market. Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year. This, I think, is cause for celebration. It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.
Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information. Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless. Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not. And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned. That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic. Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned. The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Holidays, Literature, Posts, Publishing
Tagged academic publishing, Andrew Perrin, Banned Book Week, literacy, Pew Research Center, Slaughterhouse-Five
In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween. Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory. Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks? So capitalist thinking goes. While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is. A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.
I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend. Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music. In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence. Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself. The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions. An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous. Focus should be on resurrection, not death. But what if death isn’t seen as evil? Where is thy sting? This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.
The fear of death is natural enough. It’s the ultimate unknown. It fuels both religion and horror. In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death. Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually. Eternal torment isn’t in the picture. I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions. Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here. Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations. The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.
Posted in American Religion, Consciousness, Holidays, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged All Souls Day, Catholicism, Coco, Corpse Bride, Day of the Dead, Día de Muertos, Halloween, Hell, indigenous religion, music, Santa Muerte, Tim Burton
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” Strangely enough, the great physician (although we know nothing of his medical practice) Luke was writing about a place an ocean and a sea away from here. The place names of eastern Pennsylvania demonstrate the religious awareness of the early colonial Europeans who brought their Bibles and diseases to this nation. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was known more for being a house of steel than being a house of bread. It’s just down the road from the little town of Nazareth, made famous by The Band’s classic hit, “The Weight.” The road to Emmaus is nearby. And the major medical facility is, you guessed it, St. Luke’s.
The Band had an influence somewhat surprising for those who may have trouble recalling their nondescript name. “The Weight” is a story of a traveler coming to, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania. So taken by the song was a Scottish band that they adopted the name Nazareth before informing us that “Love Hurts.” This is something the evangelist and purported doctor Luke presumably knew. If you go down from Nazareth even unto Bethlehem, you’ll find the steel city recast as the Christmas city. For those of us who grew up in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh was the real steel city anyway. When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was the 16th largest city in the country. It now sits at 65th, because, like Bethlehem it had trouble drawing people without the natural hardness that is Pennsylvania. There’s a parable in a city transforming from a heavy metal to a holiday. There’s no Pittsburgh in the Bible.
When Luke begins his Christmas narrative (think of this as one of those “Christmas in July,” or August things), quoted above, he ironically leaves Mary until the next verse. Joseph, whom later tradition will say had nothing to do with the conception anyway, still gets first billing. One wonders what might’ve been different had Mary led the way. It was much later, after the gruesome crucifixion account, that Emmaus came into the picture. Two unnamed disciples were walking along that road and didn’t recognize who Jesus was. Had they kept walking, I wonder if they might’ve ended up in Pittsburgh, for the biblical names soon give way to places like Kutztown and Fleetwood, the latter of which, I have to admit, I never got into. Had Mary taken a load off in Nazareth, this story would’ve been completely different. Thus saith The Band.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Holidays, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel, Gospel of Luke, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, The Band, The Weight
Those who pay close attention, or who have nothing better to do in July, may have noticed that I missed a day posting on this blog on Saturday. That hasn’t happened for a few years now. I think maybe I ‘m growing up. Or learning to resist. Saturday was a travel day—the first I had to make from Pennsylvania, back to Newark in order to fly to Washington state and drive a few hours to the lake. All in all, it turned out to be a long day in which I didn’t even notice that I was unplugged. I had a book that I read along the way. Although it’s against my religion—(call it Moby)—(but I jest)—I even fell into a cat nap or two on the plane. I didn’t have a window seat and strangers don’t like you staring in their direction for five hours at a time.
Upon awaking, eyes refusing at first to work in tandem, in the chill mountain air, I realized I’d spent the entire day off the internet. We had to pull out at 2:30 a.m. to meet TSA requirements, and you have to pay for the privilege of connecting to the web in airports and on board jets. I’ve become so accustomed to being wired that I feel I have to explain why I wasn’t able to post a few thoughts when circumstances were so adverse to getting tangled in the world-wide web. Yes, it still has a few gaps where one might buzz through without being caught.
It was remarkably freeing to be unplugged. I believe Morpheus may be correct that they want us to believe reality is otherwise. I feel guilty for not checking email manically. What if someone requires something right away? Some sage response to a communique that just can’t wait until I’m back from vacation? Some reason that I must ask to be inserted back into the matrix if just for a few moments, to hit the reply button? We’ve perhaps been exposed to what The Incredibles 2 calls the Screenslaver, the force that draws our gaze from even the beauty of a mountain lake to the device in our hand, whining for attention. We have wifi here, of course, for the fantasy of living raw is sustainable for only a few hours at a time. Reality, as you know if you’re reading this, is electronic. But until I have to reinsert myself at the cost of my soul, I think I’m going to take a dip in the lake.
Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations. Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York. Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles. One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York. It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries. What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.
A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock. Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion. People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them. Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events. Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece. But what has it to do with Pine Bush?
Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America. Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary. By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded. There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims. I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it. Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder. I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened. This is the dynamic of pilgrimage. Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice. It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures. They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world. And for that we should be grateful. Even if it’s a little strange.
Posted in American Religion, Holidays, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Monsters, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Joseph Laycock, Monsters, NY, paranormal, pilgrimage, Pine Bush, Sam’s Point Preserve, Smithsonian, UFOs