Up the Downgrade

My computer’s been telling me that it wants to upgrade.  In fact, when I first bought this laptop several years ago, and started it up the first time right out of the box, a message popped up that a system update was available.  The tech business, you see, never really sells you a computer.  They’re working on it constantly, often at the same time I’m trying to use it.  In any case, the reason I haven’t upgraded has been that I need to clear off space on my hard drive.  Each upgrade requires more and more of the limited space I have, so my work has to be shoved off onto external drives that I stack like bricks in my attic.  And that takes time.

This wasn’t a problem with my pre-internet computers.  You bought them to do PowerPoint for work and word processing for publications.  Said publications were printed out and sent via mail to publishers.  Just typing that makes me feel old.  The fact was, however, you could get by on those computers without any upgrades at all.  The system that came with it was sufficient for the life of the machine.  Once you get connected to the internet, though, you have to keep up.  I often run into websites on my work laptop, which doesn’t have the latest system, that simply don’t work.  If they’re going to upgrade, I have to upgrade, and to upgrade I have to discard stuff I want to keep.  Every day I get the red warning signal—computer is hungry but can’t be fed until I start throwing my hard work away.  Or at least putting it where it will take extra effort to get it back.

Also, how are you supposed to find the time for upgrades when you use your computer constantly?  A typical download and install takes over an hour.  If we’re so wired, when are we possibly going to find the time for that?  And I still haven’t cleared enough space on my hard drive.  My external drive’s getting too full.  I guess it’s impossible to keep everyone happy.  In the midst of all this I squeeze in some time to use my laptop for that which I actually bought it—to do my research and writing and, during the pandemic, to buy the necessities of life.  And if I don’t upgrade Zoom’s going to stop working because it’s upgrading too.  I need to buy a computer that does nothing but upgrade itself.  That might be the solution.  That, or going back to good old-fashioned pen and paper.

Tentacly Fun

Anyone who has spent time amid scholarly religion tomes knows how cases used to be made for connections.  Similarities were seen as parallels, and it wasn’t unusual for the learned to assert that ideas were organically related.  This same style (now much out of date) was borrowed by writers proposing that what we now call “ancient astronauts” visited the earth and helped with things like the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge.  Jason Colavito knows how to parody such writing as he demonstrates in his Cthulhu in World Mythology.  Known as a skeptic and critic of what he calls “pseudoscience,” Colavito is also a Lovecraft aficionado.  This tongue-in-cheek treatment approaches the subject with an earnestness that almost convinces the reader that Colavito actually believes what he is writing.  Meanwhile he’s poking fun at those who like to draw untenable parallels and invent unwarranted scenarios.

All of this is accomplished by using H. P. Lovecraft’s brainchild Cthulhu.  Good old-fashioned common sense tells readers that a fictional god-monster created by a fiction writer is not to be believed.  What Colavito does, with a straight face (or straight pen) is pretend all this is real.  Finding tenuous connections between ancient myths and words that can, from certain angles, resemble the name Cthulhu, Colavito takes the unwary reader down the garden path that suggests Cthulhu was the origin of nearly all world mythologies.  Or rather that all world mythologies are reflections and recollections of when Cthulhu was widely known.  Treating both fiction and factual sources with footnotes, this is a fanciful romp through “research” published by fictional characters made up by Lovecraft right next to actual sources where scholars are addressing something else, most of them in older tomes.

As an example of good fun, one thing worries me about the book.  Granted, it was published before the great Cthulhu was elected in 2016, but many people today have difficulty discerning actual facts from alternative facts.  “Fake news” can cover a host of sins.  Reconstructing the ancient past is notoriously laborious.  Not having written records means guesses are necessary.  When writing does appear it is so far removed from contemporary uses of the art that its original usages are sometimes completely opaque.  Receipts we understand.  Myths not so much.  Rituals even less.  Many scholars spend their lives in attempting some logical reconstruction of ancient cultures.  We have very little scientific means to test them.  It might make sense, in such situations, to offer Cthulhu as a suggestion for filling the gaps.

WWW

With a few exceptions I think we’ve lived beyond the time when a single name could spawn an industry.  I used to watch re-runs (itself an arcane concept) of The Twilight Zone when I was a kid.  These weird stories drew me in, and, it seems clear, not only me.  Rod Serling’s brainchild led to an industry and “twilight zone” became a household concept.  Lots of little books were written bearing Serling’s name in some way.  One of those paperbacks was Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves.  I can’t remember where I picked it up, but it was a used book and it had Rod Serling’s name right there on the cover.  Going over my books to find unread gems, I picked up Triple W and sat down to find out what it was like.

None of the stories are by Serling himself.  He’s listed as the editor and he wrote a very nice little introduction.  The tales here reflect, as the subtitle indicates, witches, warlocks, and werewolves.  Some are old stories and some are fairly recent for a book published early in the 1960s.  Descriptive writing does tend to evoke a scene, but I’m often amazed at just how dated it can make a story seem.  What struck writers from the 1940s and ’50s as huge sums of money are likely less than we pay for our monthly internet bill.  Men all try to act tough and the ladies prepare dinner.  Stereotypes.  That’s somehow appropriate for this collection since most of the stories have to do with witches.  Serling was well aware of the tragedies of history, and these tales are told mostly for fun.  The scariest characters are the witch hunters (generally men).

Serling’s famed conscience shows in the choice of the final piece.  Not a story, not even fiction, Charles Mackay’s “Witch Trials and the Law” is an essay about the horrors of witch hunting.  It’s a rather sober piece with which to end a book of speculative fiction, but then Serling was always known for his impatience with injustice.  Also included is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” which I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Given his shame at the Salem trials and his own ancestor’s part in them, it was mildly surprising that Hawthorne’s story seems to presuppose the reality of witches.  Of course, it condemns the respectable folk who, in reality, all participate in the ills of the society in which they find themselves.  In all, this collection made me think.  Not bad for an impulse purchase on what was probably a rainy afternoon. 

Letterbox

It’s kind of scary.  I mean, I know that Google Maps has everything recorded.  Some family members recounted, a few years back, how they were shown raking the leaves in their yard on street level photographs.  I guess everything’s part of your permanent record now.  What was scary to me was receiving a letter with a picture of my house on the envelope.  Yes, it was from an insurance agency, and insurance thrives on the feeling of vague threat that rattles around our primate brains most of the time.  Is something  or someone out to get me?  Oh no!  They know where I live!  Maybe it was supposed to be friendly, like a good neighbor.  It just didn’t come across that way.  Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.

Not that being recorded doesn’t have its advantages.  We live in an older house, and like most older houses it has had some additions over the decades.  That means the roof is complex.  That complex roof turned out to be leaky also.  When the roofer was trying to explain why he couldn’t do just the one part where the water was getting in (we have been re-roofing on an installment plan), I had trouble imagining it.  You see, when you’ve got neighbors all around it’s pretty tough to get the right angle to examine your own roof.  I googled our address and shifted to satellite mode.  I zoomed in and found the layout of the roof.  Screenshot and save.  Otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have understood how complicated rain deterrence can really be.

But getting a letter in the mail with your own house on it—this seems to cross some kind of line.  Yes, I like our place.  I feel comfortable here.  It’s got space for lots of books.  It isn’t fancy, though.  It still needs quite a lot of work both inside and out.  And I like to spend my scant free time reading.  It’s cheaper than buying all the lumber and tools I need to do things the way they should be done.  Maybe if my job were driving around filming other peoples’ houses I’d make enough to have some contractor come in and fix things up.  But the insurance agent knows where I live now.  Covid-19 probably stops him from knocking at my door, but I do value my privacy.  Like most things, being recorded is a mixed bag.  Who couldn’t use a little extra anxiety once in a while?

Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

Temple Mysteries

Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  If you read the Bible, rather than just pose with it, you’ll wonder what went on in the temple when you’re done.  Yes, it’s obvious there would be the bleeting of sheep followed by an eerie silence, and that “that Burger King smell” would be pervasive, but what of the interior of the temple itself?  The Good Book says next to nothing about what happened inside.  We do know that going to temple wasn’t the same as going to synagogue or church.  The laity, for one thing, weren’t allowed inside.  Although the temple in Jerusalem can’t be excavated, many ancient temples have been found and archaeologists have the ability to analyze residues found on altars and that tells us something at least.  A story on Artnet News publicizes an archaeological report that rests behind a paywall, so I’ll use Artnet’s headline: “Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did.”

The story explains that chemical analysis of the famous Arad temple from ancient Judah shows that one of the altars was used to burn cannabis.  I guess that could help explain all the animal sacrifices.  Like most religions, that of ancient Israel kept much in the dark (literally).  Read the biblical account again.  The temple had no windows.  The holy place was illuminated by the menorah, so there was light.  The holy of holies was completely dark.  Other than the rituals of the Day of Atonement, we’re not given much information on what the priests and levites did for the rest of the year.  They may or may not have burnt cannabis.  It might be that what happened in Arad stayed in Arad.  What hath Arad to do with Jerusalem?  We simply don’t know.

Another altar in Arad, according to the story by Sarah Cascone, burned frankincense.  That sounds much more biblical.  I’ve never been a smoker and I’ve never smoked anything in my life.  I did, however, attend many services at Nashotah House where the small space of St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with so much incense that I wondered about its health affects.  I’m not sure if others felt they were getting lightheaded from all the fumes or not.  Incense, to be used effectively should be handled sparingly.  Its purpose was, theologically, to cloud the air in case God decided to show up.  You weren’t allowed to see him.  If he did show up, though, maybe it was party time.  And there’s bread and wine just out in the vestibule.  Some mysteries will never be fully explained.

Sinning

The other day I was searching through the CDs we have and came across the Pet Shop Boys’ album, Actually.  Curious, I googled them and was surprised to learn that they are considered the most successful British pop duo ever, by some metrics.  Who knew?  I lost track of them after 1987.  As I played the album—and synth-pop really isn’t my style—I began to wonder why I’d bought it.  Then “It’s a Sin” played.  The Pet Shop Boys’ second number one hit from ’87, that song was part of my personal history that has led, indirectly, to my last two books.  Let me set the scene:

In 1987 I graduated from seminary.  I was just a small town boy, having grown up in rural northwest Pennsylvania.  My exposure to big cities was limited, and that was one reason I’d chosen Boston for said seminary.  It was there that I began to realize just how much popular culture referenced religion.  “It’s a Sin” is emblematic in that regard.  Everything the boys want to say or do is a sin.  Sounds like Calvinism to me. Still, the song was heard by millions.  I bought the album because of it.

As I recall, there were several pop artists singing about religion at the time.  Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was still eight years away, but it was becoming obvious to me that people took religious cues from pop media.  I once described the ability to find references to the Good Book as “Bible radar.”  If you’re raised in that culture you learn to spot religion in the most unlikely places.  The concept of sin is a purely religious one.  We all have consciences (I hope) but to make an act Hell-worthy requires religion.  And according to some forms of Christianity just about everything is a sin.

That idea lay dormant for decades.  I read novels and found religion embedded in them, often in biblical form.  I saw it on television.  And in movies.  Even horror movies.  While I sometimes elected to expose myself to intentionally religious media, these references often came from secular sources.  As I began to research this, I came to realize that religion is intricately woven into the fabric of society.  Try to tease it out to isolate it and the cloth starts to come undone.  We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than that, but the truth is at some level we still believe it’s a  sin.

Weathering Frights

It reminded me of a nightmare.  The box, containing a book, was soaked through.  A sudden thunderstorm had come before we knew the box was even there on the porch and memories of several boxes of rain-ruined books came back uninvited.  Water and books just don’t mix.  This particular book, I knew, was Peter Thuesen’s Tornado God, which I had ordered back in December and which has just been released.  The irony wasn’t lost on me.  My own second book, Weathering the Psalms, was a rather inelegant treatment on a similar topic and I’ll discuss Thuesen’s book in further detail here once I’ve read it.  The point is that no matter how arrogant we become as a species the weather just remains beyond our control.  The rainbow at the end of this small storm was that although the packaging was soaked, I found the box before the book itself had time to get wet.

My research, ever since my first book, has largely been about making connections.  The weather is so quotidian, so common, that we discuss it without trepidation in casual conversation.  It is, however, one of the most dangerous things on our planet.  Severe storms kill both directly and indirectly.  Cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes can do so on a massive scale.  So can their dramatic opposite, drought.  Snow and melting ice caps also threaten life, as do floating chunks of ice in chilly oceans.  It’s no wonder that the weather has been associated with gods from the earliest times.  Even today literalists will say God is in the sky although meteorologists and astronomers can find no pearly gates when they look up.  We just can’t shake the idea that weather is some kind of reflection of divine moodiness.

As weather becomes more and more extreme—it’s already a system that we’ve tipped seriously off balance—I suspect more and more people will start to assign it some kind of divine agency.  This June we’ve already gone from shivering mornings with frost on the roof to nights when sleep is impossible because it’s so warm and humid, all within a matter of a couple of days.  And this isn’t that unusual.  Wait’l the gods really get angry.  Weather is closely related to the water cycle, of course.  We can learn about such things from books.  We can’t take them out during a storm, however, and homeownership is all about keeping water out, or only in prescribed locations indoors.  When the delivery driver leaves a box on your porch, however, it remains within reach of the storm gods.

Qohelet’s Washcloset

Cast your bread upon the water, as Ecclesiastes says, and it will come back to you when you need it.  Since bread is a common slang word for money, and since the toilet paper has arrived that I ordered two months ago, I see the truth in this.  Paper spent for paper to use.  While I’m pretty sure that’s not what old Qohelet exactly had in mind, it is the reality in which we live.  There are experts that tell us the toilet paper shortage isn’t due to panic buying, but over eight weeks into this crisis and the shelves in Target and grocery stores still look like Mrs. Hubbard’s cupboards.  All those people working from home must need more fibre in their diets.  Or is it less?  I can never remember.  What other than bread satisfies?  Clearly toilet paper does.  And the fact that the nearest yeast, according to Siri, is in Tennessee, clearly has nothing to do with panic buying.  Nothing at all.

People will go to any lengths to prove that we’re rational beings.  We don’t like the image of being the panicky herd beasts we are.  When I first realized the crisis was hard on us, it was March 16.  That was my first grocery store trip where beans were as rare as moral Republicans and we still can’t find pasta or flour around here, even with stores stocking daily.  The announcements on the loudspeaker beg buyers to get only what they really need, and leave some for others.  The thing about panic, though, is that it’s anything but rational.  It’s based on emotion washed in the myth of scarcity.  It also shows what an unregulated economy soon devolves into.  I’m sure many people rationalize panic buying as “just until things get back to normal.”  Vanity, vanity, says Ecclesiastes.

Instead of the myth of scarcity we should believe in the myth of normalcy.  That should’ve ended, for any reasoning being, in November of 2016.  It isn’t normal for a prosperous nation to offer up someone who clearly has no governing ability for the most powerful office in the land.  Two months into the largest crisis we’ve seen since the days of FDR and the White House response has been the null set.  Meanwhile, I ordered toilet paper from abroad on March 16.  The ship slowly made its way across the Pacific from China where, I understand, toilet paper is abundant.  I’m just glad that there’s a rational explanation for all of this.

Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.

I Saw Three Letters

For some reason I seem to have less time during lockdown than I had during whatever the opposite of lockdown may be.  Still, papers pile up and I have to sort and file them.  That’s when I saw three letters.  (You know, I like the Post Office.  I always enjoyed going to our local as a kid.  There was an air of expectancy, even before Amazon.  And stamps were a kind of passport to another reality.)  Once in a very great while I receive something interesting in the mail.  These three letters were examples.  Mostly they were examples of how little companies, and even the United States government, actually knows about me.  I keep going to the mailbox hoping the toilet paper I ordered from China has come.  Instead, strange letters.

One was written entirely in Spanish.  Now I’m no “English first” fan—I’ve spent far too much of my life learning other languages to suspect that one is superior to others—but my Spanish isn’t exactly pristine.  I wasn’t really even sure what the letter was about, and I wondered how my surname in any way suggested I needed a different language in which to do my business.  I don’t know why I saved the letter.  Maybe I figured I’d get around to translating it some day.  When there’s time.  A second letter was from a former employer of some seven years ago, informing me that I had been assigned a new password for the network.  Now this surprised me.  When said company asked me never to return, they intimated that I had to relinquish all proprietary information.  I wasn’t to try to get back into their systems.  In fact, it was their blocking of my account at work that was, in hindsight, the first hint that I was no longer an essential worker.  A couple weeks later another letter told me the previous missive had been a mistake.

The third of the letters came from our own government, if that’s what you can call it these days.  It explained to me that if I looked into my bank account I’d find some money they had magnanimously decided to return to me from the thousands and thousands I have given them unstintingly over the four decades I’ve been working.  This letter, like much from the government, really served no purpose.  Well, it was entertaining because it had a facsimile of 45’s signature on it.  And the toilet paper hasn’t arrived yet, so I think this particular letter may be very useful indeed.

Is It Real?

I’ve been reading an ebook and I feel lost.  I resorted to the ebook because I was invited to join an informal virtual bookclub.  Book discussion group may be a more accurate description.  Since I don’t see many people this seemed like a good idea.  Although I often take recommendations, reading a book someone else chose is kind of an infringement on my already crowded “to read” list, but connection is connection.  The problem was I couldn’t get a physical copy of the book delivered before the first meeting.  I struggled with whether or not to buy the ebook for hours.  I just can’t get over the feeling that I’m paying for something that can disappear at the next upgrade and all my effort in reading it will have been lost.  I’m a book keeper.  (Not a bookkeeper.)

After a morning of angst, I finally clicked on “buy.”  I’ve been reading the book but I’m finding it disorienting.  When I read an actual book, I quite often take a look at the physical object and assess it as I’m reading.  Appraise it.  Who is the author again?  Who published it?  When?  In the ebook world that information is obviously available, but it’s not where I expect to find it.  And there’s the matter of pages.  I measure my progress of book reading by the location of my physical bookmarks.  I can tell at a glance to the top of the book how my progress is.  A slider bar just doesn’t do it.  I click out of it and check on Amazon.  How many pages does this book actually have?  Why does my e-version have a different number?  Won’t that confuse the discussion?

I don’t feel so guilty about marking up an ebook, I’m finding.  Highlighting in a print book always annoys me—I don’t want some previous owner telling me what I should remember.  This ebook won’t get passed on to anyone else (that’s the genius of the business model—the ebook isn’t available for resale, which more durable, actual books are).  As I’m doing this I recollect that I’ve only ever read two ebooks before, both fiction.  They didn’t make much of an impact because it was only in writing this post that I remembered them at all.  The world of the coronavirus has taken its toll, I guess.  I’m reading an ebook and I can’t wait to finish so I can get my hands on the real thing again.

Open a Book

With all the talk of premature “reopening” one development does seem to bring cheery news.  Germany and Italy, it is reported, are considering experimenting with opening bookstores.  Bookstores, at least in the United States, tend not to be crowded except around the winter holidays.  More importantly, they are places to go to find printed knowledge—not the internet knowledge that shifts by the second.  This cheers me because it shows that people still trust books.  With all the talk of going digital, which is okay, we sometimes forget that the human experience of reading has, for the last several centuries, been book based.  I’m as guilty as the next guy for looking trivial stuff up on the internet.  I always feel uncertain, however, if I don’t check it against a book.

Nielsen, the people who used to bring you television ratings, also track books at point of sales.  One of their findings is that books have remained solid sellers throughout the pandemic.  Granted, a lot of them are children’s books—it’s one way to entertain the stay-at-home kids—but several categories have fared well.  Books on staying in shape, and survival, and how to do things we used to know how to do (planting a garden, or making bread) have boomed.  I suspect people have felt some comfort in reading.  Books are reassuring.  They’re a sign of normalcy.  Having said all that, I’m not sure I’m ready to go back into a physical bookstore just yet.  Infection rates have slowed down around here, but they’re still high.  And other people who miss bookstores as much as I do might form a crowd.

Bookshop.org has arisen to give back to independent bookstores.  Yes, the prices aren’t what you’ll find on Amazon, and yes, you’ll pay for shipping, but they support your local indies.  This doesn’t seem to be a bad idea during a crisis.  One of the more charming aspects of the Lehigh Valley is the number of bookstores in the area.  I am looking forward to an “all clear” when we can emerge like post-apocalyptic survivors and stand blinking in the sun.  In my vision of that day, there will be birds singing and trees leafed out.  The air will be clean.  We’ll stare at our neighbors, assured that if we accidentally brush against them, or stand too close in line, we won’t do so at the risk of exposure.  I’ll stand there for some time acclimating to the new reality.  And then I’ll head for a bookstore.

Bug Eyes

Science fiction and horror are close kin.  Once relegated to the cheap rack of “genre fiction,” both have now developed considerable literary sophistication, perhaps in the wake of their ability to bring in money.  I used to attend used book sales.  Two of the big ones in central Jersey were the Bryn Mawr sale, held just outside Princeton, and the even larger Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale.  Both were springtime events and highlights on my calendar.  I always had a list with me when I went, but there were also so many books I’d never heard of and that looked fascinating.  One such book was the science fiction anthology, Bug-Eyed Monsters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg.  The garish cover was half the appeal, and, well, monsters go without saying.

Although I’ve mostly moved to the horror end of the spectrum, there were some good stories here.  Bug-eyed monsters were a staple of 1950’s sci-fi, gracing the covers of pulps, often menacing women with their tentacles.  Some of the tales here share that kind of wide-eyed wonder at the sheer power of imagination, while others are much more subtle.  Monsters, of course, lurk between genres, bursting into consciousness when something unexpected is discovered.  They also have strains of religious awe associated with them.  That’s obvious in a couple of the stories as well.  Since I’m trying to read through my own books while stores are closed, I decided to spend some time with my monsters.  The problem with story collections, however, is you can’t discuss them all in the short format to which I limit myself here.  Besides, some of them I didn’t like.

Monsters deserve to be treated with respect.  In the “golden age” of sci-fi they were often played for titillation.  Most of the monsters in this collection are from outer space.  Some are homegrown, generally in the scarier tales.  We are afraid of those who are different.  Monsters, as more than one of these stories indicate, can be more humane than humans often are.  It’s no surprise that they tend to represent the foreigner, the person whose culture and appearance are different than our own.  Titillation apart, these narratives often ask us to stop and consider what might happen if we really did listen.  Would we not improve ourselves if we could learn from those we fear?  In these days of government-approved xenophobia, perhaps we should dust off our copies of the old genre fiction.  Even in those days we were encouraged to be open minded like our monsters.

Begging Your Question

I still remember when I first consciously heard it.  The phrase “begging the question,” I mean.  I was a doctoral student at the time and one thing you do in grad school is ask a lot of questions.  I asked my advisor what the phrase meant.  “Asking a question when you’ve already assumed the answer,” he replied.  I’ve been writing quite a lot about feedback loops these days, and this was yet another of them.  Begging the question, in other words, is a fallacy where the asker isn’t seeking an answer, but is attempting to persuade another of a pre-decided outlook.  The concept is subtle, but important.  That’s why it disturbs me that most academics these days use the phrase “begs the question” when they mean “asks the question.”

I’m afraid I don’t have statistics here, but I read academese all day long—it’s my job.  I can’t footnote where this occurs but I can attest that it happens all the time.  Whenever I read “begs the question” I stop and reason it out.  Does the author mean “begs” or “raises” or “poses” or “asks” the question?  Begging a question isn’t the same as raising or posing or asking it since the latter three indicate an answer is being sought.  Precision in thinking is difficult work.  It can give you a headache.  We all fail sometimes.  Perhaps that’s why we eschew it, as a society.  It’s much easier to beg the question.  Still, doesn’t that mean this valuable concept is in danger of losing its, well, value?

I realize that posing such a question makes me sound like one of those old guys who says, “back when I was a youngster…” but the fact is the educational system in the United Kingdom made you ask lots of questions.  In a way that’s unheard of over here, where money assures your credentials, I knew two students who failed out of the doctoral program at Edinburgh when I was there.  One of them an American.  It wasn’t just a matter of laying your money on the barrelhead and walking out the door with a diploma.  I’ve read certified copies of dissertations (not from institutions in the United Kingdom) where Zeus was spelled “Zues” (throughout) and the biblical seer was called “Danial.”  Now, I suppose that raises the question of the value of degrees where you don’t even need to spell your subject’s name correctly.  Begging the question is a fallacy, not a synonym for asking.  And I know that if your thesis begs a question then you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that won’t stop you from landing a job in the academy.