New Year Reading

Childhood has a powerful draw.  I first started reading Dark Shadows books when they were published for (I kid you not) 60 cents.  I got them for cheaper than that at Goodwill.  Every time I read one I wonder what my young imagination found so compelling in them, but in an effort to trust my younger self I keep on.  So I read Marilyn Ross’ Barnabas, Quentin and the Witch’s Curse.  The book doesn’t really say anything about a witch’s curse, providing as it does some of the backstory for Quentin.  If you aren’t familiar with that background, and you want to be, Barnabas is a vampire and his cousin Quentin is a werewolf.  Both were made so by curses, a plight the Collins family has long faced.  

In recent years I have read the 19 volumes in the series preceding this one.  They tend to be formulaic, and often show the signs of having been written quickly.  W. E. D. Ross is sometimes listed as the most prolific Canadian author ever.  He wrote over 300 books, mostly in genre fiction.  It’s no wonder many of them sound the same.  Still, I have to admit that both from watching Dark Shadows and from reading these novels as a kid, I liked Quentin.  Yes, he was smug and self-confident, but as a werewolf he had the ability to become someone else.  Unlike other books in the series, this one focuses on Quentin and points a pretty heavy finger to him being a Satanist.  That seemed pretty harsh to me.  There’s a difference between being the victim of a curse and being a Devil worshipper.

Now I know I shouldn’t take this as belles lettres.  Ross is not remembered as a great stylist, master of character development, or for being all that creative.  Dark Shadows was a soap opera—one of the more intelligent of the genre—and there’s only so much you can do with it.  Satanism was a cultural concern in the 1970s.  In the following decades it would bloom into an outright panic.  I’m pretty sure that I never read this particular volume when I was young.  Even now as a relatively mature man I found the implications somewhat disturbing.  The Scooby-Doo ending doesn’t do much to ameliorate the undercurrent of evil.  Quentin always seemed like such a sympathetic character to me.  Maybe it just goes to show what happens when you go for a quick read rather than choosing a book of substance.  Childhood can be that way.

2019 Books

  Goodreads is always a little eager to put the tally on a year’s worth of reading.  This year, however, since I’ve been engaged in some larger books, they may be on target.  According to their count I’ve read 71 books this year.  (I re-read two, so my personal count is 73.)  New Year’s Eve, for me, is a time to reflect about what I’ve learned in the past year.  Much of that involves books I’ve read.  A good deal of my reading has been for Nightmares with the Bible.  To write a book you need to read books.  Frequently it means taking them on regardless of your mood—and I tend to be a mood-driven reader.  So what books stand out from 2019?  (They all have individual posts on this blog, in case you missed them.)

My first nonfiction book of the year was Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster.  Animal intelligence always makes for good reading and this was reprised in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.  I’ve fallen behind in my Frans de Waal reading, though.  Of the many research books on the Devil and demons, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles stands out.  Russell’s clear thinking and wide view make him a pleasure to read even on unpleasant subjects.  Other books in that category didn’t quite rise to his level.  Monster books, on the other hand, rocked.  I loved James Neibaur’s Monster Movies of Universal Studios, Mallory O’Meara’s Lady from the Black Lagoon, and Kröger and Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote.  These were all excellent.  Tipping toward the unusual, Guy Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps because I was reading longer books, this year didn’t have fiction in the numbers I usually strive for.  Most of it was quite good, though.   David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was memorable and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (strangely similar to Mitchell) became an instant favorite.  My young adult fix came through Christy Lenzi’s Stonefield and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Victor Gischler scored with Vampire a Go-Go and Cherie Priest made a fine impression with The Toll.  I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Fall yesterday, but it will stay with me into 2020.

A couple of memories/biographies also made deep marks on my mind.  Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him brought me close to Rod Serling and Barbara Taylor Brown’s Learning to Walk in the Dark found me where I live.  America’s Dark Theologian by Douglas E. Cowan isn’t really biography, but it was thought-provoking (as his books always are) and increased my resolve to read some more Stephen King.  The books I read make me more myself.  At the end of each year I think back over it all.  And this year I pondered what got me through a difficult 2019.  I have ended the year more myself than ever, I suspect, and I looking forward to a reading through the new decade.

Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

Sci-Fi Culture

I’ve recently taken up rereading Ray Bradbury stories from my childhood.  Bradbury’s difficult to classify, but he’s often genrefied as science fiction, but many of his stories are horror and fantasy related, or just plain stories.  One aspect upon which future readers, I believe, may pick up—and this isn’t just a Bradbury thing—is how people were projected into the future with the culture of the past remaining intact.  Things like characters smoking in the most unlikely of places.  I picked up on that the first time I watched Alien.  In space, where no-one can hear you scream, air has got to be a precious commodity.  And yet there they are, smoking in space.  Same thing with Bradbury.  The culture of the 1940s and ‘50s when he was writing such stories simply couldn’t see beyond the time when culture was what everyone did.  It seems weird in 2019.  How much weirder it will look in 2050 (presuming we make it that far).

There’s almost a “gee-whiz” quality to such stories of the past.  People in the future, and in space, drink coffee and wear blue jeans.  They may have more technological homes, but their home lives reflect the forties and fifties as well.  The women are housewives and the husbands go to the office, or outer space, to work.  I suppose cultural verisimilitude was a different thing back then.  Did nobody really consider that patriarchy might be a problem?  Did everyone think clothing would never really change?  And not a hint that vegetarianism might catch on.  What makes the future the future in these stories is tech.

These days we’re loaded with tech.  In some ways we have more of it on our person at any given moment than all of Bradbury’s space-workers ever had.  In one of his stories a character was born in the impossibly far year of 1993.  I used to watch a show called Space 1999.  We haven’t colonized the moon yet (we may be working on it, but considering how long things like an obvious impeachment take, I wouldn’t hold my breath).  Speaking of holding breath, I’m pretty sure some of the characters were smoking on Moonbase Alpha.  Or my memory is cloudy.  (The earlier, and more lasting series Star Trek pretty much avoided several earth-bound habits, although Captain Kirk was pretty fearless when it came to the possibilities of space-spread STDs.)  I read Bradbury as a throwback to my childhood.  His stories have both an prescience and naivity that make them compelling period pieces.  From our current standpoint, one wonders if there will be any culture left at all in the future.  Perhaps we should enjoy what we have, while we still can.

Jeremiah’s Lamentations

Fundamentalists live in a supernatural world, otherwise their view of the Bible simply can’t hold up.  I’ve read or studied about the Bible for well over forty years now and I’m still learning things.  Interesting and strange things.  Some time back I wrote about the bizarre world of the many books of Ezra/Esdras in various versions of the Bible, some canonical, some not.  While chasing up a reference the other day I had to delve into the similarly complex sphere of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is the only prophet who names his secretary, a man called Baruch.  This fact led to a series of books pseudepigraphically written by Baruch, but before we get there the book of the prophet himself is also confusing.  Since Jeremiah is the prophet whose life is said to most resemble Jesus, for Fundies this is important information.

The book of Jeremiah isn’t in chronological order.  This always throws introductory-level students, for it shows clear evidence of editing.  Now, at least Jeremiah does tell us about Baruch, so we can blame his poor organizational skills and still maintain a divine aura for the book.  The earliest translation of Jeremiah, the Greek Septuagint, lacks some material.  Indeed, the Greek is about an eighth shorter than the Hebrew, raising the question of whether an original (reflected in the Greek) was expanded or whether some of the confused original in Hebrew was cut.  Protestant Bibles assume, by their placement, that Lamentations was written by Jeremiah but it clearly wasn’t.  It doesn’t match his theology at all and the “of Jeremiah” in the title was made up some time after the book was written, and this is only a start.

The Apocrypha, or Deuterocanon of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, contains a book called the Letter of Jeremiah (not written by Jeremiah), and a book called Baruch.  I went looking for a reference to Baruch only to find it was in the Apocalypse of Baruch.  When I had trouble finding it, I had to consider that two books bear this title, 2 Baruch and 3 Baruch.  The former is in Syriac and the latter in Greek and they aren’t the same.  Because of these two (also pseudepigraphic) books, plain old Baruch is also known as 1 Baruch.  And there’s also a 4 Baruch.  None of the Baruchs were written by Baruch and Lamentations and the Letter of Jeremiah weren’t written by Jeremiah.  Neither was his own book because he tells us Baruch wrote it down.  I never did find my reference, and I realized that only in a supernatural world would any of this make sense.

To Be Continued

I’m about in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.  I’ve also just about finished Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers.  At the same time I’m revising the draft of Nightmares with the Bible, which will become my fourth published book.  While doing all of this at the same time (and working about nine hours a day), it occurred to me that to really “get” an author you should theoretically read her or his oeuvre from start to finish.  Ideally, to trace the arc of thought, you shouldn’t leave anything out.  The reason that this is as important as it is futile is one of the nagging problems that came to me while working on my doctorate: how do you know what a source you’re citing is really saying?

Pardon my nihilism, but this is an important matter when it comes to academic practice.  Academics cite many sources, and often miscite them.  I’ve seen it regarding my own work.  One scholar argued the exact opposite of what I published in an article and even made the point that he was building on what I’d stated.  Clearly he was digging where I’d been building or vice versa.  We were going in opposite directions and what I’d written was to undermine what he was arguing.  The thought came to me now because both Stephenson and Wink are the writers of many volumes.  I need to cite my sources, but it’s clear that the books are merely slices of lifetimes of thought.  Academia wants you to show your work, but its dated even before you press the “send” button.

I’m not knocking scholarly process.  It’s the best system we’ve come up with for getting near to the truth.  Since no one person has the entire truth, however, we get closer still if we follow a writer from start to finish.  Those of use who use pseudonyms in order to keep our day jobs only complicate things.  Our works (which we hope will outlast us) are only fragments of a larger world of thought that goes on behind the writing of books.  And what about weblogs, or “blogs”?  The million-plus words on this one are a stream of consciousness that weave within, behind, and outside of the books, articles, and stories I write.  Some writers make bold as to attempt biographies of other writers.  Some try to read everything said writers wrote.  Even so they’re only getting part of the picture.  To understand where a writer’s coming from requires more commitment than we’re likely willing to spare.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to finish.