Tag Archives: AAR/SBL

Good Company

It’s a matter of scale. If you read this blog chances are you like books. If you like books you probably know about remainders. When you walk into a bookstore and see a shelf or section of really cheap new books, you’ve found the remainders. This happens when a publisher overprints and, instead of pulping books (that hurts even to type!) the remaining stock is sold at just above cost so that retailers can add a small markup and make a marginal profit. Most authors don’t like to see their books remaindered, since it means demand wasn’t as high as the publisher anticipated. Expectation was that the book would do better than it did, now the publisher and bookseller just want to recoup some of their losses. Often there’s a marker stroke across the bottom pages of the book so you can’t return it for the retail price.

For those of us whose books sell in the double digits, seeing yourself on a remainder list would be kind of a thrill. The other day I looked at Wipf & Stock’s 50 percent off sale to find a copy of Weathering the Psalms listed. Probably it was overprinted for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, since I saw that they did have copies there again last November. If they hadn’t bothered to print out a bunch, I would never be on the remainder shelf in Eugene. I don’t mind because I’m in good company. Looking at the list I feel like I belong in some kind of academic crowd in the reduced bin. There’s a sense of community among the overprinted.

Turnabout, they say, is fair play. I’ve bought plenty of remaindered books in my life. Lately I buy used academic books because the new editions are out of the reach of an independent scholar who isn’t independently wealthy and who doesn’t have access to a university library. If I buy others cheaply, I turn the other page and expect the same back. Most of us who write academic books aren’t in it for the money. We want to be remembered for our contributions to the discussion. We took the many months and years it takes to research, write, and polish a book, and we want others to take an interest in what we have to say. It’s all about the dialogue. It’s all about the community. For those of us who never really found a home among the established academy, publication can mean a lot. It doesn’t matter that the books are sold cheaply—in fact, that’s good, because it means somebody might just read what you wrote. It’s all a matter of scale.

Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.

Spinning Wheels

That warm, secure feeling of being home for the holidays never goes away. Admittedly Thanksgiving takes on a different cast for those of us who are vegetarians becoming vegan, but it’s not about the food, really. It’s never been only just about the food. Thankfulness as a way of life seems to hard to obtain when your own government has turned against all the principles that once made America a wonderful nation in which to have been born, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful. As a commuter, I’m especially thankful for time. Each day’s normally spent riding a bus, working, and riding again. Over the past several days I took a train to Boston for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, and then a long train ride back. Followed by a single-day drive to Ithaca and back. I’m thankful for a little time not to be on the move.

Among the many memories for which I’m grateful is a mountain road that divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe in Scotland. Known for its splendid view, it’s one of many places that I have had the privilege of visiting. Although sitting still, here in my chair, I recall yet another busy day of driving with friends. Poor graduate students all, we nevertheless knew the value of good company and taking little for granted. As someone who grew up poor, I had managed to move to Boston, travel to Israel and work on a dig, and now I was living in Edinburgh, working toward a doctorate in one of the world’s great universities. That afternoon, however, I was out viewing what the wider world had to offer. The name of the viewpoint on the A83—from which that world all seemed visible—was “Rest and Be Thankful.”

The name speaks volumes. New Jersey certainly isn’t Scotland. My job is not that for which I trained. I continue to live as if I were a graduate student while friends have purchased houses and furnished them nicely. Today none of that matters. I’m not on a bus, train, or plane. I’m not glued to my seat in an automobile. I’m thankful to have some time to sit and reflect. Catch up, perchance, on a little bit of sleep. Unstructured time is perhaps the rarest commodity in a capitalistic society. Today I have it in relative abundance. No turkeys have lost their lives on my account and I’m able to rest and be thankful. There’s still a long way to go, but for today I’ll enjoy family and stillness. And I am thankful.

Ordinary Sacraments

It’s like they knew we were coming. The towns that host AAR/SBL must remember the event after we leave. We make quite an impact around the convention center, and since everyone wears their name tags in public, it’s pretty clear that we’re all related. So when I stepped down into a local sandwich stop on Newbury Street, I saw a sign that could’ve been commissioned just for us. “A sandwich is a sacrament” it began. Going on to list the wholesome ingredients, the sign concluded “A ritual, a craving, a desire fulfilled.” I’d been taught that a sacrament was an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Of course, it could be more carnal than that. I’m not a priest, after all.

Food is indeed intimate. With packed restaurants full of religion scholars hungry for more than just sustenance for the mind, the city makes way for what may be a secular sacrament. Those who cook for a living do so in exchange for lucre. Everyone has to contribute something, and while we’re burning our calories debating fine points of theology, or in lexicographal deliberation, someone’s stoking the fires for the lunchtime rush. We hand over our credit cards and don’t stop to think about what we’ve just experienced. We’ve been given the means to convert matter to energy, an energy we’ll expend in purely cerebral consultation. The meeting of the minds. After the outward and visible sign of a sandwich becomes in inward and digested energy. And so the cycle spins on and on.

Large conferences like this bring the blessings of cash flow to local economies. Even in the poorest of times eating out’s a necessity. We’re not, after all, close to home. Time is at a premium with papers peppering each hour of three-and-a-half days, lined up like items on a menu. We select and choose, keeping to our intellectual diets. Or not. It takes plenty of energy to think so much. Some sit in the restaurants and return thanks. Others pay their respects in less visible ways, for this is the world of sacraments. Not ordinary time. What goes into a person, a sage once said, does not defile. Rather, what comes out does. We sit in respectful silence and listen to what emerges from our fellow conventioneers. It’s like being in church, almost. And we all know, deep down, when the talking’s done it’ll be time to eat.

The Pace of Progress

Scientists tell us the earth is slowing down. It’s only by a fraction of a fraction of a second, but like a top set spinning these endless revolutions can’t go on forever. Although the evidence all points in this direction, it feels like it’s speeding up. How else can I account for the apparent loss of time I’ve been sensing? Let me contextualize that. I’ve been attending the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meeting since 1991. That first meeting in Kansas City’s acid-etched in my friable consciousness with the long hours waiting for interviews that never came and no mentors to show me what to do. Those three-and-a-half days stretched on into an endless Tom Sawyer summer. I was anxious to get back to my wife in Edinburgh to and finish my dissertation. Fast forward a quarter of a century.

My days are now filled with back-to-back meetings. Normally by now I’d have had a leisurely perambulation among the bookstalls (where I spend all day) taking in the volumes the competitors publish, noting what I need to read. Instead, the time has been shortened. I have to keep a constant watch on my watch for the next appointment. Hearing about new books being born rather than tending the infants that surround me. We are a thriving population of readers here. Although it looks like a large crowd, I know that in reality we don’t make much of a dent. Boston’s big enough to absorb us and all our feverish ideas. When wakefulness arrives at my usual New York commuting time, even the nights seem to be shorter. Where has the time gone?

Most of those I meet have no idea I write books of my own. It was a process started long before the conferral of a diploma from a university far away. The earth is spinning in that direction, I’m told, so I should be in the tailwind of Edinburgh all the time. I’ve grown old with some of these colleagues. Those I’ve known since I was a young man, thinking he knew something about life, learning how little he really knew in this very city. I’m pretty sure I know even less now. The world, for example, seems to be speeding up to me. In fact I know it’s slowing down. Days are growing longer, but there is ever more yet to do. And all I want to accomplish right now is to walk around a bit and browse the books that others have written. I’m absolutely sure the earth is indeed speeding up.

Sacred Sartorialism

Proselytizing comes in many forms. It can be what you say to people, or how you treat them. It can even come down to what you wear. Every year I’m struck at the AAR/SBL annual meeting some attendees wear religious garb. I’m not criticizing it, please understand, simply observing. This is an academic gathering. Participants represent many different religions, and few, I suspect, are here to outright convert others. Seeing clerical collars and Buddhist robes, however, it becomes clear that what we wear says quite a bit about what we believe. Most attend this gathering vested in mufti. Should anyone in the tweed industry be reading this, I would humbly suggest not having a booth here is a missed opportunity. You are what you eat. You are also what you wear.

I was thinking just the other day how people used to be recognized by their clothes. In the days before consumerism, it wasn’t unusual for people to have just one or two sets of clothes. You knew who was coming, it seems from reading these older accounts, by recognizing the clothes before the face. Religious vestments are a signaling device somewhat akin to animal breeding displays, I suspect. The priest dresses differently to let you know that this person can be approached for true spiritual advice and consolation. Did your paper not receive the accolades you expected? Is there a clergy-person in the house? For sure there is. You’re never far from a practitioner here. As one of those who is unaffiliated, perhaps I’m just jealous.

What do my togs say about me? I tend to wear the same old clothes here year after year. Tucked somewhere in the furthest reaches of my closet are those duds not touched since last year. Publishing, for those who only see it in movies, is a very casual business. We don’t dress up, and I have to stop a moment before the mirror to remember how a half-Windsor goes. I’m guilty of donning aforementioned tweed from my teaching days. Students used to say I dressed like it was the 1970s. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the clothes were often of precisely that vintage. Long after I’m gone, and AAR/SBL carries on without me, I wonder who might bear the uniform of this peculiar office I occupy? Not priest. Not professor. Not mere participant either. The name tag may say “Exhibitor” and that’s only part of the story, but it’s the pectoral cross I wear.

Sacred Places

Boston Brahmins, lock up your doctrines—AAR/SBL’s come to town. Boston always has special associations for me. My first home away from home. Where I met my wife. Where I learned what you can only learn at seminary. Coming back is like coming home. Of course, I’m here to work. As I was getting ready for this trip I recalled that the conference met in Boston when I was studying for my Master’s degree at Boston University. Unlike many graduate schools these days, no overtures were made for students to attend. In fact, I didn’t know what all the in-joking among the faculty was all about. I relearned the existence of the conference as a grad student in Edinburgh a few years later. Few traveled across the Atlantic for it, at that point. In fact, none of the Edinburgh faculty who’d eventually become regulars had ever considered going. My first meeting was in Kansas City.

The meeting has grown since those days. Now regularly expecting about 10,000 scholars (can one help but think of 10,000 maniacs?) a year, the venues are limited. Atlanta, Boston, San Antonio, San Diego. Chicago and Denver once in a while. Personally, I’m glad it’s close enough for a train ride. New York City and Boston, two peas in a pod. My only regret is that I won’t be able to get out to my old stomping grounds. Some colleagues (few read this blog) contact me at the last minute asking if we can get together. My schedule’s booked from breakfast through supper each day. Those who attend as participant-observers have no idea. These are the longest working days of my entire year. Still, they’re in Boston.

I often muse about place on this blog. We’re attached to the place where we’re born—it’s our personal sacred space. In life we grow attached to other places, whether we can settle there permanently or not. I wanted to live in Boston. I did so for a year after attending seminary here, making a living doing this and that. Having a master’s degree in religion doesn’t get you far in life. In those heady days of sleeping on the floor and finding out what life was really like for the unconnected, I learned an awful lot. And when the woman I wanted to marry came back for a visit, I proposed. I’ve only ever visited Boston since. But whenever I manage to do so, even if it’s just for work, it’s like coming home.