New Habits

We are a family of readers.  Still, during the pandemic things change.  Not only is my wife working from home, my daughter is also here, doing the same.  This seemed to be the most logical thing, given that her housemates weren’t working from home, and who needs pointless potential exposure?  What became clear to all of us is that pandemic normal was actually close to our normal normal.  I mean, I don’t get out as much on weekends now, but other than the panic, Monday through Friday are pretty much the same as always.  Awake obscenely early.  Start work before sunrise.  Finish work, eat supper, go to bed.  The real change has been on my reading habits.

When things are “normal” (if that word can ever apply to me), during the time my wife drives home from work, I read.  I also read in the morning and before going to bed, but that latter doesn’t last long if I’m tired.  Now, however, we’re all here and after work is over family time begins.  I don’t begrudge this for a nanosecond, but it does affect my reading habits.  You see, self-isolation has been a way of life for me long before the pandemic began.  Not necessarily because I wanted it this way, but I have always tried to preserve time for books.  I don’t have the reading time of a professor, so I have to carve it out of personal time.  In situations like this even bibliophiles have to admit that people are more important than books.  Still, with only essential businesses open, and Amazon delivering only essential items, books have fallen between the cracks.  Some of us consider them essential.

My daughter said the other day that not being able to buy books was worrying.  Indeed it is.  We’re pretty well stocked here for reading material.  I’ve got plenty of books I want to read, but I lack the time.  Also, one of my reading challenges specifies the particular types of books I need to target, including recent ones.  How am I to get them?  Our local library is closed.  As are the bookstores.  It’s beginning to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone—being isolated but not having access to new books.  At work they’re suggesting which television shows to binge watch during the long hours of enforced alone time.  Me, I standing in front of my bookshelves staring in wonder and indecision.  Pandemic or no pandemic, it is time to read.

Data Driven

People just aren’t good at thinking things through.  Consider all the data on data.  Everything is data-driven these days, as if there’s no such thing as human spirit.  We do data all day at work and wonder why we having trouble making ourselves get out of bed in the morning.  If we had enough data I bet we could come up with a metric for arousing the soporific before the sun rises.  You could get the precisely correct amount of sleep.  Awake to precision-measured caffeine.  And get back to your data for another eight-plus hours.  There—feeling productive?

I miss the humanities.  There was a time when someone who didn’t give a fig about data could make a decent living pondering what it is to be human.  Even birds and bees know how to count.  Can’t we ratchet it up a bit?  Use our vast imaginations to come up with meaningful employment?  How you gonna measure that?  Some things just can’t be quantified.  How much joy is enough?  Too much?  Precisely how long is any coastline?  Even if we could measure it down to the nanometer, could that capture how it feels to sit on the rocky shore and feel the waves breaking against the cliff beneath you?  Even data has its limits.  Those who want to make a living without it will be sucked into its black hole nevertheless.  No light escapes.  Only numbers.

Companies like Amazon collect data.  Search engines like Google collect data.  All of those autosuggests?  They’re based on past searches.  I’m surprised just how wrong Amazon and Google are about me.  I was only searching dogs because I was curious about what kind the neighbor has, not because I plan to get one.

A wise man once said to a class full of wide-eyed neophytes, “If you want to get a surprise in your marriage just go home and tell your spouse you know everything about them.”  There’s no better way, he intimated, to get a completely unpredictable reaction.  Is that slap, or kiss, or knee to the groin driven by data?  Where’s the passion in that?  No matter whether you prefer Spock or Data, human motivation is emotional.  There are those who actually enjoy looking at data all day.  Dreaming about numbers and their hegemony over the workplace.  Others of us grew up with the classics and we have romanticism deep within our souls.  We nod our heads at Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and start to look for a coastline upon which to sit.  Perched upon this rock with the crashing waves, I suspect, I’ll be better able to think things through. 

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.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

Receiver

Being a writer (I can’t claim to be an author since I don’t make a living at it) is like being a radio receiver.  You pick up signals, or so it seems, and it’s your job to try to make sense of them.  That’s why I always carry a notebook.  Specifically a Moleskine volant extra small plain notebook (I can’t abide lined paper).  I’ve been using them for years and I’ve got quite a little stack of them in my writing nook, battered, taped, and well-used.  There’s part of my soul in those little things.  But they’re getting increasingly difficult to find.  More than once I’ve come to the last page only to have searched in vain all the local bookstores and speciality shops without finding a replacement.  (Big boxes like Staples appeal to the lowest common denominator and writers demand special treatment.)

Tools of the trade

Sometimes they’re not even available on Amazon, surprising as it may seem.  You see, I’m particular about where I store my thoughts.  People have suggested to me that I use my phone, but by the time I get it out of my pocket, turn it on, type in the passcode, and open the app, the thought is gone.  They travel quickly.  My notebook, always with me, has a pen companion.  It’s refillable and I take great care to buy refills that write instantly, without having to scribble to get them going.  I keep careful note of the brands that are reliable.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a great thought flee as you’re furiously scribbling to get your pen to capture it in your Moleskine.  No, this is an area where there can be no compromise.  If only notebook sellers saw it that way!

The trouble with being a receiver is you have no control over when the signal comes.  You wouldn’t know it from my publication record, but I have many, many unpublished pieces.  Most of them, regrettably, have to be reduced to electronic form so they can be submitted and rejected via email or Submittable.  I would have nothing with which to build, however, if my zibaldone were absent.  After my brain this is the first filter.  And when they’re full it’s time for another.  The next time I find them in my favorite indie bookstore I’m going to buy them out.  I’ll store them in the attic—I can find space up there, along with my pen refills—against a time of need.  Somethings a writer just can’t do without.

Common Tyrants

“Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not intitled to obedience from their subjects.”  The words aren’t mine, nor are they from this century.  That, however, makes them no less true.  Jonathan Mayhew was an eighteenth-century clergyman arguing that Bible’s admonition to obey government officials did not apply to those who abused power.  In reading these words I felt a sense of loss in a very basic way.  No, I’m not a fan of turning back the clock—it can’t really be done anyway—but when the word of a single book was not disputed those tempted to follow tyrants could be made to justify it with a Good Book that could also be used to refute it.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, but tyrants still exist.

Shouting matches have been substituted for discussions because those who support tyrants can’t see how they are also being oppressed.  It’s one of the ironies of history.  This internet age has only found a way of magnifying people’s differences on the political scale, even as it has brought us to the common marketplace of culture.  Who doesn’t use Amazon?  Tyranny, by definition, is the arbitrary use of power.  One might think of, oh, declaring a national emergency when none exists just to get what one wants.  One might think of surrounding oneself with criminals against the nation just to get what one wants.  One might think of business practices meant to ruin others just to get what one wants.  There seems to be a common theme here and it’s one on which the Bible has a great deal to say.  The only Scripture that gets quoted is that which supports tyranny, eh, Mayhew?

When the debate was about the Good Book we were largely all on the same page.  Not all colonials wanted to break with King George III.  Some profited from the connection.  Others thought Holy Writ prevented revolutions rather than inspiring them.  Tyrants have always been with us.  You’d think that with all the media we have these days that we’d be able to spot one fairly easily.  The camera, however, has a way of giving the lie to the Good Book.  Anyone can say they read it.  Or claim they obey it.  Its own test seems to be “by their fruits you will know them.”  The words aren’t mine.  They’re from a distant century past.  But it seems the fruit is dying on the tree, even as spring begins.

Not Quite Thursday

I discovered Jasper Fforde, as these things so often happen, at the recommendation of a friend.  A writer of rare talent, he’s conjured a few meta-worlds where fiction is the subject of fiction.  Probably best known for his Thursday Next novels, the premise is that fiction can be distorted by malevolent sorts within the Book World, which is like the Outside (our world) only much more interesting.  The sole problem with series is that in order to follow the storylines, you need to be able to recall where things were left the last time.  That’s complicated when you don’t read the books in order.  I haven’t followed Thursday Next in sequence—I find Fforde’s books sporadically and pick them up when I do (I prefer not to buy fiction on Amazon, for some reason).

The latest installment I found is One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.  It’s a bit more convoluted than the last plot I recall, but the writing is still good.  In this story, which mostly takes place in Book World, the written Thursday Next has to find the real Thursday Next (who is, of course, also written, thus the “meta” I mentioned earlier).  This is probably not the best place to start the series for neophytes.  There was an interesting aspect, however, that I feel compelled to share.  The majority of this novel takes place on an island dedicated to fiction, divided into different “countries” by genre.   Just north of Horror and east of Racy Novel is Dogma.  It’s just southeast of the Dismal Woods.  This plays into the plot, of course, but the placement is interesting.  As Thursday tells it, the full name of the region is Outdated Religious Dogma.  Then I realized something.

Simply placing Dogma on this island plays into the idea that religious thought is fiction.  There are other islands in Fforde’s world, including non-fiction.  Dogma, of course, is not the same as religion.  The definition of dogma is something that is incontrovertibly true, by the authority that states it.  Problem is, nothing is inconvertibly true any more (if it ever was).  When Christianity ruled Europe, such ideas became highly politicized.  Indeed, parts of the world could well have fit into the Book World map.  Fforde’s novel is really just for fun, and Dogma doesn’t play a major role in the story.  That doesn’t prevent it, however, from being a legitimate point over which to pause and wonder.  Fiction can be factual, but not in a dogmatic way.