Tag Archives: Books

Homework

I’m trying to organize a home office.  Gone are the days that this meant a stapler and mug full of pencils.  The office is essentially a laptop since work is essentially virtual.  Oh, there are days when I have to haul myself into New York City, but even making traditional print books is an exercise done largely online.  The office is a place conducive to work.  In the case of an editor, a room of books that can be used for reference.  In our apartment we had bookshelves (mostly homemade) around the inside perimeter, covering all wall space that wasn’t claimed by more necessary furniture.  We realized, as we were packing, that no free wall space reached to the floor.  We didn’t plan it that way, but a reading life can be a complicated one.  To write books you need to read books.

Our house has some built-in bookshelves.  Not enough to hold our surviving books, but it’s a start.  My office, however, is a spartan room.  Over the weekend I unpacked my “work books.”  That meant, for the most part, books about the Bible.  I filled three large bookshelves then ran out of room.  Not only was there that embarrassment, but there was the fact that a large number of “religion” books remained unshelved.  You see, I was a religion editor for a few years before being more narrowly slotted into the Good Book.  Some might say I should jettison these books since my career has moved on.  Those who suggest such heresy don’t understand the career of a displaced professor at all.  These books are still work books.  Job descriptions aren’t as stable as they used to be.

The complaint is an old one, at least to my wife’s ears.  In my mind I’m still a professor.  I still write—strictly on my own time—and I still research.  I do so without access to a university library so I have, over the past several years, made my own library.  This office, now out of bookshelves, is that amateur academic library.  My research has shifted from ancient Near Eastern studies (and that’s another whole discipline’s worth of books, some unfortunately washed away in the flood) to religion more broadly.  Not only is that reflected on this blog, but also in my publications.  The office isn’t done yet.  There’s a desk and a chair.  More importantly, there’s internet access.  There are some shelves, but in coming days there will need to be more.  Libraries are like minds; if they shrink they become less functional.  All books, no matter how dry, began in someone’s imagination.  That’s virtual reality.

Be It Resolved

I’m not a believer in New Years Resolutions.  A constant and critical self-monitor, when I notice a bad behavior I try to correct it right away.  Sometimes I’m actually successful.  Now that I’ve finally removed all books from the garage—some were being held high above the water-line on plastic boxes—I’ve started to sort through systematically what is beyond redemption.  A comment of occasional visitors, however, has goaded me into a resolution; you see, people sometimes ask “Are you going to read those again?”  While aching to address the mindset betrayed by that very question, I cede a point; if I’m going to the expense of replacing a non-reference book, I should want to read it again.  My resolution—when I buy another copy, I will read it then and there.

One of the stinging parts of this resolution is that some of the books were read by me just this past year, or even earlier this year.  Jude the Obscure, although I enjoyed it, cost me a quarter year of my life of evening reading time.  On that basis alone I should replace it, but if I’m not going to reread it why should I incur the expense?  (Moving is anything but cheap.)   I will also face rereading old favorites that have been put aside for a while.  No house, for example, should be without Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights, although I read it again just months back, or so it feels.  

This is perhaps a way of making lemonade from a cloud.  Or finding the silver lining on a lemon.  Whichever it is, I sense that it will figure toward my reading goal for next year.  As I’ve spent the rainy weekend unpacking books, literacy is on my mind.  For those who see my literomania as some kind of disease, I was cheered to note just how many of the books on display I had indeed read.  The same goes true for a number of the academic books in the study, but, I must confess, while pulling them from their boxes I thought how boring most of them are.  Boring, however, doesn’t equate to useless when it comes to books.  Given their price points some of them may take years to replace.  That’s the point of a resolution, in any case.  It can cause some pain.  As I stuff the moldy, distorted tomes into their body-bags I hope that rereading their replacements will bring them back to life.  After all, resolution and resurrection are not so far apart.

Chaoskampf

It’s a poignant thing to hold a dying book in your hands.  What was once, straight, flat, and dry, now dissolves into a pulpy mess that, if it ever recovers, will be warped and distorted out of shape forever.  The loss of dozens of books hit me hard.  I think one of the many reasons for this is that books represent, for me, order.  They stand at attention all in a row, many on shelves I built lovingly for them.  I remember where I purchased them, the thoughts and feelings of that time.  In a world that’s far too bumpy and lumpy, books represented the ultimate in orderly array.  Now The Golden Bough is melting in my palm, smearing my fingers royal blue.  The forecast for the week—more rain.

The story of creation in the Bible—more properly, stories, for there are many—is not creation out of nothing.  Creation is the making of order out of chaos.  Ancient people, including the Israelites, believed that water was chaos, if not an actual dragon, that constantly worked against order.  You can’t build on water, it attacks the shoreline, it drowns those who fall in.  Never a seafaring people, Israel equated big water with evil.  God, then, fought constantly this unruly foe.  Whether it was with word or sword, the Almighty vanquished that sloshing, thrashing element that tries to tear apart everything we build.  Read Genesis 1 closely; the water is already there when the creating starts.

Life has a way of getting out of control.  It’s not without irony, however.  A person buys a house to store their books, and before the books can be moved in, they’re destroyed.  It’s rather like a parable, don’t you think?  If that person unfortunately thinks of him or herself as a summation of the books s/he’s read then the loss is like losing a limb or two in that endless battle against the forces of confusion that attempt to overcome our world.  When this happens some of us turn to books for comfort.  The books, however, are disintegrating in our hands.  My Amazon account, it seems, is mocking me at the moment with it’s mover’s discount.  Why buy something that will only hurt me when the water gets in once again?  The people of ancient times knew that the waters of chaos had to be held in check constantly.  They look for any opportunity to get in and destroy.  Ancient writers knew that in order to defeat them, only the most powerful gods will do.  

High Places

I have gotten me away unto an high place.  No, that’s no biblical, but it sure sounds psalm-like.  Part of the anxiety I felt about the literary loss over the past few days is that it happened just before a long anticipated, and paid for, vacation.  As Thursday dawned, I knew I had only two days to try to rearrange the undamaged books and try to salvage what I could of those that were soaked.  And I had to do it quickly and then leave, only to see the results when I returned.  Not yet having met any neighbors, and not really being in a position to prevail upon their presumed good will, it was a test of personal endurance.  Our garage has an upper floor that remained dry.  I made well over an hundred trips up those stairs, book boxes in hand.  One cares for ones friends.

For now, however, I am at my favorite high place, in the mountains.  On a lake.  I’m having to reconcile myself with my old foe H2O, for here it is placid welcoming.  It stays outside the cabin and we remain friends.  And truth be told, there is a kind of idolatrous element involved in my visits to the lake.  You see, I covet peace.  Since childhood violence and bullies have led me to a quasi-monastic life—Paul Simon reflected that perfectly in his early song “I am a Rock.”  Even Superman had to have his fortress of solitude.  Some fear being alone with their thoughts.  Although I struggle with them, they are, like my books, who I am.

Dawn’s early light; and it only got worse as the day went on.

Prophets and deuteronomists railed against high places.  Such were locations where the God of Israel grew jealous of the attention lavished on other deities.  Perhaps religious promiscuity comes naturally to people, but we need our high places to regain perspective.  To breathe pine-scented air and feel the chill of a July morning at altitude.  Yes, even to reconcile with the splash of water that is here to make life possible rather than to destroy that which you have worked to acquire.  Ironically some of the destroyed books had been with me since college—theological classics such as Niebuhr, Gutiérrez, and Tillich, lying on the unmown grass beneath a healing sun.  Perhaps they were trying to warn me of the idolatry of such retreat.  But here I am, reflecting on loss and hope, and praying that somehow we might just all get along.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

Net Worth

Net worth—a strange concept for human beings—is calculated on the basis of how much cash you’re “worth.”  While on that lonely task of sorting through the attic, I came across many boxes of books for which we didn’t have room in our apartment.  Our guests, who’ve been few, feel obligated to comment on how many books we have, as if it’s an infirmity to be delicately broached.  Or for which something might be prescribed.  I grew up believing that what we call “net worth” should be assessed in how much a person knows.  Knowledge, not money, in my fantasy moments, would drive the world forward.  Books are cheap (generally, but you don’t want to know what I’ve paid for some of these volumes when I really needed them!) and don’t retain resale value, except perhaps in the textbook market.  They’re considered a throwaway commodity.

Although I didn’t read it, a recent bestseller claimed you could find happiness by removing clutter, and high on the priority list of things to ditch was books.  Will you ever read that again?  For me the question is rather, will I ever need to look something up in there again?  Surprisingly often the answer is yes.  Considering the fact that books are knowledge, they’re a remarkably good bargain for the price.  Regardless of clutter.  Perhaps that’s a kind of wisdom itself.  Books are heavy, though, especially in any numbers.  Weight means something.  What they contain has the potential of being priceless, even though it’s available to anyone else with a copy.

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow, back in the days when you could still get television reception with just an antenna.   You always felt bad for the poor hopeful who’d brought an old book, dreaming of riches.  Apart from handwritten manuscripts, books are mass produced, almost by definition.  The printing press, after all, was designed to produce multiple copies.  Sure, if you go back far enough, or you have a tome rare enough, you might get a nice price for it.  Everyone I saw on the Roadshow left with their disappointment worn obviously on their faces.  You’re better off buying a vase.  That’s only if your bottom line is your net worth, though.  If you want to strive for what’s really important in life, I’d go for the book almost every time.  Of course, while up there moving those boxes around I began to wonder about the net worth of a good back brace as well.

Extra Baggage

So, I’m packing.  Have been, on and off, since January.  One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets.  You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets?  We have no danger of that.  Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff.  Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours.  Our closets have led full lives.  It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating.  We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?”  Then I came upon it.  The layer of SBL tote bags.  Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.

If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean.  Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy.  Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books.  (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.)  But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags.  I’ve been attending SBL since 1991.  Do the math.  I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda.  And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.

Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets.  What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already?  Reduce, reuse, recycle they say.  At least half of my totes have never been reused.  Zippers?  Who thought of that?  Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors.  I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that?  (San Francisco, 2011.)  The black leather edition—remember that one?  (SBL, n.d.)  The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale.  You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance.  Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs.  From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail.  I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana.  I’m sure that’s just me.  Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery.  I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.