Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.

Ports of Call

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,” so began far too many evenings of my childhood. Well, although as an adult it may seem that the time was ill-spent, Gilligan’s Island was the induction to popular culture that I had to undergo some time. The series has aged well; we bought the DVDs (speaking of aging) as soon as they came out and watched them all, multiple times. But what must it really be like to be on a boat, and for more than a three-hour tour? Here’s where I’m lucky in my extended family. A cousin, who is much younger, has been working as a musician on a cruise ship for a couple of years, and has recently started a blog. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a singer on a vacation vessel, check out David Tarr’s take. He has a more realistic outlook than Ginger did, although seeing Tina Louise in person was still quite a thrill, back when she stopped into the local Borders. Back when there still was Borders.

TheIsland

It seems to me that we don’t often enough take the time to wonder what other people’s lives are like. We are a myopic species. Apart from the occasional educational tour in school, we don’t have much opportunity to consider what it feels like to be someone else. I grew up in a working class family that lived at the poverty level. I didn’t get along with my step-father, but I have, in the years since he died, thought back on his perspective. He worked long hours, had little education, and was very patriarchal. When he was too old to do his duties as a laborer, he took a job running an elevator in one of the five-story buildings in a nearby town. I once went to visit him on duty. He was sitting in the tiny cube of a metal box, waiting for the very rare customer. I asked if I could bring him something to read, something to do, to pass the hours of tedium. No, he replied, he didn’t want to miss any calls from potential passengers. What must it be like in the head of such a man?

The internet has given us a chance to learn the lives of others. David is living a young man’s dream, with the good and bad. We have lost all hope when such things are no longer possible. Too soon we find ourselves chained to a desk, 9-to-5, working to make money for others. Dreams are strictly forbidden, at least on work time, which is the only time there is. Somewhere on an ocean, there is a ship. It may take a three hour tour, a three week cruise, or a three month voyage. It is more than a ship, regardless. It is the people on board, and their lives, and hopes. I’m not sure of the course charted for me. I suspect it has no cruises to exotic climes. It has, however, writing written all over it, and that is one thing I share with a talent cruise singer in my extended family.

Bargain Basement

Signs, in my experience at least, lend themselves to being over-read. How often a heedless moment suggests something more than was intended—signs try to say too much in too few words. Indeed, poets rather than marketers ought to be sought. I found myself in Barnes and Noble recently, since Borders is gone. In all fairness, I attended two independent bookstores as penance afterward. Nevertheless, in the corporate atmosphere of the last major brick-and-mortar chain, I saw a sign. Several, actually. One of the most obvious is how many tchotchkes the store had, as opposed to wall-to-wall books. Barnes and Nobel has never been particularly imaginative in its selection of floor stock, but now it is a great place to buy toys, electronics, and coffee. Maybe pick up a book as an afterthought on your way out.

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The front space just inside the door of a bookstore is prime real estate. Publishers have to pay extra to have their books displayed immediately inside the doors—something they reserve for sure-fire rapid sellers. The average customer will walk in, down the center aisle and there they will find promoted (and demoted) items, laid out on their own tables. So it was that I saw a sign reading “Religion & Spirituality Bargain Priced.” In fact, they’re free. Not the books, but religion and spirituality. Even in this secular world, people are not shy about buying books in these categories. Step into the religion aisle sometime. You may be surprised how much you find there. In fact, those who track the industry often include Christian books as a third major category besides fiction and non. We trust those who know enough to write books about such matters. The Bible, despite its detractors, is a bestseller by any measure.

Do we, however, value religion and spirituality? So often religion is portrayed as the root of all extremism while spirituality is relegated to the weak-minded. The science section generally takes up only half the shelf space of religion. People want to know what it’s all about. The rates are anything but bargain priced. Some religion may indeed be simple, but most religions are unexpectedly complex. Those who engage them seriously know there is more to life than just fact and fiction. There are middle grounds and outer limits. There are places that have yet to be discovered, let alone explored. We are in the infancy of intellectual awakening. Of course that shows in how quickly we’ve abandoned our bookstores and gone off after less weighty things. If you have a moment, though, on your way to the coffee bar, you might pick up some religion cheap, and who knows where it might lead?

Best Nowledge

Back in the day when paper books ruled, New York City used to be known as the publishing capital of the country. Even though many publishers still call New York home, a depressing lack of interest pervades the city that never sleeps (sounds like it could use a good book). Although I’m no fan of Barnes and Noble, it is just about the last presence left of the brick-and-mortar-style bookstore. When news arrived this week that one of the large New York branches of B&N was closing, a sense of despair settled in. I love my indie bookshops. I literally went into mourning when Borders shut down, even now the sight of a vacant Borders can make me weep. A walk though any trendy mall will reveal no books to be found, and I go home perhaps fashionably dressed and smelling vaguely of perfume but sad nonetheless. Perhaps it is because the book is/was the culmination of one of the most important technologies of all time: writing.

Technology, as we think of it today, is largely electronic. Circuit-boards, nano-chips, embedded in sealed cases constructed in sterile rooms where the humans are more protectively suited than a surgeon. Isaac Newton once famously noted that if he’d seen further than others it was because he’d stood on the shoulders of giants. One of those unnamed giants invented writing. Dragging a stick through clay would probably be considered decidedly low tech these days, but the person who realized that a crude scribble of an ox-head with dots next to it might indicate how many cattle you were selling was a giant. We have no idea who the scribes were who wrote down the first narrative stories of gods and heroes, but the process resulted in a still largely anonymous Bible that is used to decide public policy even today.

There’s no doubt that books take up space that electronic gizmos don’t. Storage has been an issue for libraries constructed before publishing became a major, competitive industry. But electronic books have their problems too. With the ease of self-publishing, you never know who is really an expert without researching the author. Often on Amazon I find an intriguing title only to see that it has been produced by any number of self-publishing software platforms that indicate only the author’s own word for his or her expertise. I wonder what happens when people who don’t know to assess information in that way take anecdote for fact. Where are the shoulders of giants? Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, but the world without bookstores looks a lot like the stone age to me.

Alas, Babylon!  (Photo credit: Lovelac7, Wiki Commons)

Alas, Babylon! (Photo credit: Lovelac7, Wiki Commons)

Vampire Science

ScienceOfVampiresHow is one to take a book that combines science and vampires? That was the thought going through my head as I stood in Borders during the sad process of their going out of business sales, Katherine Ramstand’s The Science of Vampires in my hand. I knew already that I would buy the book—how could I not?—but I wasn’t sure whether it had been placed in non-fiction by accident or not. Ironically, I began reading the book on the day I was ultimately informed that my position had been made redundant. Vampires have been much on my mind since then. For several days I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, which is a kind of vampiristic encounter in its own right, in my case. Now that I’ve finished Ramstand’s study, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Holding a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Rutgers University, Ramstand knows the fields of forensics and the supernatural surprisingly well. The Science of Vampires does indeed address the mythic creatures from a forensic perspective. The lore of the vampire is thoroughly examined and subjected to scientific scrutiny. Surprising results sometime arise. The book also contains its share of very disturbing material, more along the forensics than the fictional vampire side. I put it down woozily more than once. Yet, I found considerable insight here. Ramstand, although not focusing on the religious element, readily acknowledges the deeply religious nature of the vampire concept. She tends to focus on the scientific, rather than the spiritual, but she does have a telling interview with a professional counselor with a theological background. She quotes him as stating that he vampire is the disenfranchised among us—the pariahs of society: the homeless, people of color, those of differing sexual orientations, the working poor, the unemployed. Okay, I’ll admit that I added that last one to the list. I do, however, understand the point.

While supernatural powers may not create vampires, our society does. There are those who drain others of their resources, and there are those who are cast out. Both, in this post-modern world, might be considered vampires. At times Ramstand almost had me believing that Dracula might be more than fiction. As I read accounts of the horrors some people remorselessly perpetrate against other human beings, it seems that a vampire might be the lesser of two evils sometimes. As a symbol, both religious and secular, the vampire has proven to be irreplaceable. Hopefully some day we may outlive our use for those who prey on others.

Real Life Zombies

In recent months Binghamton University has been on my mind. Binghamton has a number of videos available on YouTube which I find to be entertaining and even, sometimes, very funny. I like Bing’s style. Even though I catch myself laughing once in a while, I know that Binghamton takes higher education seriously. I watched a recent, 17 minute talk on a vital topic. It is located here, and I would recommend that you watch it too. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. The situation raised here is one that makes me shudder. Few things are as debilitating and vulnerable as an uneducated populace. Both religious and political forces have made great efforts to prevent certain orthodoxies from being challenged by what they term, as an obvious swear-word, “higher education.” The fact is, folks, higher education is nothing more than an attempt to get people—often young people—to learn how to think critically. That last word is a stumbling block sometimes. Any number of people will suppose that critical thinking is the same as criticism. It isn’t. Critical thought is the ability to approach a problem—any problem—rationally. To respond with the best that our minds have taught us to do, rather than with knee-jerk reactions. Yes, emotion and jerking knees have important places in the world, but they only work well if they are accompanied by the ability to think critically.

The video makes it pretty clear that the ability to think is rapidly eroding in our culture. Perhaps not quite zombie apocalypse, but not comfortably far from it. The death of Borders was blamed on its inability to get into the electronics markets by various pundits. I disagree. Borders fell victim to a culture that has lost the joy of challenging reading. We like spoon-feeding (otherwise much of the internet is difficult to explain). In order to exercise our brains, we have to use them to read hard things. Like my high school coach used to say, if you don’t use your muscles they’ll atrophy. Looking at my mid-section, I can see that his words were true. What Coach didn’t warn us about, though, is that the same holds true for the mind. The unchallenged intellect is a dull one. This is a threat far more insidious than any Communism, or liberalism ever was. It is the dummification of America. We are a nation that loves zombies. We are also a nation in danger of becoming them as well. Fight the zombie apocalypse—read a book. And like that baseball bat you use to swing at the undead, the harder it is, the better.

They don't write them like that anymore

They don’t write them like that anymore

Ms. Found in an Email

The other day I received a distressed message from a friend that I met in college. Marvin’s career somewhat parallels mine; he went on to get a PhD, taught for a few years in New Hampshire until the economy claimed his job, tried to make it as a fiction writer and adjunct instructor for awhile before moving to Boston to work with a publishing company. He’s never made any money for his writing, but that may be for his own good because the money that authors make goes to support the CEO of whatever corporation owns the publishing house. Still, I wish him luck. Yesterday he emailed me about a book he’s reading, The Last Professors, by Frank Donoghue. He’s convinced me that I should read it, but I thought his message would be appropriate for this blog. In Marvin’s words:

“If a more bleak preface has ever been written, I’m an illiterate ape who never reads. The writing has been on the wall for years, but those of use who are able to see it have been hopelessly myopic. In the preface he tells how industrialists since the end of the Civil War have been dead-set against liberal arts education as useless. People like the two of us who studied ‘useless’ fields, they would have as the cogs in their efficient machines, suppressing our thoughts. The only useful education they can deign to approve is one that earns them more money. There’s only one value system in the world, it seems.

“Don’t you feel like a sell-out, working in New York City, that cathedral of capitalism? Is NYU on anybody’s list of tourist stops for people down there in New York? Who goes to visit a university when there’s so much of commercial interest to see?

“And yet, corporate types are the ones who can afford tickets to shows written and put on by people educated in their ‘useless’ craft, but who are in reality their unwitting chattels. And who wants to be seen with authors and intellectuals to enhance his personal prestige, so that he will appear smart? Who are the dogs in the manger who keep everything they can’t possible use for themselves, for fear that others might enjoy it?

“We all play along with their game—we wear jeans on casual Friday and declare how good we have it. We speak their demeaning language, using humiliating phrases like ‘best practice,’ ‘core competency’ and ‘corporate values.’ In this dehumanized state we all live in cages that we’ve helped build. Corporate moguls hold their power over us because we let them. We, the workers, have the power to change it. They make the rules and we obey because we all want to be in their place.

“Education is the way out—that’s why they hate it. There’s an entire support industry built around it; those of us in the book business rely on educated readers. What happened to Borders looks prophetic to me. Time to close—I’ve just arrived at work.

“Sent from my iPhone”

Just another useless lay-about

Sleeping with Darwin

Although I’m hardly capitalism’s biggest fan, it would be difficult to overestimate how much the closing of Borders last year has affected my life. It is formidable to explain, as I sometimes must, to friends who don’t find books as irresistible as I do, how the simple pleasures of knowing a friendly bookstore was in town could make the world seem a little less cruel. There were towns that I instantly identified with the Borders located within their borders. Towns I rarely visit any more. All of this is by way of preface to explain the book I just finished. As the last desultory books lugubriously lined the shelves, my wife and I went through picking up titles we supposed we might have not found any other way. One of those titles was the little travelogue Darwin Slept Here by Eric Simons.

My admiration for Charles Darwin began when I realized that the Creationist venom I’d been bloated with from early days had been misguided. There was a fascination with this “evil” of evolution I’d been taught to shun. As I began to read more objective accounts, I realized Darwin possessed a keen, if tortured, mind that could not rest with half-truths and theological figure-fudging. In his account of following Darwin’s tracks in South America, Simons’ narrative not so much takes evolution any further, but presents a portrait of a world that has continued to evolve. In lives filled with uber-capitalism, where would a young person find five years to sail off on a voyage of discovery? Where would the health insurance come from? The 401K? The dental? As a species, humanity has been utterly domesticated.

Once in a while I dream of the Galapagos. I think of Easter Island and smile. So many places I will never be able to go. I spent three years specializing in Ugaritic studies and I will never make it to Syria—not on an editor’s salary. Not as an American. The world that we’ve constructed opens travel to the young who rarely have the resources to enjoy it. After seminary I spent six weeks in Israel. Young and healthy and heavily in debt, I at least glimpsed the sun setting over Jerusalem before getting hog-tied into the economy. Simons’ little book will not make him a millionaire, but as I read his reflections of rainforests, youth hostels, and rental cars on the Pampas, I thought where our world would be now had Darwin not been of a family of means. So much of our health care is based on understanding evolution. We would not be chained to our desks by threats of a slow, painful, and perfectly legal death without health insurance. We would be subject to biblical literalists who rejected the tenets of science— Come to think of it, perhaps we’d all better make tracks while we still can.

Rite and Wrong

Anyone who’s never had anything very weird happen to her or him, raise your hand. Hmm, I thought so. Strangeness, whether prevalent or simply a unique event, is part of life. It is when we turn to explanations that the religious side of the equation suggests itself. Now I have a confession to make. When Borders was going out of business last year, I was in mourning. Those last poignant hours in my favorite bookstore I wandered the aisles picking up the books left behind by others, many of which I would not have otherwise purchased or read. One of those books was The Rite by Matt Baglio. I had seen the hype for the movie, and although the idea of possession terrifies me I’m not sure there’s anything here that can’t be explained by the likes of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. Still, riding through the flickering lights of the Lincoln Tunnel on a bus on a gray and rainy morning, literal shadows of doubts creep in.

There is no doubt that events happen to us that seem to defy explanation. There is also no doubt that the enormous wealth of Christian mythology taken literally by Baglio defies all but the most gullible of readers. The problem is the black box. Nobody sees what goes on inside the locked chamber where the exorcist practices his art. Yes, it is a manly enterprise since the Catholic Church won’t admit of women priests. This was one books that left me tottering between what I know to be true and that shadowy place where doubts dwell. It is utterly certain that our perspective helps to determine what we see. A priest in a stuffy or chilly closed-off room believing a demon lurks therein will see the signs in the behavior of the victim. Throughout the book I kept pondering how so many possessed people lived in heavily Catholic Rome while in locales with more mixed religious traditions the phenomenon is rare.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the fact that Baglio readily admits: most of the possessed are women. In a religion where women have been marginalized as a matter of course from the early days, can this really be a surprise? And when the exorcist, a celibate priest, experiences sexual arousal how else can he interpret it but as demonic? The human mind is a fascinating system, capable of launching a body into stunning, adrenaline-induced feats of strength and endurance. It conjures gods and demons. And it can make a grown man cower on a dark and windy night with stories of possession racing through his head. I had a difficult time believing much of what I read in The Rite, but I do think perhaps it is now time to make a date with Carl Sagan. Lighting a candle in the dark is a very human thing to do.

Bookless in Manhattan

I suppose the fact that I still harbor an inordinate love of dinosaurs, geology, ancient civilizations, and liberal politics should prepare me for the demise of books. The short road to extinction lies along the path of my interests. Except, of course, Bible. There must be a portrait of a very old, decrepit scroll somewhere in someone’s attic. The culture of books, apart from the library, is a fairly recent one in human history. Even the concept of stores dedicated to books is one that has had a very tenuous lifespan. Now that Borders is gone, I’m sometimes reduced to skulking about Barnes and Noble to find my quarry. So on my lunchtime yesterday I decided to visit the Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue and then swing by the Gotham Book Mart. I had heard of the Book Mart before—the store that hosted visits by Truman Capote, James Joyce, Arthur Miller and many, many more luminaries. I thought it would be a good antidote to B&N, and besides, the address is just blocks from my office.

Barnes and Noble is the last resort of a reading man. I don’t have much time for holiday shopping these days, so I figured I’d nip in with my list (nothing too obscure; in fact, I’d seen the titles in an indie bookstore over the weekend, but my family was with me) and be back out in a jiff. Fifth Avenue. Midtown Manhattan. The choice of books was atrocious. Purely lowest common denominator selection. It is symptomatic of America’s love affair with the ordinary, the lower-quality-if-higher-quantity mentality. Cosco of the intellect. Barnes and Noble is the only show in town and they don’t have the selection or panache of many a much smaller Borders. I had to walk out empty handed. Well, at least there was the Gotham Book Mart to look forward to!

I suppose my first clue should’ve been the fact that the photo on Google maps showed a storefront reading “Food World” at the address which still maintained the bookstore name. I thought maybe the Book Mart was behind it or something. No Gotham Book Mart. Back at the office, chewing a dry peanut butter sandwich, I stared crestfallen at the computer screen. Wikipedia informed me that the famed Gotham Book Mart closed four years ago. Rising rents in Manhattan and the very Barnes and Noble I’d just visited drove it out of business. e e cummings, George Gerschwin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and J. D. Salinger passed their hours here. Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, and Charlie Chaplin were no strangers here. When the remaining stock—valued at 3 million dollars—came up for auction, it was purchased for $400,000. By the landlords. So ended an era.

From monks hunched over their vellum by the sallow light of candles to the modern dreamer in the glow of her or his laptop screen, we have brought writing an unimaginable distance. Unfortunately, many of the landmarks along the way have vanished without the blink of an entrepreneurial eye.

Dusty Flowers

V. C. Andrews was a name familiar to me from skulking around used bookstores where tons of over-printed, read-only-once books line the shelves. I had seen Flowers in the Attic on many shelves since the 1980s, but supposing it to be a romance title, I showed no interest. As Borders was closing, however, I noticed a copy of the novel on the horror shelf and couldn’t fight the curiosity any longer. I guess it might have been building, subtly, for three decades. My wife was surprised to see it in my stack, but I professed my lack of knowledge and began reading it.

Horror is a strange genre of writing. It is defined in various ways, but I have found that authors deal with their own fears with a variety of strategies. After thirty years I need not worry about spoilers, so I can say that the concept of a parent destroying her own children is about the scariest scenario imaginable. What makes the story of interest here, however, is the treatment of the Bible in the story. After the premature death of their father the Dollanganger children are secreted away in an unused upstairs wing and attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion. While the hidden foe is really their mother, Andrews introduces the grandmother as the Bible-quoting, intolerant, prejudiced symbol of oppression. Quick with the rod and completely unforgiving, she goes to bed each night reading her Bible and she insists the children do the same. When she finds an excuse, however, the children are lashed for being wicked.

Interestingly, it is the mother who is never shown quoting the Bible. Towards the end of the story the children recognize that while she is evil, the grandmother would not directly commit murder. The mother who has tasted the intoxicating liquor of wealth, however, knows that even her own children cannot stand in the way of her inheritance. The adults in the story are twisted—some by religion, some by greed. The questions raised by children, like all of us innocent of our own existence, merely ask where the love has gone. Religion without love is Hell, as the pictures selected for the children’s prison by the grandmother clearly show. Worse than Hell, however, is the blinding love of money.

We are all flowers in the attic of an uncaring world. Some find comfort in the power of wealth while others resort to religion. Many try to combine the two. At the end, those who are truly noble are those who survive without either.

For the Love of Books

As is so often the case, publication and religion go hand-in-glove. George Routledge was a man with a vision. As a literary man of nineteenth century England, he moved from bookseller to publisher, establishing the well-known London house of Routledge (aka Warne & Routledge, George Routledge & Sons) in 1843. Although his initial successes were literary, among his first publications were the reprinted Bible commentaries of Albert Barnes. By 1854 a branch of Routledge was established in New York where it continues to operate. Acquired by Taylor & Francis in 1998, Routledge still pursues and produces notable academic books in many fields of the humanities and social sciences. The company is a testimony of the strength of vision of a man with a love of books.

I began this blog as a recently unemployed editor at Gorgias Press and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University. Both were jobs involving books and religion, but I am now moving to Routledge as a religion editor. Once again, I will be full-time in the world of books. Regular readers of this blog will know of my sense of loss at the closing of Borders this year. Although I claim no special insight into the way businesses work, the loss of comfortable space surrounded by books is something I felt very deeply. There seems to be a kind of redemption in taking on a position that will once again set me in the role of seeking to produce more books. It is as if the fabric of several loose strands of my life that had unraveled under the trials of the world of higher education have once again rejoined.

While whiling away the happy hours at the 4-H fair last week, I enjoyed strolling through the arts tent. There I noticed that someone in our county has started a creative writing club. This was a hopeful sign; the previous year I had made inquiry into starting such a club myself. When the world seems to have evolved beyond books, those of us who need them must invest the love of writing in our young. Although 4-H is not a religious organization, writing nevertheless has a sacred appeal. Those who feel drawn to the craft know the incredible grip that written expression can exert on a person—seeing your name on the cover of a book is a form of eternal life, metaphorically speaking. As editor I will not be the name on the cover, but I will be the one helping others to attain that immortality. It may not bring Borders back from the dead, but even the very idea of resurrection comes to us in the form of a book. Even so, Routledge is the agent of resurrection in my meandering career.

A World Without Borders

When Borders announced it is closing its remaining stores earlier this week, part of me died. My first Borders experience was with the original Ann Arbor store after moving to Michigan to be with my (then) fiancée. Since then my wife and I have spent many happy weekend hours browsing at Borders. The sensory, indeed, nearly hedonistic pleasure of being among books in a casual, friendly environment where ideas seemed to roam as freely as the bison on the plains before the Louisiana Purchase, is, sadly, about to end. Barnes and Noble never attained that balance nor has it ever aspired to it. I once met Jeff Bazos, the founder of Amazon, and he is a very nice guy. But when I buy books from his store, I never leave my living room. One of the intellectual’s guilty pleasures has been eradicated.

I grew up in a town with no bookstore beyond the local Christian supply shop. When a mall was built nearby and a Waldenbooks came in, I thought I was in heaven. Even the town where I attended college had no bookstores beyond the campus supplier. Borders represented the intelligent side of book buying, without appealing to the lowest common denominator. I can hear the nails being driven in from the pillow in my coffin. Our society is a post-literate one. As a person who has had many an unrepentant love affair with words, it feels like civilization itself has received a mortal blow. As I tell my students: the mark of true civilization is writing. Ever since the Sumerians invented it, it has been a means of release from reinventing the wheel with each generation. Our hearts, however, have gone after technology and gadgets and left bookstores in the dust.

Please allow me my eulogy here—I realize that reading will continue, but its context has morphed almost beyond recognition. I have watched while every employment for which I am suitable has silently gone extinct: higher education, libraries, museums, publishers—the pillars of culture itself. Gone is the day when a kid receiving his summer paycheck would beg his mother to drive the forty miles to the nearest bookstore where he would come out with not a cent in his pockets but his arms full of books. We can read about such idiotic behavior online. A border has been crossed, but some of us will linger on the other side hoping that the civilization we knew might somehow survive.

I had no idea this would become a collector's item

Robopocalypse


Yesterday the long anticipated novel Robopocalypse was released. Although I seldom indulge in hardcover fiction, I headed to my local Borders to purchase a copy. Sadly, it seems, my local is cutting back on first-day releases because I walked out of the store empty handed but with a robotic Armageddon in my head. Last summer I became acquainted with Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising, but word on the street is that this novel is serious. Steven Spielberg purchased the movie rights even before the book was released. And the concept owes its existence to religion.

If it were not for human religious sensibilities, would the concept of an apocalyptic end have ever arisen? Probing into the ancient psychology that lead Zoroastrians to suppose an ultimate conflict was just down the theological road, it is clear that even a strong moral sense alone does not dictate ultimate dissolution. By personifying evil in the form of Angra Mainyu, Zarathustra gave a (divine) human face to wickedness, and thus opened the possibility of battling against it. Evil as an abstract, non-personified force might simply be accepted as part of the universe we inherited. By providing it with will and intention, however, Zoroastrians allowed for a natural human response. Fight or flight is hardwired into our brains, but would we have dared fight a foe that is immaterial, amorphous, and completely abstract?

The nature of the enemy has transformed itself many times over the ages. Wilson, a scientist working with robotics during his education, has taken a religious theme and placed it in the context of a godless world of cybernetics. I must use caution here, since I haven’t yet acquired a copy of the book, but it remains clear that it is the humanization of non-human entities that gives force and pathos to a final conflict. Jesus charging his white horse into a foul-smelling cloud lacks the same impact. Thus mythologies are born. Mythologies that people live by and for which they frequently die. I do hope it all holds off until I can get a copy of Robopocalypse to read. Better yet, the end won’t come until after the movie is released.

Pilgrims’ Regress

In March alone I had to build expanders for three of our bookshelves. I claim the problem began when, as a faculty member at Nashotah House, I had use of a house with a built-in, floor-to-ceiling library. My wife claims the problem began long before that. We own a lot of books. The only silver lining to Borders’ recent bankruptcy was that we hovered like buzzards at one of the closing stores and walked out with books we might not have otherwise bought, but whose prices demanded their owners find a new home. Orphaned books are a sad sight. So I purchased my first Christian satire book in many a year. I just finished reading Becky Garrison’s Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians, Garrison’s point of view set me at ease: had this been an evangelical attempt at humor I would have orphaned the book myself. Nevertheless, as I read through this travelogue/memoir, I rarely found myself laughing.

Nothing robs one’s sense of humor quite like being in higher education for a couple of decades. I still find plenty to laugh about, but I realize the reprieve is only temporary before more serious issues once again cloud the skies. Garrison’s attempt to find genuine “Christ-like” behavior among Christians was, predictably, peppered with the failures to find it. As she repeatedly notes, the odd marriage of religion and politics in the United States has tainted both institutions (and both had already tainted themselves without the other’s help many times previously). It doesn’t take a satirist to see that many religious figures have made a joke of their belief systems by touting them as the only way to heaven.

What became increasingly clear to me as I read this personal and revealing book was that Christianity has splintered into countless subcultures that attempt to reclaim the original Christian experience. The problem is that time doesn’t stand still. Religions are, by definition, conservative. Progress, by definition, is not. Ever since the first hominid hefted a wedge-shaped rock and used it as the first Paleolithic weapon, our course was set. We would continue to try to improve our lot. Institutionalized religions began appearing a mere six-to-seven thousand years ago, very late in the game, and they’ve been driving with feet firmly on the brakes ever since. Once we figure out what the gods want we need to – wait, don’t change that! We’ve just figured it out! So we find ourselves in a highly technological twenty-first century with pre-medieval religions trying to tell us how to survive the Black Death. Each time religions change, some get left behind. When we finally implode, some future archaeologist may find an apartment crammed full of books and she’ll declare that my wife was right: the problem began long ago.