Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.


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.

Fun with Dick and Jane

Occasionally somebody will ask me what the purpose of this blog is. I’ve read enough blogs myself to admit the question itself puzzles me. Those of us who are driven to write (and I know some of my readers can verify this—I’ve been a writer all my life, no matter what my job) are all Pontius Pilate. The reference is in the Bible, if you are unfamiliar with the allusion. Anyone uncomfortable with ambiguity will not find much satisfaction here. Our society likes to believe the truth comes in two shades only—black and white. Our society really should get out more. Even “black-and-white” pictures are actually shades of gray. Some people believe we should stick to our assigned roles, but a person is larger than the job society will allow her or him. Religions have often called this embiggening a “soul,” others have recognized it as “personhood.” No matter what you call it, an individual defined only by their job is mere shadow-play.

Back when I was teaching I always told my students that we are taught to read so early that we soon do it unconsciously. Yet, somewhere below the surface we know different materials hold different reading requirements. It is my sincere hope that the Constitution is not read with the same expectation as the sports page. For those who are willing, however, profundity can even be read in road signs. Reading is a two-way street: we bring to it nearly as much, if not more than, we take away. Truths may be out there, but no one down here can lay claim to their totality. If such were the case, there would be no need of elections, or more than one publisher. Bibles, properly speaking, have no covers.

Writing is an end in and of itself. Those few untrammeled moments of each day when the demands of work or responsibility lessen their grip just a bit, and the universe seems to welcome your thoughts. My experience of life from rather humble family circumstances has been that those better off like to tell you what to do. I have never been a boss, nor do I ever really want to be. My dreams are more vapid, vacuous, and vivacious. In my writing I can actually have fun. After I lost my long-term teaching post a career counselor told me that I had to separate myself from my job. Every day there are those who try to undo that sage advice. A blog is nothing more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. If you can figure out what that means, please let me know.