Weird Publishing

It’s a weird world.  Publishing, I mean.  In the early days of shock and angst after Nashotah House, when it had become clear that UWOsh—the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh—wasn’t going to hire me full-time after a full-time year there, I considered that classic fall-back of the academic—publishing.  I wasn’t exactly clear on what an editor did in those days, but I was pretty sure I could learn.  Gorgias Press hired me and after just over two years, downsized.  I’d been in publishing long enough at that point to have learned about Transaction Publishers.  Housed on the Livingston campus of Rutgers University, where I’d been teaching for a few years at this point, Transaction had been founded by the sociologist Irving Horowitz.  Now that Gorgias was out of the picture, I contacted Transaction out of the blue and landed an interview with Horowitz himself.  Although he was most cordial, it didn’t lead to a job offer.

Eventually I was recruited by Routledge.  I was about to learn the nature of publishing in a whole new way.  Early in my time in the Taylor & Francis group (they had a letter signed by Walt Whitman in one of the board rooms) I learned that presses grow by acquiring other presses.  I suggested Transaction, only to be told it was too small of a “concern;” Taylor & Francis preferred larger fish.  When Routledge downsized I found myself again applying to Transaction.  Irving Horowitz had passed away by this point and before I could make an appeal, I was hired by my current employer.  There I have been ever since.

The other day I had cause to look up Transaction.  It was with some surprise that I learned they had been acquired by Taylor & Francis and merged with Routledge.  I’m sure that my suggestion of that acquisition had nothing to do with it, but I pondered what would’ve happened had I been hired by Transaction after Routledge cut me loose.  A few years later I would’ve found myself working for Routledge again.  And likely I would have found history repeating itself.  Publishing is a fairly small industry.  Books are a low-margin commodity (it pains me to type those words, but that’s the way the business world sees them).  Not too many people are interested in a company that has to sell lots of a specialty item in order to make them profitable.  Consumers tend not to buy books in bulk.  My time in publishing has been about connections.  And some of those connections are just plain weird.

A Kind of Happening

The roofers were here.  One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information.  Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks.  And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head.  Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office.  I figured it was an opportunity to learn.  As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another.  Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.

It’s a matter of framing, I suppose.  I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device.  This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film.  (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.)  Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact.  If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin.  And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it.  This is Bucks County territory, after all.  Another frame of reference, mediated by media.

As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame.  Like a camera lens, it limits my view.  At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business.   Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever.  I was completely cut off from the outside.  (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.)  Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing.  At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial.  You couldn’t see individuals down on the street.  The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame.  Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well.  I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much.  There’s work to do because there are bills to pay.  And horror films prepared me for that as well.  It’s the ultimate framing device.

Book Recommendations

Working in publishing has its perils. One from my personal experience is that you run into many books you just have to read. Not necessarily for work, but because you want to. This varies from publisher to publisher, of course. There weren’t too many Gorgias Press titles I felt compelled to read, although there were a few. Since then, however, my employers have transported me back to that kid in a candy store feeling time and again. Friends will sometimes send me book recommendations—I always appreciate that. Often the books are from the very publisher for whom I work. In some cases I was actually in the editorial board meeting where the book was approved. It makes me feel like my small contribution matters when someone recommends a book on which I voiced an opinion.

In these days when thoughtful approaches to life are under constant duress, it’s nice to be reminded that people pay attention to books. Relatively few buy them, of course, but books are the storehouse of our knowledge. We all turn to the internet to get information quickly. If you linger, however, you find that much of the web fall into the “opinion” column rather than that of factual reporting. Books from established publishers are vetted on at least one or two levels before a press makes a commitment to print them. Self-publishing has muddied those clear waters a bit, but the seal of approval of a reputable publisher is what makes a book. For example, if a publisher discovers a serious error in a work it will often be pulled from the market. We don’t like to spread errors.

The problem is volume. We long ago surpassed the point during which one individual could read every known book in her or his lifetime. In fact, those who were credited with doing so in the past are given a pass because many ancient texts lay undiscovered under the soil during their times. For all our foibles we are a prolific species when it comes to writing things down. For academics, publishing is often a requirement for tenure and promotion. There are a lot of books out there. This is one surplus, however, that isn’t as celebrated as it should be. I have had people suggest we have too many books in our home. Unlike too much food in the fridge, however, these pieces of intellectual nourishment don’t go bad. And if you point me to a book about which I’m already aware, I always appreciate the conversation anyway. Of some good things you can’t have too much.

Rookie Mistakes

So now it’s got a stain on the cover. And it didn’t even come with a book jacket. Perhaps it’s symbolic? The year was 1993. I’d finished my doctorate at Edinburgh the year before, and, against all odds, had landed a full-time teaching position. That position was at Nashotah House, but never mind. Like all doctoral students I’d sent out my dissertation for publication. It’d been accepted by the prestigious series Alter Orient und Altes Testament, produced by the dual publisher Verlag Butzon & Bercker and Neukirchener Verlag. Most European houses print these books cloth-bound (mine in blue!), no dust jacket, straight to the library market. I was proud. I had my first copy in hand in time to show around at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. There I spied William Holladay, my Hebrew teacher, now deceased. He was sitting on the floor in a corridor, eating his lunch. I joined him and showed him my book. In his inimitable way, he snatched it (leaving a grease stain on the cover) and within seconds said, “there’s a word misspelled in your title.”

Crestfallen, I took my first copy back. I wrote to the publisher, but these things only ever receive one printing and I never heard back. How embarrassing! Your first foray into academic publishing, and you look like an idiot who can’t spel. Now, in my defense, the cover is simply what I thought was a photomechanical replication of the the title page. The world “Millennia” was spelled correctly where I’d proofed it inside. How they left out an “n” on the binding die is a mystery. I never got proofs of the cover. Besides, a book’s title is on the title page, right? Never judge a book by it’s cover! Mine has a stain on it.

The book, although on Asherah, never got much notice. It’s still routinely overlooked. One of the truly sad things, though, came from a senior scholar in the field, nameless here, who did mention my work. In his book he put a [sic] after the ailing word on the cover. That was an intentional slight. Had he looked at the title page—from which I’d been taught to take bibliographic references—he would’ve found the word spelled correctly. Many publishers do not let authors proof the binding die for their cloth-stamped covers. A senior scholar knocking down a struggling junior with an obscure three-letter word. Welcome to academia. The book did get a kind of second life when Gorgias Press reprinted it, with additional material. I still sometimes pull that first copy off the shelf, however, and wonder what can take the stain out of blue canvas. As long as someone can feel superior citing a mistake beyond a young colleague’s control, I suspect it will remain.

Vive la compagnie

I’m cleaning out the closet at work. I doubt that either J. C. L. Gibson or Nicolas Wyatt envisioned my future thus. Edinburgh University was exotic and optimistic, designed to make my curriculum vitae stand out. More like standing out in the rain. “We have to ask what’s best for the company,” I’m told. I’m not a proud person, but earning a Ph.D. to take out the trash seems like a strange allocation of resources to me. “Take one for the team,” we’re told, since we’re part of a company and when the company prospers, we prosper. On a pro-rated scale, of course. It’s not that taking out the trash is beneath me. I willingly do it at home; my first career aspiration was to be a janitor. Only now I’m dressed in work clothes for the City. And I spent nine years in higher education to get here.

Lately I’ve been pondering how this “for the company” trope is a one-way street. Knowing in advance that Nashotah House could be a Hindenburg career for a liberal, I gave it the old college try. Writing about 90 pages of class notes a week for my first year of teaching, attending mandatory chapel twice a day, I tried not to step on any toes. Even though the theology over which I was forced to chew smelled a bit like this garbage I am now carrying, I made no fuss. Don’t rock the boat, especially if it’s a garbage scow. Take one for the team. After fourteen years of not making a fuss, I was summarily dismissed. I found out, literally, how hard it is to get a job as a garbage man.

Portrait of a livelihood about to end.

Portrait of a livelihood about to end.

Eventually I landed a job at Gorgias Press. Neither prestigious nor lucrative, it was a job and I had already proven I could take one for the team. Positions evaporate around here like dribbles from a spilled cup of coffee. So I found myself at Routledge, jetting around the country, spending long hours on the bus, being told to think what was best for the company. Only don’t expect the company to do the same for you. Stoking egos, I tried to get people with qualifications I could match to write a book for me. At Nashotah House I played on the football team (don’t laugh, it’s true). We had only one game a year, against our rival—the now defunct Seabury-Western in Chicago. During practice one day, one of my students blocked me with a forearm to the chin that left me on my back, seeing stars. I can take one for the team. But sometimes the company needs someone to take out the garbage. Ask the guy with a doctorate in rubbish removal. He always thinks about the company.

Manuscript Madness

A friend recently pointed me to a story of a “new” manuscript, recently discovered, that portrays Jesus predicting the advent of Mohammad. The article on, suggests that the manuscript, wanting to be seen by the Pope, may be the Gospel of Barnabas. Of course, the Gospel of Barnabas is already known from a medieval Italian manuscript and a new, authentic discovery would be of great excitement to epigraphists and text critics, but few others. Barnabas is not a canonical gospel and is considered by the majority of scholars to have come from centuries after the fact. Quite apart from the sensational headline “1,500 year-old Bible found in Ankara, Turkey: Vatican in Shock!” (posted in September of last year, before Francis came along), the manuscript raises a number of questions concerning what one colleague calls “the iconic book.” To be sure, there are documents yet to be discovered. The Bible, however, will not be reconstituted and the door has long been sealed shut on written revelation. What remains is the perception of sacred books.

How many movies and novels are based on the premise that an ancient document has been discovered and suddenly everything about the world changes? It is a common enough theme. This idea is based on the magical concept of scripture—the hidden wisdom of the ancients somehow overrides all that we know of the world. It lies in some cave or monastery or synagogue, waiting to be discovered, unleashing divine power. No doubt the dramatic (and dramatized) discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls plays into this mythos. Nobody knew they were there, but suddenly, new information! How many people on the street today, however, can say anything of what was contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls? They’ve been mulled over by furrowed-browed scholars for over half a century, but haven’t triggered any apocalypses, at least not yet.

There are hidden documents. Working for Gorgias Press put me in the place where I could learn about some texts kept under lock and key in remote monasteries in Syria. They are generally kept for their monetary value rather than their spiritual revelations. The manuscript on made me think of those manuscripts for the first time in years. In all likelihood, if a manuscript is being hidden it is lucre, not illumination, that is at stake. The Vatican library, researchers who’ve been there tell, requires immense patience and a willingness to be repeatedly turned away. There’s just something about those old texts. No surprise that the Bible and Qur’an lead to such fiercely protective sentiments in some believers. In the meanwhile, I wouldn’t advise selling all your possessions and anticipating the apocalypse. Unless, of course, you take some ancient documents literally.

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

Lost Professors

In front of my desk at home sits a chair.  That chair came to me when Gorgias Press was subleasing some of its office space and was necessarily divesting itself of unnecessary furnishings. Gorgias Press came to inherit the chair with the closing of the for-profit Katherine Gibbs School of Business, a branch of which leased half of the building.  I sit in that chair, contemplating the future of education.  I have just finished reading Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (as recommended by my friend Marvin).  Despite the fact that it is the first academic book I can recall leaving me in tears, it is a book every Ph.D. and potential Ph.D. in the Humanities should read and/or be forced to read.  Buck the trend!  Buy a book!  Donoghue is a rare individual who actually takes time to research what is going on in higher education and who has the courage to report it directly.  My regular readers will know that for nearly two decades I worked in higher education, spending every one of those years hoping that the next year things would get better.  Thank you, Dr. Donoghue, for speaking the truth.

I didn’t enter higher education as a child of privilege.  My career ambitions in high school were to be a janitor.  Encouraged along the way by well-meaning teachers and professors, I eventually found a job (lackluster as it was) in higher education.  What I didn’t realize is that the game had been rigged.  I recall being told with crystalline clarity that college and university positions were headed for a vast turn-over in the 1990s and jobs would be abundant.  Donoghue heard that story too.  His research shows that the writing had been inscribed on the wall as early as the 1970’s (before I reached high school) that this would not happen.  This is not hindsight either; studies were already indicating that higher education was going after the vaunted business model of the glitzy for-profit world.  Shiny baubles.  Worse yet, the roots of this inevitable transformation reached back to the Civil War and the nation that emerged from it—replace the dead on the battlefield with the dead in the factory.  Only only method of judging value existed: money.

The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the irreversibility of this trend: in today’s world only one value system is admitted, and it is purely material. No other way in higher education is capable of assessing worth. Rather, the alternate ways are being ruthlessly silenced by the transformation of university to corporation. That transformation was well underway long before the 1970’s, of course.  I had recognized at a young age that capitalism is a cancer that eats away the soul of people, convincing them that financial success is the only goal worth pursuing. I protested.  I spent years earning a doctorate in the Humanities to show that other values still throbbed away in the hearts of those who weren’t taken in by shiny baubles.  If you have any interest in resuscitating the human spirit, read Donoghue and weep with me.  The only consolation that I have is that I am sitting on a chair of a for-profit school that fell victim to the value system it once supported.  Capital and cannibal are too close for comfort.

Lower Education

Is there anything that can’t be sold? I think in the context of the free market, with its oxymoronic name, the answer must be a resounding “No!” A concept may be sold as a piece of writing or a patent or a trademark. Souls may be sold to the devil, at least according to the entrepreneurship of demons, if centuries of folklore are to be believed. A person who has betrayed his or her ideals is a sell-out. We can sell anything. Two related stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education confirm, in very different ways, this truth above all truths. The first piece, “More Notes on the Rise of Thrun Credits,” by Kevin Carey, notes how universities are in the business of selling academic credentials. Those of us who’ve gone through the educational grind-mill that leads one to poverty with the dubious benefit of a Ph.D. diploma to hang on the wall of our cardboard hovels, found this out the hard way. What matters is not what you learned or how well you learned it: where did you go to school? That is the most important commodity that a university sells—its name. It is sad that academia has gone after Wall Street, but there’s no changing the direction of this charging bull.

The second article, which I only spied because of a link on the first, was a tribute to Irving Louis Horowitz, world-renowned social scientist and founder of Transaction Press. In my days of desperation at Gorgias Press, looking for a new position that would make use of my editing and higher education (sales) background, I had contacted Transaction and ended up having three lengthy interviews with Dr. Horowitz. He was well known for his quirks, but he always had a kind word for me, and even read my book to find out more about me. Such determination and depth of investment are rare these days. In the end, I never did find a place at Transaction, although it was literally a ten-minute walk from where I taught my Rutgers classes on Livingston Campus. Publishers, it stands to reason, are also in the business of selling on the basis of reputation. Once Dr. Horowitz said as much during one of my interviews. “Without reputation, what does a publisher have to offer?” he asked.

Both of these ventures in which I have participated began as sources of disseminating knowledge. I was naïve enough to suppose that such ideals could survive the onslaught of that hissing serpent called finance, yet it is sad to be in a world where nothing falls outside its coils. Long before the birth of capitalism universities managed solvency and provided the intellectual inquiry that eventually led to its own demise. Publishers always sold their wares, but many pieces were published for the sake of their content, not their earning potential. That world no longer exists. In order to be paid you must have something to sell. All other transactions are null and void. We send our children to college to find jobs, not to learn. Maybe it’s just as well. Schools are busy with marketing and branding, so let our young ones learn the only system that works. For those interested, I have some swamp-land in Florida to sell…

Professor Little

There I was, some 3000 miles from home, in the office of a professor I’d never met before. On her desk a Gorgias Press catalogue. In that catalogue a miniscule picture with my diminutive face. Such are the little ironies of life. My ric rac career began when others started making suggestions about how being a janitor might not be living up to my full potential. Sometimes, often, I wonder if they were correct. Cleaning up after other people’s messes in the halls of our educational system seems like an incredibly honest career to me. Instead I have steered a course between the halls of academia and the halls of commerce. It is easy to suppose that I’m not really in control since even if I choose the general direction, I haven’t selected the specific circumstances. Recently I attended a conference where Gorgias Press had a booth. I looked over the tables, spying names of authors whom I had given their first start in publishing. With books struggling for elbow room in my own head, it is a bittersweet experience.

Watching the glacial ballet of higher education unfold, it often occurs to me that universities are not smart. Many brilliant minds work in them, and much light shines from them, but on an institutional level decisions are often made that jeopardize the entire enterprise. Over-emphasis on sports, over-utilization of adjuncts, over-payment of administrators—these are not signs of soaring intelligence. They are signs of institutions in a muddle as to their true identity. Are they businesses or centers of creativity and education? The basic business model is not “one size fits all,” and universities managed to maintain an enviable idealism until they began to emulate the corporate world. The tattered results lie all around us.

All through my educational journey, there was no guiding light. In my experience, higher education was a wondrous journey that suddenly terminated when I didn’t measure up to someone else’s standard of Christianity. By that point, I was ill-prepared for the savage politics of higher education. The transition from author to editor may sound simple enough, but things are seldom what they seem. Education may not make one smart, but it sure puts ideas in one’s head. Sometimes I reflect on those books that will never be written. I’ve never been any publisher’s darling, but here I am staring at a little picture of a little man. I’m sure there must be a lesson here somewhere, but I’m not smart enough to figure out what it might be.

Do Unto Others

Having just finished my first week as Religion Editor at Routledge, I have learned many things. The lengthy commute into New York City is filled with many lessons along the way and working for a publisher of some distinction is a privilege. My working life began with the work of a common laborer at 14. Conditions weren’t bad although the work was hard—we have laws to protect minors against exploitation. Funnily, after people reach a certain age exploitation is freely allowed, as long as someone benefits from it (not the one doing the labor). Being from a working class family, I gravitated towards dirty jobs. My college career was supported by many long hours in the dishroom, washing the cups and plates sent back by kids whose parents could foot their bill. I didn’t complain—physical work has always been relaxing to me. Mind work is much harder.

The majority of my adult life has been whiled away under the Damoclesian stare of religious institutions or individuals. Christians don’t make good bosses. My years at Nashotah House felt like some combination of Alcatraz and Bedlam. Under the authority of the religious I was taught to quake and fear. After over a dozen years of this, released into an empty academic void, I found a job with a Christian publisher who once again lived to dominate. I try hard to believe it is not inherent in religion itself, but often those who wish to bend others to their whim have some sacred sanction. For a brief respite I had a wonderful experience at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. My boss was secular and very caring. The same applied at Rutgers University. When Gorgias Press tired of my efforts, the secular academy came to my rescue.

Routledge once again reinforces that paradigm. For the first time in my professional life I feel that I am truly valued. As a rule, adjuncts are like Kleenex—there when you need them, but disposable after used. The university people were kind but could offer little. Now I am accepted among the secular and the little knowledge I’ve gained over the decades is appreciated. The scars, however, still show. The fear of long years of subservience are not easily dismissed. It is my hope that some day they may become effaced enough that the terrors wielded by the religious might be only nightmares recalled vaguely in the full light of day. If such deliverance comes it will have been because of my non-religious bosses. Such a parable should teach us about what religion has become in this “Christian country.”

No mean city.

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.


Now in a dentist office near you!

Sitting in the dentist’s office may not be the best place to be reading about pain. Nevertheless, as I was anticipating my fillings (worn enamel at this stage, not cavities) I picked up the June edition of Discover magazine and noticed a story on the brain. Since pain and brain rhyme, I took it as a kind of omen. I actually subscribed to Discover for many years as a teenager, but with the vicissitudes of the job market as an adult, and the perpetual lack of storage space in apartments, I have let my magazine subscriptions lapse. The article, which I did not have time to finish, suggested that neurologists are on the cusp of being able to pin down whence chronic pain is experienced in the brain. If a chemical inhibitor can be found for this specific region it will be like turning off a light switch. There will be no more pain (rather like John’s vision of the New Jerusalem).

As I was called back to the dentist’s chair to the accompaniment of the whine of a dental drill, I reflected on the loss of pain. Being the sensitive sort, and probably more empathetic to others than may be healthy, I never wish pain on anyone. Life is difficult as it is, and even those who wish me harm do not deserve suffering. Nevertheless, I wonder if we could thrive in a world without pain. This is all the more relevant with the growing whispers among the AI community that brains can be simulated by computers. If they are programmed not to experience pain (as seems only sensible) then what becomes of humanity when pain is abolished? Some of us identify with the pains of mental agony even if the physical does not directly impinge on our lives. It is what makes us human. When I see another person in pain, my immediate reaction is to want to help. Being a religionist, however, my options are often limited in this regard.

After a very painful termination a few years ago, I had to give in to anti-depressants for a while. The very idea depressed me. My life, including its full array of mental anguish, defined who I was. Take that away, and what was left? Funny thing was, those in the church who initiated this particular pain showed no empathy whatsoever in the face of it. I weaned myself of the medication after a few years and occasionally the pain returns—particularly acutely when yet another religious employer let me go—but it is part, a very deep part, of the human experience. Could we thrive in a world without adversity? We are often at our best when we are helping each other. That to me seems to be what true religion is all about.

Wayward Ninevites

“Come listen to my tale, of Jonah and the whale, way down in the bottom of the ocean;” a children’s song with a catchy tune that has a way of becoming a lifetime companion. Among the earliest Bible stories many children learn is the remarkable story of Jonah and the whale. And since the Bible is God’s word, it must be historical, right? Many modern readers have a difficult time fathoming that Jonah is not a book of history. As if living three days underwater isn’t enough of a stretch, stalwart bibliolaters ignore the tons of archival material from Nineveh itself and claim that the entire city spent a day, or a week, worshiping Yahweh. It stretches the imagination.

Too close for comfort

While working at Gorgias Press I discovered, in an entirely unexpected way, just how seriously some otherwise rational adults take this tale. I had to postpone an important meeting with an influential client because it had fallen on “the Rogation of the Ninevites.” As a lifelong biblical scholar and student of ancient religions, this was a festival I’d never before encountered. A web search refused to yield too much information for as long as my curiosity lasted, but I did find out that the date is difficult to nail down (apparently sometime a week or two ago), and that it predominates among Orthodox Christians of Iraq and Syria. These believers claim the heritage of the fictionally converted Ninevites. Even if the book of Jonah were intended as history, the conversion would have been to Judaism, not Christianity.

As I tried to find a new date with our lucrative associate, I realized once again just how far faith is willing and able to stretch. The story of Jonah is a cautionary tale, almost a fable, reminding post-exilic Jews of the occasional righteousness of the other. While other interpretations have been ceaselessly floated by serious scholars, I have never discovered anyone outside the putative descendents of the fabricated Ninevites who take this non-historical event to be important enough to jeopardize an essential business deal. Anyone who attempts to introduce logic into such an equation may well find him-or-herself, Geppetto-like, slowly digesting in the enormous gastric cavity of a whale that has a taste for prophets.

Two Roads Diverged

Back in my Gorgias Press days one of my co-laborers (BU) suggested that I might enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Since then it has come out as a movie, and further apocalyptic events have occurred – the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the election of Chris Christie come to mind – so I finally got around to reading it. It is a harrowing book for any parent to read and I doubt I have the heart to see the movie. Already the book is spawning internet quotes and quips, but I was particularly interested in seeing how this post-apocalyptic novel handled God.

Since the Bible, via Zoroastrian influence, gave us the religious concept of the apocalypse, it is fitting to see how religion fares in its unhallowed progeny. Mostly God is absent. When the man and his son mention God, the language is spare and laced with betrayal. “There is no God and we are his prophets,” the old man declares after the man and his son leave the bunker. A few paragraphs later he states, “Where men cant live gods fare no better.” The value of the apocalyptic metaphor is that it forces us to face life as we find it: raw and uncompromising. In the fictional apocalypse it is permissible to utter aloud implications of life’s callous lessons.

My career has had its share of jagged edges. The lacerations I’ve personally received have been at the machinations of Christians eager for self-justification. Self-congratulatory individuals and collectives that suppose God has specially favored them. “There is no God and we are his prophets.” It is like reading Camus in slow motion. One of the lessons both Nashotah House and Gorgias Press taught me was that it can always get worse. Reading McCarthy’s sad yet true tale of the woe we bring upon ourselves, the lesson for those eager for the apocalypse is that they have only to open their eyes.

The Death of an Art

In most ways, I enjoy progress. Having electronic communication has spared the lives of many innocent trees, information may be had quicker, and ideas can be freed from the sometimes narrow constraints of staid publishers. (On the other hand, it has given internet users way TMI, some of it not worth the double-click.) There is, however, no comparison to holding a book in your hands. I grew up with cheap paperbacks with their brittle, brown-edged pages and their cadre of book-mites, but many happy memories have accrued to those hours of reading. I never much cared if the books were pristine, as long as they were legible. As intensive reading became a major part of my career aspirations, I started to notice the quality and longevity issues of books. Hardbacks were more durable, but less portable. Some were artworks in themselves.

I was disappointed, therefore, when I recently ordered an Oxford University Press book and I discovered that it had been done Print on Demand. Having worked nearly three years for Gorgias Press, pretty much a strictly Print on Demand publisher, I immediately recognized the hallmarks of this quick and easy way of keeping books in print – inferior print quality and image replication were dead giveaways. The truly disappointing part of the scenario was that this particular book has an intensive discussion of artifacts shown in their grainy, low resolution PoD reproductions. I realize that even large publishers save immense warehousing costs by supplying on-demand titles after an initial print run sells out, but when it compromises the quality, in part the raison d’être of a book with illustrations, some troubling issues are raised.

It seemed when I was young that no matter which copy of a book – barring obviously defective tomes – I picked up, the contents were virtually identical. The industry standard, offset printing provided many identical copies of good quality relatively cheaply. With Print on Demand, books can be outsourced to different vendors and interiors can vary considerably. I saw this all the time while checking proofs at Gorgias Press. PoD also means that little changes can be made between “print runs” resulting in different copies of the same book having variable text. The compulsive footnoter in my veins starts clutching his little chest. When books move from a print run that can only be altered by a new edition to a PDF that can be adjusted between each individual copy, I begin to wonder about the stability of the written word. I’m still enjoying my OUP book, despite the uneven printing and the grainy pictures. But deep inside I fear that rewriting history has become much, much easier.