Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.

Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.  

On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.

The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.