Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

More Than Books

Careers.  A pandemic is no time to think about changing jobs unless you’re forced to, but I often wonder if I got it wrong.  No matter what my job was, I wanted it to be about books.  When I was considering ministry it was largely because of the Good Book, and I did a lot of reading of books about it.  Over time my mindset morphed to that of a professor and the book-lined study was my icon.  I admit I’m fixated at that stage.  Now I’m an editor.  Life would’ve been different if I’d become a librarian.  Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is a volume that opens up the cloistered lives of librarians and shows just how vital libraries remain.  I have to confess that before reading this I don’t recall ever having heard of the central Los Angeles library fire of 1986.  Now I can’t forget it.

More than just an account of the fire—although a suspect was arrested it still isn’t clear that he was guilty—this is a book about libraries.  An account of the fire alone would not have been so interesting.  Orlean tells us about this history of the Los Angeles Public Library and the importance of libraries around the world.  She introduces us to several librarians and gives us insight into why they became such and what it is they do.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot more than re-shelving books.  And there’s the sad tale of an unsolved fire that destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of books.  Having had hundreds of books destroyed by water myself, some parts of this book were difficult to read.  Books are vulnerable, like butterflies they must be treated with care.  The idea of them burning, then being soaked, is distressing.

Like many people, I suspect, I began this book thinking libraries were on the way out.  The internet has changed things.  What I didn’t fully appreciate is that libraries have been evolving to keep up with the times.  And that they provide social services, such as a place out of the weather for the homeless.  I experienced this myself in Montclair, New Jersey.  When accompanying my wife there on Saturdays when she had to work, if I finished with the bookstores early I’d head to the library.  You could sit there for free.  I always have books with me, so I could read.  I could use their wifi for free.  Libraries, you see, are all about giving.  They give so much to the community.  Now that we’re living hermetically sealed lives, it might seem strange to think of libraries as places of social gathering.  And of course they’ll have books.  Orlean’s account makes me think perhaps my career has been off-track.  Perhaps I should’ve been a librarian.

The Heart of Publishing

My heart goes out to academic authors.  It really does.  They labor over a book important to their field and see it come out costing near triple digits and wonder why it’s not in the local bookstore.  There is, however, a very wide gap between academic and trade publishing.  It is bridged here and there by authors who value readers over reputation, but unless you deliberately try to learn how all of this works, it is bewildering.  Academics, you see, are area specialists by and large.  You don’t write a dissertation on the Bible, for example, but on a specific part of the Bible (New Testament or Hebrew Bible).  And within that section your specialization is not a single book, but often a small part of a book, or a theme.  I’ve seen dissertations written on a single Hebrew word.  Specialization.

With all of this tight focus, it’s easy to forget what browsing in a bookstore’s like.  Even with some of the incredible brick and mortar stores in Edinburgh, technical books had to be ordered—this was before Amazon.  When you check the books of colleagues out of libraries it doesn’t always occur that you do this because libraries are the only places that buy such books.  And with the explosion of doctoral degrees in shrinking areas of studies (there are no jobs here, folks!) the number of published dissertations has skyrocketed.  Even advanced scholars forget the average reading public would find their work impenetrable.  It’s not going to be in the local bookstore, and it costs so much because it sells so few copies.  I do feel for academic authors.

In addition to all the area specialization, it would make sense to research the academic publishing industry.  Yes, it is an industry—it has to try to turn a profit when sales are minimal.  And with so many books being published, libraries can’t keep up.  The end result is high prices.  I’m as guilty as the next academic at wishing economics would just go away and leave me alone.  I want to believe in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.   That’s not the way the world works, however.  At least not the publishing world in a capitalistic context.  The internet itself has become competition.  Much of the information’s out there for free.  So your academic book, when it comes out, will be priced out of your comfort range (been there, done that).  It’s not that your publisher doesn’t believe in you, but that they have to try to turn a profit.  All it takes to understand why is a bit of research.

Not that kind of book.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Searching Again

Research can be addictive.  Those who know me are generally aware of how I can’t let ideas go.  I suppose this is necessary for those who write books—concentrating on one subject for a long time is mentally taxing and can lead to early loss of interest.  Those of us inclined to embrace this activity live for the thrill of uncovering new ideas and making connections that we’d overlooked.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is a case in point.  Before submitting this book proposal I’d done a lot of reading on the subject of demons.  This is a dark topic, but those of us who live in temperate zones spend quite a bit of time without daylight, so I might think of this as a kind of therapy.  Or an excuse to do research.

Here’s often what happens: I’ll be writing along when suddenly a new question pops into my head.  Why was this or that the case?  The internet makes amateur research quite easy, but as someone raised on solid scholarly food, I need to check my sources.  When a professor I would’ve headed to the library with interlibrary loan slips in my hand.  These days I tend to turn to my own books and lament that I don’t have just the right one (there’s a reason, you see, that there are so many tomes in this house).  I try to find workarounds and used copies.  Perhaps I’ll pick up an adjunct class or two to be given library access again.  Meanwhile, the idea, like an ear worm, is burrowing into my conscious mind.  Until it’s time to go to work.

That great eight-hour stretch of day drains my energy.  Indeed, many employers count on taking the best you have to offer and making it their own.  What you do with “the rest of your time” is up to you.  Thing is, research is a full-time job.  Fortunately some of what I learn while on the clock will help me with my own research agenda.  The overlap isn’t especially strong, but now and again something I read in a manuscript will sync with what I do in the pre-dawn hours before I commit myself to the time-clock.  It’s a strange way to do research.  Back at Nashotah House I’d use the summers to follow the clues laid before my mind and, as long as I went to chapel, it was considered part of my employment.  Now it’s considered an avocation.  I can’t help myself, though.  Personal research is not part of the job description, but I’m an addict when it comes to learning new things.

Non-Lending Library

One of the hidden benefits of the coming societal collapse is the chance for the resurgence of print books. Since I’ve spent most of my life surrounding myself with volumes thick and thin, dense and light, I’ll have plenty to read between bouts of skulking out for food like a feral cat and clawing off those who follow me home, thinking that it’s edible stuff I’m stockpiling. Won’t they be surprised to learn it’s only books! My wife sent me an Atlas Obscura story the other day about book curses. The description of the life of a medieval scribe sounded oddly compelling to me—hunched all day over a writing desk, copying books by hand. Not having to worry about catching the bus before sunrise or being too tired to answer your personal email in the evening. The point of the piece, however, was the book curses.

I’ve been an avid reader since moving to a small town where the main occupation of kids my age was recreational drug use. I was one of the very few who didn’t inhale. Reading became my escape from the loneliness I felt. And I used to lend books to people who’d ask me. I quickly learned that others didn’t share the same care for books that I had. Lent books seldom made their way back to me. We were poor and there were no bookstores nearby and Amazon wasn’t even a meme in Jeff Bezos’ eye yet. Replacing books wasn’t easy. Once I lent out a book I’d already read (but you couldn’t tell it, I’d been so careful). The borrower actually did return it, but the spine was all creased and cracked so that you couldn’t even read the title anymore. I soon began to regard books like those medieval monks who put curses on them so nobody would steal them. I stopped lending them out.

The thing I’m banking on is that books will retain their barter value when society implodes. Of all possible universes only in that one will I be considered wealthy. Those who visit our little apartment inevitably comment on the number of books. What they don’t realize is that there’s a strategy involved here. Like those medieval monks, I have a suspicion that knowledge—including facts that don’t have alternatives—will one day in our dystopian future be valued above all the tweets and lies Washington seems to suggest we follow blindly. And blindness will make a great curse, now that I think about it, to protect these books from being stolen. Or “anathema-maranatha,” as my medieval mentors used to say. Or as Sarah Laskow ends her piece, “May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.” Maybe this isn’t so strange for a guy whose first academic appointment was at a school that reminds many of The Name of the Rose. (Which was the last book I lent out, for the record.)

Colorful Leaves

Weekends, it seems, are incomplete without being among books. You might think that someone who works in publishing might want to get away from books in the off hours, but quite the contrary. I love a good walk in the woods in autumn. Especially if it’s followed by a trip to the local independent bookstore. It just feels right being among books. I realize that I’m in the minority by expressing such an opinion, and that the book buying (and book publishing industry) is (are) small compared to other forms of passing one’s time, but they are significant beyond their size. My wife and I have scoped out the various indie book sellers all around. When we have to take the car in for service, we drop it off, have lunch at a diner, and stroll down to the bookshop. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

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Here’s the sign on our Clinton indie. In case you can’t make it out, the legend says “This is a book shop. Cross-roads of civilization. Refuge of all the arts. Against the ravages of time. Armoury of fearless truth. Against whispering rumour. Incessant trumpet of trade. From this place words may fly abroad not to perish as digital waves but fixed in time. Not corrupted by the hurrying hand but verified in truth. Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a book shop.” I especially appreciate the sentiment of sacred ground. Indeed, sanctuaries of all sorts often house books. As libraries experience funding difficulties, civilizations are in the throes of collapse. Just to have books around me makes me feel secure.

Some months ago we had to have a refrigerator replaced. Our apartment has a strange, offset back door that makes getting anything of size in or out difficult. The front door is a fairly straight shot, but just beyond the entryway I had set up a bookshelf after we moved in. The appliance guys came in, jaws literally dropping. “I’ve never seen so many books in one place,” one of them said. They then complained and told me they couldn’t get the old fridge out as the landlord had said they’d be able too. “Your books are in the way,” they complained with accusatory tones. I had to unload the books from two shelves and move them while they watched. I, the lover of books, was duly chastened. I’m afraid my love affair with reading has only become more passionate since that day. The books are back on their shelves and they’ve been joined by more friends. What is a weekend without books but a wasted opportunity?

Paper or Plastic?

Perhaps the most frequent topic on this blog is books. I don’t discuss every book I read, but most end up here. I can’t help but be pleased then, that recent polls show the number of people reading books is rising. Not only that, but that paper is back. We all appreciate new things. In fact, our economy would grind to a dead stop if it weren’t for new things that keep us buying. Ebooks were a new thing. Sometimes they’re even convenient things. If you’re going on a trip and you tend to travel with lots of books, like I do (who knows what mood you’ll be in when you get there? You’ve got to be prepared!) then an ebook reader can save stress on your back and luggage capacity. But I still prefer to zip open my bag and see four or five books smiling up at me. Visitors (rare, but not completely fictional) sometimes ask why I keep them all. I must restrain myself from retorting “why do you keep all your children?”

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Books—print books—represent so many things. Yes, they often contain knowledge. But they also contain memories. The contain emotions too. I remember that book that I saw in the library window at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh book sale display. I was only at Oshkosh one year, but I recall seeing the book that my advisor had recommended a decade and a half earlier. I was so excited I called the librarian to ask if it could be put on hold. He allowed as it couldn’t but if I were to pay in advance perhaps another book could be substituted in the display. I remember having my worldview torn open by books—that January that I read three books that changed my outlook on life almost completely over Christmas break. How can I bear to let any of them go?

I suspect ebooks were a fad. They are still useful and they still sell. But is there any feeling like taking a book, closing the back cover, setting it on your lap, and thinking about what you’ve just seen? I know nothing like it. Of the many books I’ve written, only two have been published. In some sense, those two are the only two I’ve done. I keep trying with the others, but meanwhile out there in a few select libraries people can find bricks of paper with my name on the outside. It wouldn’t been the same if the publishers had said, “it will only be an ebook.” I know that it shouldn’t make a difference if its paper or plastic, but it does. It makes all the difference in the world. No matter if it means having to build more bookshelves. They make excellent insulation.

British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.

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Public Knowledge

Sometimes the media gets it wrong. If one were to believe in the tales of industry prognosticators, our libraries would be closing, we’d all own Kindles, MOOCs would have replaced expensive college courses, and New York City should still be shoveling out from the worst blizzard since the Ice Age. We thrive on extremism. Although I don’t regularly read the newspaper (who has time?), the internet makes news memes available just as they happen and I feel somehow cheated if I have to wait more than an hour for trenchant analysis of an event I’ve just witnessed. Still, the publishers haven’t all shut their doors yet, colleges are managing to stay afloat, and libraries can be happening places. This became clear to me when I recently attended an event in the quaintly named Old Bridge Public Library. It was a Saturday, the time of the week when the gripping fingers of employers feel their weakest. Although I saw no evidence of an old bridge anywhere, I made my way through the traffic to the library where I met with a surprise—the place was crowded!

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For those of you not fortunate enough to live in New Jersey, Old Bridge is probably best considered a satellite of New Brunswick, home of Rutger’s University stadium. (I think there may be a university associated with it too.) That is to say, it is an urban area, and any antique structures to convey one across the water have long devolved to only nomenclature. Like anything in north-central New Jersey, it’s not far from New York City. When I arrived for my event, the parking lot was already full. It was not because of the event, either. Less than 20 showed up for that. When I went inside I found the library a veritable hive of activity. And it wasn’t just lonely, homeless people trying to get out of the cold. Families with kids, people with their grandparents, even other middle-aged adults like myself, all found their way to this island in the sea of a municipal complex not walkable from anywhere. I left encouraged.

Yes, the world of books and education is changing. Publishers feel stress, but that stress mostly has to do with predicting the best form to provide for content. Self-publishing has become a phenomenon, but many know that the self-published book has a difficult life in front of it. Libraries, however, are not the graveyards we’ve been told that they are. We need repositories of information that isn’t on the internet. And more importantly, we need places where, although the librarian shushing us may be iconic, we can get together with like-minded individuals and truly educate ourselves. I do sometimes tremble when I think of the future. The values I acquired as a young person seem, at times, on the verge of extinction. I learned that when this seems to weigh too heavily on my mind, I need to head to the nearest public library and support the old bridge to knowledge.

Real Reading Rainbow

Libraries rule. According to recent studies libraries rate higher than religious institutions, according to public surveys, in their usefulness to society. From the lost library of Alexandria of yore to the local Carnegie, libraries have been the repositories of information almost from the beginning of civilization itself. Last week the American Library Association, according to an article forwarded to me by my wife, and the Banned Books Week planning committee, announced a theme for this year’s recognition of the books various groups (many of them religious) tell us we shouldn’t read. Banned Book Week, of course, falls in September. It might seem strange that planning has to go into this, but the banning of books has never ceased and the list grows year by year. I recently mentioned John Green, one of the authors who frequently appears on banned lists for children. In an age when encouragement to read should be running high, we hide behind platitudes to keep our eyes toward a predetermined prize. Among the reasons frequently given for banning a book: its religious outlook. I.e., the “wrong” one.

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I often wonder why we think sheltering children who are old enough to read from the collective knowledge of the human race does them any favors. Our culture so successfully removes us from nature that we don’t experience the “facts of life” that our ancestors no doubt noticed early and often. Violence, sex, drugs, and death, however, haven’t become any less common. They are only hidden until their knowledge hits with often catastrophic force, leading to neuroses about how unsafe our world really is. A function of story, if neurologists are to be believed, is to help us navigate the many trials we’ll encounter by seeing how others have done it before. I don’t doubt that there is age-appropriate material for children, but they understand a lot more than adults like to think they do. In my teaching days I was always amazed at how much undergraduates knew that I was only beginning to discover as a professor. Books seem a good way to introduce knowledge appropriately.

The internet, of course, gives access to unvetted knowledge to anyone with access to a computer or phone. Published books, it used to be, had the added value of passing through editorial hands on their way to public presentation. A funny thing happened on the way to the library. We’ve democratized the writing of books through self-publishing, but we’ve not yet ceased to ban them. Perhaps the real way to protect our children is to listen to them. We seem to think telling is better than hearing, although the flow of knowledge can go both ways. Instead of banning books for our young we might all benefit from opening of our own minds.

Disconnect the Dots

In the on-going loss of touch between academia and the world outside, we forever hear of the triumphal march of secularism. Academics are often loath to see the habits of the laity as being of much significance. In the book industry, however, publishers have to pay attention to what the public reads. This is one reason, I’m discovering, that some academics find it difficult to publish. Some research topics just don’t reach the wider readership’s interest. It’s an editor’s job to try to match readers with books. Among the tools we use are magazines such as Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. Although it is impossible to say what people are actually reading, these periodicals trace buying and checking-out habits. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that books somehow tied to religion are frequently at the top of the list. One of the great industry trackers, Bowker, even has three distinct databases for book sales: children’s, academic, and Christian. Religion, in other words, is of tremendous interest.

IMG_1279In the January issue of the Library Journal, for instance, there is the list of top books checked out of libraries since the last reporting period. Topping the non-fiction lists? The top four spots are occupied by books tied in some way to religion: David and Goliath, Killing Jesus, I Am Malala, and Zealot. People want to know about religion. Academics just don’t want to hear it. As a perpetual bride’s maid, metaphorically speaking, of the higher education that jilted me almost a decade ago, I hopefully watch hiring trends as the rejection letters pile up in my inbox. It is a diminishing pool. Look at the industry reporting tools: religion is irrelevant at best, puerile or worse when it comes to measuring maturity. People are dying over it, but we’d rather just not know. No wonder they call it the ivory tower—spotless as, well, a bride.

It is often a surprise to many academics how few people buy their books. As someone who had written a couple of academic tomes, I know how I daydream that my work on some obscure topic will take off and suddenly appear in the Library Journal, or Publisher’s Weekly. In actuality, the reading public will decide on the basis of what publishers make available. A writer such as myself, an independent scholar, lacks credibility and is not asked to write books. And universities aren’t hiring scholars of religion much any more. Some seminaries have even moved more toward the secular in their hiring practices, since, universities tell them, that’s the direction things are going. Those who buy books, or check them out from libraries, however, are telling a much different story. But we are much too sophisticated to look for signs among the laity. The more we progress in knowledge, the less we really know.