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.

Literary License

Whenever I orient myself to a new place, I tend to do so by the writers who’ve lived there. As a family we used to take “literary trips” to visit locations associated with famous writers. While in the Midwest it was often Laura Ingalls Wilder, and once, Mark Twain. Here in the east there has been considerable diversity. Several locations associated with Edgar Allan Poe have informed our travel plans. H. P. Lovecraft (although, to be honest, we always had other reasons to be in Providence) naturally followed on from Poe. We visited the property of Edna St Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, and later in the same trip Sleepy Hollow, to find the haunts of Washington Irving. Famous writers can be found in just about any major city and many small towns. Now that Ithaca is in our regular orbit, I’ve begun to consider the implications.

Carl Sagan is probably the most well-known of the city’s past celebrities. His premature death added an almost Gothic element to his fame. Certainly among the sphere of his fellow academics known for fiction is Vladimir Nabokov. An entomologist by trade, Nabokov turned to writing and teaching. His lasting renown in this field was for the novel he tried to burn before it was published, Lolita. Before I knew Ithaca would be in my future, and indeed, before I knew that Nabokov was either a former resident or an entomologist, I read the novel. It’s a challenging book. Humbert Humbert is as flawed a protagonist as one might find, and any character guilty of child molestation is difficult to read even in the protection of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the novel won such acclaim. The experience of men and women who read it, I suspect, is very different. It’s a novel of moral urgency.

In perhaps a more innocent time, E. B. White attended Cornell. Apart from The Elements of Style, his book-length oeuvre was mostly in the realm of literature for children. This brings the the focus back to youth. Our childhoods—whether we acquiesce to what fate seems to demand or challenge our lot hoping to improve it—make us who we are. As the years increase in number the memories become more fiction and less fact, they nevertheless remain the touchstone for anchoring our understanding of self. Some of us constantly measure ourselves against the future we clawed for as a child, like those pencil marks on the doorpost showing our physical progress. Having been unable to afford the luxuries of travel when I was young, I add a notch to my literary belt every time I travel to Ithaca, knowing full well that only the slimmest of minorities could find my very obscure hometown on a map. If I remember correctly.

Girls to Men

Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.

I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.

The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.

An Anatomy of Lies

I had an email from Mike Pence. Mike Pence doesn’t know me from Adam, but if he met me he surely wouldn’t like me. His email tried to explain, in tottering logic, why he voted for Betsy DeVos. When I finished wiping the vomit from my mouth, I began to think about someone America needs again: Mark Twain. I’d just been reading about some of Twain’s classics and I recalled his famous quip (which he attributed to Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We now live in an era so surreal that it requires a fourth kind of lie: alternative facts. Government communications are full of them. Not one word from the White House can be trusted with the common decency that you’d attribute to a Boy Scout innocently helping an elderly person across the street. One hand is held out for you to shake while the other is picking your pocket.

The volume of the lies has grown louder. I’m sorry Nigel Tufnel, but this amplifier goes up to twelve. Some time back I blogged about the overuse of superlatives. When everything’s the ultimate, nothing’s the ultimate. We need a new anatomy of lies to apply to our Addamsesque government. Since the only people who believe in Hell are the ones who elected Hell’s own party to the White House, you can’t even tell them where to go any more. There was a day when telling someone to go to Hell brought real consternation. These days all you have to do is buy a ticket to the District of Columbia. People listened to Mark Twain. Here was an educated southerner who told the truth, no matter how fictionalized. Truth no longer exists, and I should just get over it. Problem is, the country I was born in now only supports the rich and I can’t afford to live in a cardboard box.

We all know what a lie is. If we’re honest we’ll all admit to telling one once in a while. All humans do. Damned lies are those we used to condemn. The exegesis of the word “damned” these days is perhaps euphemistic for “good for government.” Statistics, as 99 percent of people know, are made up. Then come “alternative facts.” Even after being called out repeatedly for making things up, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and now even Mike Pence, continue to rationalize their own reality.

Mr. Clemens, what do you call fabricated detritus so filthy that “lie” is hardly adequate to make an impact in its dense, brown verbiage? The kind of thing we might expect from an individual incapable of distinguishing truth from fantasy? Don’t take it personally, Mike, but I’ve assigned you to my SPAM list. You’ve just been made an alternative fact in my personal reality. How’d you even get my email address? Mark Twain may have been a pen name, but his fiction was fact. He was a man ahead of his time.

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Future of an Illusion

AtlanticHEIf anyone’s premature death has been announced more than Mark Twain’s, it is that of higher education. September’s The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox proclaiming itself the “Education Issue” leading with an article “Is College Doomed?” While I appreciate the headiness of Atlantic articles, they run long and my time runs in the opposite direction. I have to read selectively. Things like paying bills and work vie for my time as well. I flipped it open to the article actually entitled “The Future of College?” by Graeme Wood. Four words in, and I froze. The fourth word is “entrepreneur.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m open-minded. Having seen higher education showing its teeth and claws, I know it isn’t the nice pet that the dean will tell you that it is. Nevertheless, from my viewpoint, the main problem higher education is experiencing right now is entrepreneurial in character. Perhaps it’s old school to say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but it is perhaps the most apt phrase to apply to colleges and universities prior to the twenty-first century. And, in my humble opinion, today, while some vestiges can be salvaged.

Oh, I know I’m a dinosaur. I literally finished my formal higher education last century. Still, the experience worked well enough. I can’t express, even with daily posts on this little blog, how much I learned sitting through bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs. None of the institutions I attended was perfect (although Edinburgh came pretty close), but they were largely faculty led, and they all recognized that their primary function was to educate, not to prep for entrepreneurial enterprises. There were business schools for that. You couldn’t learn dead languages in business schools. Or even great ideas beyond those with an economic twist. What hath Nietzsche to do with supply-chain optimization? Oh yes, the death of God. My mistake.

In my younger years, I had no preconceived notion about higher education. My high school teachers and the clergy in my life encouraged me to go to college, despite the fact that nobody in my family ever had. Even though it was only Grove City College, as soon as I got over the homesickness, I realized I was home. Higher education—my assumptions were challenged. I had to learn to weigh the evidence. By the time I was finished, I had learned to create content as well. And then I started to hear that higher education had one purpose only—to prepare the young for the job market. A place that is too often unthinking and uninspiring. We aren’t educating, we are teaching conformity. And those who don’t have jobs don’t have healthcare coverage. Survival of the fittest. Entrepreneurs by definition. A quarter of a century ago I didn’t even know that higher education was sick, let alone dying. When the future begins with entrepreneurs, however, I’m going to side with Mark Twain, even if he is really dead.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” so the books of Psalms and Proverbs agree. It must be true. Religion and fear walk happily along hand-in-hand. Some have suggested that religion began as a human response to fear. So this week I felt a little conflicted as I read Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. The book had been recommended to me by one of my brothers. As a child fear defined me—it seemed that in a world where God was meant to be feared (for I was a literalist) that fear was the basic operating system for life itself. Gardner’s book is a fascinating exposé of the culture of fear. Gardner doesn’t really suggest that fear should be eliminated, but he does show how many of those in power manipulate fear into a faulty perception of risk management, for their own advantage. Beginning with 9/11 he demonstrates how the irrational responses of people to the tragedy led to even more deaths that quickly became buried in the white noise of everyday society. Comparing Bush’s response to FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Gardner demonstrates that the United States emerged from the depression and Second World War weary but confident and strong. After Bush’s two terms, the country is cowering and weaker. Why? The Bush administration heavily mongered fear.

Funnily enough, the release from fear comes from two main sources: statistics and psychology. Statistics reveal the true odds of common fears—these can be inflated so as to create an atmosphere of threat. People, as herd animals, will gladly give more power to the alpha male when serious treat is perceived (don’t kid yourself, politicians have long known this). Psychology enters the scenario because people think with both reason and emotion. Our immediate, visceral response (the “gut reaction”) is instantaneous and powerful, developed from millennia of evolution. It is, however, irrational. Reasoned responses, often better for us, take longer and people do not like to force themselves to think hard. We have a whole educational system to prove that. Faced with hard thinking or quick solving, which do you prefer? Be honest now!

Ultimately The Science of Fear is an optimistic book. Being made aware of the problem is half the struggle. Garden-variety fear is fine. Systemic fear paralyzes. Religion is often defined as one of the building blocks of culture. Instead of offering release from fear, religions frequently add their own ingredients for recipes of even greater fear. The concept of Hell is a great example: think of the worse thing you possibly can. Multiply it by several orders of magnitude. Repeat. And repeat. You’re still not even close to how bad Hell is. There’s your motivation right there. Place that religion in the midst of a society rich with natural resources and led by schemers who know that xenophobia increases power, and voila! Paradise on earth for some, a life of fear for the rest. Manipulation characterizes both the evolution of religions and societies. Gardner doesn’t directly address the religious side, but that’s the beauty of reason: he doesn’t have to. The cycle can be broken; think of Mark Twain’s words I’ve selected as a title. Think hard.

Winter’s Music

An editorial in this morning’s paper once again raised the question of whether we need a politically correct version of Huckleberry Finn or not. The story led me to recall the origins of rock-and-roll – not that Mark Twain was a rocker, but because I’d recently viewed the first installment of Time-Life’s History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Both Huckleberry Finn and rock-and-roll owe a vast debt of gratitude to African-American culture, and both bear the scars of prejudice. An unfortunate aspect of life is that few people willingly subject themselves to hard labor when they realize an easier lifestyle is available (thus, Brave New World). This has been true since civilization began. With the advent of the Sumerians we begin to read about the slavery of war-captives. Even today, dressed up in fancy clothes, slavery of various degrees continues to persist. The reprehensible treatment especially of Africans for slavery is a heritage that will not easily be overcome. And yet American culture owes much to its African components.

While already in the back of my head, this was once again brought to the front by the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Explodes” episode of the Time-Life series. Now, being a musically deficient individual, I claim nothing particularly insightful here – my wife and daughter are the musically accomplished ones in this household – rock clearly has its roots in the blues and gospel. In the documentary Little Richard explains how rock was often simply music of the black churches transposed to secular clubs. Xenophobic “white” culture of the 1950s felt threatened by this catchy music and sought to disarm it. Calling it “race music” producers had the more popular songs covered by white singers such as Pat Boone. (His cover of “Tutti-Frutti” always makes me smirk.) The real element at work here was the prejudice against the other.

As a youth I recall literally throwing my rock albums in the trash because of a Fundamentalist tract that declared in no uncertain terms that it was the “Devil’s music.” I’d bought those albums with my own hard-earned money, but sacrificed them to save my soul. Little did I know that “Devil” was a code word for “African” in this fundie literature. Otherwise, why was it alright when Pat Boone (of The Cross and the Switchblade fame) sang the same song? Mistrust runs very deeply in monotheistic religions. Even today many branches of Christianity inveigh against the horrors of rock without acknowledging that the music has its roots in the cry for liberation on the part of slaves, as expressed in Christian worship. Civilization will always insist on retaining its slaves. At the very least modern western culture should say “thank you” for the unrequited gift of the musical voice of the twentieth century.