How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?
Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.
For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.
My reading list is long, and it grows longer all the time. I read both fiction and non-fiction with equal avidity. Given that there are so many books I want to read, it is unusual to read entire books a second time (they should be kept for reference’s sake, of course). Two exceptions to the multiple reading trend have been, for me, the Bible and Moby-Dick. In reading Ilana Pardes’Melville’s Bibles, I discovered I’m not alone in according Melville nearly biblical status. As a book itself, Melville’s Bibles went on my reading list as soon as I learned of it. You see, Moby-Dick was added to my personal Deutero-Canon as soon as I closed its cover. Perhaps before. It was an assignment for a seminary biblical studies class on wisdom literature. My high school wasn’t one that required the novel, and all I knew about it previously was that it was a big book about whale hunting. I knew so little.
Pardes looks at Moby-Dick, and other literature, both by Melville and others, through the lenses of biblical characters. Of course there’s Ishmael. And Ahab. Melville, however, knew his Bible well, and to understand his work on a deeper level so must his reader. Job’s there. As is Jonah. Jeremiah, Elijah, Micaiah ben-Imlah, and even Rachel. Pardes takes these characters and shows how they appear, generally in Moby-Dick, spread across a variety of characters. More than one Ahab and Ishmael walk these decks. All the while, she notes, Melville himself wasn’t a typical “believer.” He struggled with the deity that he just couldn’t find. The end result is a compelling analysis of literature and human nature.
This brief study has a disproportionate number of insights. I frequently found myself stopping to ponder what I’d just read. Perhaps that’s to be expected in any book that brings two weighty canonical works together in such a gam. (If you can’t recall what a gam is, reading either Pardes or Moby-Dick will remind you.) Encountering Moby-Dick the first time was like finding a lost book of the Bible. I had no idea, however, at the depth of comparison. Pardes shows just how deep that ocean is. Melville’s well-thumbed, indeed, annotated Bible does play a role in all of this. Perhaps he didn’t intend all the connections readers like Pardes find, but that doesn’t make the connections tenuous. They’re clearly there. Canonical works are like that. Moby-Dick, indeed, is an iconic book and Pardes is a very capable Captain to guide a reader through it.
Posted in Bible, Books, Literature, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged canonical books, Herman Melville, Ilana Pardes, Melville’s Bibles, Moby Dick, wisdom literature
Writers are immortals. Well, at least as long as our species lasts. As a mere internet writer, I suppose that I’m not alone in wanted published books to my name. Solid books that don’t disappear in a power outage. There’s an immortality, no matter how mildewed or mouse chewed, to being in a book. Just two days ago Harper Lee died. And Umberto Eco. On the same day. Like many American kids, I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Although I would go for decades without re-reading it, the novel stayed with me powerfully, the way that classics do. When it was assigned to my daughter’s high school class, I read it again, reinforcing the story that held me captive when I was a teen. In many ways it was an introduction into that confusing and convoluted world of adults. It was true, like most fiction is.
Umberto Eco I discovered in seminary. The Name of the Rose was one of the choices for assigned reading in Medieval Church History. Although less of a classic, it was no less real for all that. The work that hit closer to home, however, came when living in the Medieval city of Edinburgh. Foucault’s Pendulum was frightening in its conspiratorial intensity. Esoteric fanatics gather in an unholy profusion. Then, in the midst of reading it, a package, hand-addressed, arrived in my student mailbox. From Germany. Curious, I opened it only to discover a mound of tracts on Satanism, all the scarier for being written in German. They seemed to point to a conspiracy, just as I was reading about in Eco’s novel. Only after much searching (there was no internet to speak of in those days) did I trace them to the Schiller Institute. How they got my name, I never did learn.
I haven’t read all the works of Lee or Eco. In fact, there are few writers whose entire oeuvre I’ve managed to read. That doesn’t mean that I love them any the less. All it takes is a powerful novel and you can be hooked for life. I leaned this in a profound way reading Moby-Dick in seminary. If there is another book that should be added to the Bible, that is the one. Writers are one of our least appreciated resources. They are, however, among the true immortals of our breed. Harper Lee and Umberto Eco left this world on the same day, only never really to leave it at all.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Literature, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged Foucault's Pendulum, Harper Lee, Moby Dick, Schiller Institute, The Name of the Rose, To Kill a Mockingbird, Umberto Eco
Early in my teaching career, I used to arrive in Milwaukee on a train after midnight. A student from Nashotah House on work-study would pick me up at the train station and drive me the thirty miles to the seminary so that I could teach the next morning. Along the way, depending on the student, conversation ensued. One time I asked the driver why he was interested in what seemed to me an arcane topic (and that’s saying something!). He replied, “Who can ever say why they’re interested in something?” There was some deep wisdom there, I realized. Can any of us say why we’re interested in what we are? I, for example, don’t know why I’m interested in life on the sea. And in the sea. I fell in love with the idea of living on the coast when I was a landlocked child. The ocean came to me only in books, and I never actually saw an ocean until I went to graduate school. The experience confirmed for me that this was where my heart lies. The salt air, the gray waves, the constant call of the pounding surf. Moby Dick immediately became a kind of personal scripture when I first read it. A life near the sea felt right.
I could never really answer the question why. I don’t swim, and besides, the ocean currents I have experienced are really too strong for the placid kind of swimming a lake or pool seems to offer. I don’t own a boat, and I’m a poor pilot when asked to drive one. I’ve been out over the ocean on commercial boats only a couple of times. Still, the imagination is fired by the idea of the ocean. Especially the stormy north Atlantic. As a child Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was one of my favorite books. Just staring at the cover could transport me to places I’d never seen. When landlocked in Wisconsin for several years, I turned to the Great Lakes for consolation. “Those who go down to the sea in ships” Psalm 107 declares, “Who do business on great waters; They have seen the works of the Lord.” Even so those who dream of the sea.
Ironically, for the Psalm, the Israelites were not a seafaring nation. Good harbors are rare on the coast of ancient Israel, and the maritime trade of antiquity was dominated by the neighbors to the north, the Phoenicians. Still, even the psalmist could dream of the sea. It has been said by various commentators, that the sea represents sexuality, or transcendence, or both. It is larger than we are. Indeed, the earth is by far mostly water as opposed to dry land. Life, even according to Genesis, first began in the waters. So I find myself in the midst of winter thinking about the ocean. It has been a long while since I’ve indulged in a day on the coast, even though I’m pretty much daily in a city on the sea. But I can’t experience the ocean so well with so many people around. Besides, there’s work to do. In those moments when my time is my own, however, I still dream of the ocean and the endless possibilities it represents.
Posted in Bible, Books, Genesis, Memoirs, Posts, Psalms
Tagged Genesis, Moby Dick, Nashotah House, north Atlantic, Phoenicians, Psalm 107, Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us
Many a student has been spared the reading of primary sources by study guides. This is not a new phenomenon. While still regularly teaching Hebrew Bible, I picked up a copy of Cliff Notes, The Bible, to show students how not to get the picture. To be fair, I was teaching future priests, and, despite my progressive outlook, I believe all Christian clergy ought to have read the Bible at least once. I know enough of Christian history to realize that the emphasis on sacred writ is not as ancient as many Protestants think—before the advent of modern literacy rates, scripture reading (and interpreting) was the business of the church. The laity were to receive it in the form of sermons, and so reading the Bible wasn’t really necessary. With the Reformation, however, the Bible became central and preaching became a matter of intelligent interpretation of the same. Today any Christian minister should have a pretty good grasp of holy writ, believe it or not.
With a touch of puckish optimism, my family gave me a copy of the Spark Notes Old and New Testaments at Christmas. Spark, according to the copyright page, is a division of Barnes and Noble, and, should the cover be believed, today’s most popular study guides. As an erstwhile author of biblical studies material, I was curious about who wrote the notes. Enough of the scholar remains for me to be critical, and one of the first questions always to arise is, who wrote this? The question ought to be even more poignant for Bible readers. One of the most looming of questions is that of authority to interpret. Different branches of Christianity still maintain the proprietary right to be the true guardians of the sole truth. Although perhaps softened somewhat from soaking in the broth of religious-political activism, the Fundamentalist would, in any natural world, distrust the interpretation of a Catholic. And vice-versa. Looking at my Spark Notes, I wonder who it is that is telling me the truth.
Abridgment is a kind of crime for literary connoisseurs. As a child I purchased my books from Goodwill or Salvation Army—the kinds of places to which poverty-level readers have access. Although occasionally drawn to Reader’s Digest editions on purely economical grounds, I studiously avoided abridged works. Who decides what single syllable of Melville should be left out of Moby Dick? All the degrees in the world don’t justify that! The interpreter is just as human as the reader, and this kind of power is too heady for mere mortals to handle. The abridger of the Bible must take heed of Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. There’s a lurking suspicion, nevertheless, that something might be learned from the stripped-down scriptures. It is with some anticipation that I look forward to receiving some anonymous instruction as I seek a Spark of truth.
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Books, Higher Education, Holidays, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Abridgement, Barnes and Noble, Bible, Cliff Notes, Deuteronomy 4.2, Moby Dick, Protestant, Revelation 22.18-19, Spark Notes, study guide