2013 in Books

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According to goodreads.com, I read 83 books in 2013. The beginning of a new year seems a good time to assess what is memorable among the reading material of the previous twelve months. I am an eclectic reader: this informed my research when I was teaching in higher education—nobody can know everything, and it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on what fellow researchers in “unrelated” areas are doing. I always throw in a healthy dose of novels as well. Among the novels, some of the most profound were those written for younger readers (each of the books discussed here, by the way, can be found discussed in more detail by selecting the category “books” at the right on this blog). Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief all stand out as particularly profound. They are all, as young adult books tend to be, stories about coming to terms with the adult world. The theme of death weighs heavily in all of them. In none do the children take refuge in religion.

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Among the non-fiction offerings, revisiting my most memorable also reveals trends, I think, in how religion might be usefully applied to an increasingly secular culture. It is no easy task to choose favorites, but I see that I read three books about comic books: Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls and Divas, Dames, and Daredevils, and Christopher Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex. The work of Jeffrey Kripal started me on the quest of taking superheroes seriously as sublimated religious figures. Clearly that is the case, as has become increasingly apparent in top-grossing movies. Another set of books (Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, John Angell and Tony Marzluff’s Gifts of the Crow, and Curtis White’s The Science Delusion) highlighted some of the deeply rooted flaws of a materialist reading of the world, whether they intended to or not. Robin Coleman’s Horror Noire, and Susan Hitchcock’s Frankenstein indicated that monsters are among the most eloquent of social critics, even when they have little to say. I would recommend any of these books without hesitation.

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Some of my reading was on specific religious traditions. Maren Cardin’s Oneida, Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology, Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe, and Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death each showcased either a single or several traditions that have emerged in the last century or two that have had a striking impact on America’s religious morphology. Katie Edward’s Admen and Eve is a great example of how businesses have figured out that a religiously hungry society will buy, if marketing pays attention to religion. Among the most powerful books I read were Susan Cain’s Quiet and Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Being human is, after all, the most religious of experiences. Starting with fiction, I’ll end with fiction. The novels for adults I remember most vividly are those with strong female protagonists: Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight, Piper Bayard’s Firelands, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

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This blog offers me a chance to give brief sketches of books that have much more to say than a few words might summarize. The fact that religious ideas and themes might be found in such a range of books underlines once again that we live in a religious milieu, whether we want to admit it or not. Read on!

Gods in Spandex

OurGodsWearSpandexOne thing leads to another. Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics stirred an interest in comic books that I hadn’t felt since before my college days. Often excoriated as puerile, escapist doggerel for pre-pubescent boys, comics have grown to be respected members of adult society. I often wonder what the draw might be. Hollywood has certainly cashed in on it with any number of blockbuster flicks each year coming from the brains of the comic book writers and artists. So I picked up the quirky book by Christopher Knowles and Joseph Michael Linsner entitled Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. Reading it was kind of like looking in a mirror that has been buried in dust for a few decades. I hadn’t realized that my tastes in childhood comics was a reflection of a longing for the divine world with healthy doses of science fiction, and even H. P. Lovecraft, thrown in along the way. Knowles ties in a remarkable breadth of material to demonstrate that our superheroes are, in the final analysis, gods. That point may be taken in any number of ways.

The academic world suffers from a fear of respectability. That may seem a strange assertion, but I’ve spent a great deal of my life among academics and I know that many of them are insecure and tentative. Does all this reading, writing, and analysis ever get read by anybody? Does anybody take me seriously? Academics are haunted types. So when a subject as vulgar as comic books arises, scholars are reluctant to touch it. It might look like we actually enjoy reading the funnies. Still, popular culture has demonstrated an unexpected depth to much that we read in the strip world. As Knowles points out, a deep undercurrent of the occult and esotericism runs through many hero story lines. Several heroes began their lives as classical gods, only to assume the spandex and become incarnate humans with special powers we long to have ourselves. We would fly, if we were given the chance.

Our Gods Wear Spandex may never be viewed as an academic book by most. It has too much visual interest and not enough recondite footnotes. All the same, it is a profound look at what people really desire. We worship gods because of their special powers. If God were one of us with our humiliating weaknesses and limitations, would we ever worship him or her? Of course not. We only seek to appease those who are stronger than we are. Entire governments and ecclesiastical bodies are built on that very principle. Heroes are like us. Mortal, and yet, with something more. They die. But like the gods, they can come back. Reading Knowles it becomes clear just how much religious thought pulses through the veins of the comic book world. We may be grown up and sophisticated. We may have left behind childish things. But when our backs are to the wall, who doesn’t secretly wish they were Wonder Woman or Superman? And maybe that wish is a prayer.