Book Culturing

The other day I met one of the organizers of the Easton Book Festival.  Coming in October, this festival is something new.  It took the efforts of a couple with vision—the owners of a small, independent bookstore—to get other people on board, but now it’s going to happen.  A weekend dedicated to books.  I found out about the Festival as I was looking up area bookstores that might let me do a presentation on Holy Horror.  For whatever reason, my last book missed its projected autumnal publication date, and fall is when people are really thinking about horror movies.  Approaching its birthday in late December, it never really had a proper launch.  Priced the way it is, I don’t expect a sales boost, but I would like people to know about it.  When you spend years writing a book you’d like it not to be completely obscure.

In any case, when looking up one of the Easton shops—hey, book lovers, the Lehigh Valley has lots of bookstores!—I noticed that the Festival was still seeking participants.  Since it falls just before Halloween, the timing felt perfect.  I signed up.  Now this is one of the many new tricks for this old dog.  I tell authors all the time that self-promotion is key to book sales, even when a press is fairly widely known.  In fact, the store owner himself writes books and has to pay for his own tours to promote them.  Book culture is worth promoting.

On a personal level, it does me good to see that there are others who appreciate books.  They are a form of collective mind.  A communion.  When I’m feeling down, or uninspired, a trip to a bookstore—or even a library—often helps.  Reading books leads to a sense of accomplishment.  Every year I set a goal on Goodreads.  I don’t set the goal to make me read—I’d do that anyway—but to share with others both what I’ve been reading and what I think about it.  The Easton Book Festival will be a way of doing something similar, hopefully with those many others who feel the draw of books.  Writing, for me, is a labor of love.  I don’t know too many people personally, so meeting them through books is one of my own goals.  Just the other day I met an academic who wanted to read Weathering the Psalms.  Such things happen only in that wonderful land built of books.

AKA

“Professor?”  While not technically correct, I was surprised and not unpleased to hear the title yesterday while on the streets of Easton.  One of the greatest compliments a former teacher can receive is word from a former student.  While dressed in Saturday clothes on the way to the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market, I wasn’t sure the voice intended was for me.  I’ve been out of the classroom now since 2011.  Sure enough, one of my students from Rutgers recognized me and called out.  We had an ersatz but wonderful conversation after a completely chance meeting.  Already since graduating he’s had a few different jobs, but he remembered the classes I’d taught and I recalled that he’s the person who started me reading Neil Gaiman.  Teaching is, you see, a two-way street.

I’m doing a guest service at a local church next Sunday.  In preparation I’ve had lots of emails (for me).  One of them was from the music director.  He opened by calling me “Reverend.”  I’ve never been a reverend.  The idea isn’t unappealing but I’ve gone pretty far down the path of independent thinking and any church that would ordain such as me would need to be comfortable with that.  In fact, I heard a sermon recently by an Episcopal priest and was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and, dare I say, liberal it was.  I was never really welcome in that club, I know.  When I was still fairly fresh out of seminary and working on my doctorate the idea of being “Rev. Dr.” was still appealing.  Now I go by my first name.

Labels.  I tend to eschew them.  Like my young colleague I’ve had to learn that work doesn’t necessarily define you.  (I’ve had many employers, however, who not only beg, but insist to differ on that point.  The ideas of owning individuals die hard, apparently.)  On the weekend, though, off the clock, people are calling me “professor” and “reverend.”  I’m generally sitting in a corner with my laptop on those early mornings calling myself a “writer.”  For none of these things do I receive any pay.  (Well, perhaps some for writing, but very little and very infrequently.)  The move to our new location was a chance, I think, to try to remake myself.  A chance to figure out what labels, if any, really fit.  Better throw “telecommuter” and “remote worker” into the mix.  Those are the ones, come Monday morning, that matter most.

The Sound of Musik

“Why is there so much people here?”  The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.  Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.  It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.  If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.  Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.  We ended up there more or less accidentally.

I was an experimental subject.  Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.  This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.  It felt good to be on a campus again.  The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.  When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.  Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.  I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.

Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.  They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.  Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.  Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.  The city of steel transformed to the city of music.  And the religious feelings music brings.  As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.  “Hi, brother,” they said.  “Heading to Musikfest?”  This, I realized was a congregation.  I was an unknown brother.  Music brings peace.  Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.  Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.  Why is there so much people here?  Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.

Making Monsters

It’s not so much I’ve been away from monsters lately, but that life has intervened between them and me.  Life can be scarier than monsters sometimes.  In any case, the summer is when my mind turns back to haunting even as on the breaks during heat waves a whiff of autumn can be caught on the air of a July morning.  Yes, we’ve past the solstice and days are getting shorter.  Slowly, of course, but that’s what builds suspense.  And there are local signs that I need to get my haunting in gear.  It is finally time to get Holy Horror out of wraps and give the book a proper launch.  Being published around Christmas last year was poor timing for a subject so readily coded for fall.

I received the welcome news this week that the Moravian Book Shop—the oldest continually operating bookstore in the country—will be hosting a book signing for Holy Horror in October.  This is a fortuitous turn of events because when I first approached them with the idea the price of the book made the idea look unrealistic.  But we’re now thinking of autumn, and with autumn comes Halloween.  There have been a spate of horror films this summer, all of which I’ve unfortunately missed.  Time, as Morpheus notes, is always against us.  There does, however, seem to be a lively interest in the genre and the curious wonder what it has to say about what we believe.  Horror loves religion, and indeed, thrives on it.  So it’s been from the beginning.

October will also see the Easton Book Festival in this area.  I will be on the program for that as well.  While none of this is earth-shattering, these events represent the first successes in trying to build awareness of Holy Horror.  This was a book written for a general readership, but not priced for one.  Working in the academic publishing world, this is a phenomenon with which I’m all too familiar.  Many colleagues offer to read and spread news about your book.  It seldom happens, though.  Academic presses can’t afford book tours (especially if they have to price books at $45), but these self-driven presentations are opportunities to spread the interest in ideas.  That’s what those of us who write really want—to be part of the conversation.  We’re in the midst of a heat wave here.  It’s the height of summer.  Even so, those who know about monsters can feel them coming, even from here.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

Cool Cash

The seller’s market is the place to be in a capitalist society.  Last year, when we were looking for a house, it was a seller’s market.  Our realtor said he’d never seen inventory so low and staying so low.  We found a domicile we liked, but it was older and had obviously (only after moving in) been neglected.  The previous owners, it was clear, had simply let things go (and they were younger than us, and had no excuse).  When we asked for a new roof they had flat-out refused.  With no other options (our lease was about to expire) we agreed to take it on anyway.  We’ve been having the roof done in installments—and if you’ve been getting the record levels of rain that Pennsylvania has, you know our decision was, in a literal way, short-sighted.  Ah, capitalism!

So, just after I noticed the piles of sawdust that the web tells me are carpenter ants, the refrigerator died.  Of course.  I tried to keep cool.  We don’t have what the overlords call “liquidity.”  Our cashflow is dammed at the source, as it were.  A new major appliance was not a welcome addition to the fixer-ups that appear nearly every day.  The first warning was that my soy milk was room temperature when it splashed on the cereal yesterday.  All of this made me reflect on how much we rely on our appliances, our modern conveniences.  When talking to my mother later in the day, I realized that as recently as her generation not everyone had a refrigerator.  You could live without one.  You could also live without a dishwasher, believe it or not!  

The whole episode of packing the food in ice sent me on a Calvino-esque reverie of what we keep in the refrigerator.  There are foods that must be kept cool or they’ll spoil, foods that are better if they’re kept cool but can be left at room temperature, foods that you prefer to drink cold but can be kept anywhere, and items which are technically not food.  Considering the state of our kitchen, there are also foods that you keep on top of the refrigerator because no amount of cupboard space is ever enough.  As the carpenter ants make their free lunch of our porch, we have to throw away food for which we paid because an appliance has come to the end of its life cycle.  And since it’s a holiday weekend we’ll pay for a more expensive replacement unit because it’s on a holiday sale.  For unlike my soy ice cream, I lack liquidity.