I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task.You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none.Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count.One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair.Now I live in a region with many bookstores.I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability.It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish.I’m not complaining, you understand.I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed. That, and Banned Books Week.
I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem.Twice already.But there are many more within an easy drive from here.“Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge.Home owning is expensive.There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all.And time for reading is scarce.Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows.You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult.They are few and far between.It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.
My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey.They were looking for new owners.We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing.Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard.The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing.(You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books.Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.)To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance.As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying.After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.
I’m standing in a haunted place. There was an act of violence here this week. Gun violence. A man died in this restaurant where I sat with my wife and had lunch just a couple of months ago. I’m in Princeton for a rally organized by a teenager. We’re here to tell the government we the people want sensible gun control laws. The website said they were expecting 500. Five thousand turned out instead. Princeton’s not the kind of town where you expect gun violence. Affluent and privileged, it’s the kind of place many of us go to get away from real life for a while—they’ve got the best bookstore around and you can still find DVDs at the Princeton Record Exchange. You don’t expect people to be shot dead here.
America’s perverse affair with firearms goes hand-in-hand with its refusal to ensure adequate treatment for the mentally ill. We give them firearms and wonder what could possibly go wrong. We elect the mentally deficient to highest office in the land and instead of reining him in, the GOP reigns with terror. They have shown time and again that they prefer NRA money to our children. They have sold out. And the word appropriately used to describe such a party good manners prevent me from inscribing on this blog. Republicans, true republicans, need a new party. Instead they refuse to call this aberration in Washington what it truly is. Thousands took to the streets yet again this weekend. This was my fourth rally or march since January of last year, and hey, government—they keep getting bigger.
“Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” So saith the Good Book. It’s a book the Republican Party has forgotten how to read. Especially the “evangelicals” who’ve betrayed their saintly name. While I’m here in Princeton, a few hours away in the sullied capitol of this once reasonable nation, half a million are on the march. And just as women led the way last January we’re being shown the truth that anyone can lead better then old white men. And the fact that the organizers of these protests are high schoolers, I am inclined to leave the last words to the prophet Isaiah, whom, for any Republicans who might be reading, is in the Bible: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.
This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.
We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.
I can never keep Virgil and Beatrice straight. I blame Dante. Allegories can be so tiring. So, sitting under a tree in Princeton, enjoying a root beer float prepared at The Bent Spoon, I ponder the empty bottle before me. Virgil’s root beer. So good, it states, that I’ll swear it was made in Heaven. It is good, I must say, but didn’t Virgil lead Dante through the other place? You see, I’ve just spent a pleasant morning at Grounds for Sculpture, the outdoor museum set up by Seward Johnson, a sculptor that some accuse of kitsch. Others come by the busload to see what it’s all about. Johnson’s cast sculptures of people are so lifelike that it isn’t unusual to find yourself staring at an actual person sitting on a bench, wondering if they’re real or not. I spend a lot of time pondering reality, and this place makes that question explicit.
Descartes said “I think therefore I am,” but what if I am really the thought of another? How would I ever know? As I wonder around among the sculptures, a different face of reality shows itself. Many of Johnson’s pieces are sculptures based on paintings. To get behind the surface you have to imagine what the unshown side must’ve looked like. That which the original artist left out. Any art is a matter of perspective. Unseen realities—isn’t there something Dantesque about all this? Is Virgil the guide through Heaven, or is that Beatrice?
These statues, in quotidian poses, are so real. If they’re cast from actual persons, maybe they are. After all, this camera I carry is capable of capturing souls. And if you don’t make it through the first time around, there’s always Purgatory as a safety net. This bottle in my hand causes me confusion. Is my tipple divine or diabolical? How much difference is there between them, really? Princeton is a place that needs no one, after all, except those who have already made a success out of life. A place with expensive root beer on offer. A vice for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe life is a divine comedy after all.
Being distinguished, indeed, getting noticed, is increasingly difficult to accomplish. When you read a lot of history, you realize that anyone who managed to write coherently in the past few centuries seldom had difficulty getting a publisher, for instance. The key to getting noticed was publishing books, or being lucky enough to have landed a highly visible job. I was reminded of this, and was given a slight inferiority complex, by a recent visit to the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Princeton. I’ve gone by this cemetery dozens of times, but only recently took the time to get out and explore.
History buffs will know that Aaron Burr is buried there. Burr was from a family of privilege; his father Aaron Burr, Senior, was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey, better known by its current name of Princeton University. The vice-presidential Burr was also the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who also rests in this very graveyard where one hopes God is somewhat more forgiving of sinners than rhetoric might suggest. Although he was the third Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr is now remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel not far from where my bus rumbles every workday. One kind of conflict exchanged for another. This odd and tragic duel ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career. As the bad boy “founding father” Burr has found a number of supporters posthumously. His grave is perhaps the most celebrated in Princeton. This despite the fact that President Grover Cleveland is only a few yards away.
There are, however, more enlightened minds buried here as well. Being in the presence of Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann is a humbling experience. The presence of Albert Einstein, perhaps Princeton’s most famous resident, is, however, missed. Einstein was cremated and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. Standing in the cemetery in which so many of his compatriots rest on an overcast, damp December day, it felt like some slight compensation. Political power and ambition often lead to obscurity. I look to those who would be president and shudder. Here in this quiet cemetery, thinking of the common fate of us all, self-aggrandizement seems to be in such bad taste. Einstein, as so often, had it right. Those who are truly noteworthy seldom leave any traces in this world.
Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.
Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.
Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.
Come the end of September, I’m scheduled to give a talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. I’m personally very flattered by this because, as it has become clear to me, an academic without a post is mute. I’ve seen colleagues who teach at schools I’ve never heard of consulted by the media—and there is obviously more to it than this—because they have teaching positions. Those of us who used to be professors apparently forgot everything when we take jobs out of necessity. That’s why I’m so flattered. My talk will be on the larger issues behind my book, Weathering the Psalms. I never expected this book to be a bestseller. I knew that it was, in some sense, incomplete. Academic books are the kinds of things you write when you have an academic post. When your day is not programmed with “enter this data, follow up on that book, and when you have time, get other people to write books.” People, of course, with university posts. The rest of us know not whereof we speak.
It’s funny. Back when I was teaching, even if it was only at Nashotah House, I used to be asked to give little talks all the time. It was rare for a year to pass without someone asking me to lead a seminar or share what I’d learned with some august body. That tapered off once I became an adjunct, although a Presbyterian Church in Princeton once invited me to speak because I was teaching at Rutgers (the university). And as I prepare my talk in my free time, I wonder about a society so tied up with name prestige that someone who has something interesting to say is just a crackpot unless a college or university or seminary or think-tank hires them. There are many of us—hundreds, if not thousands—who know as much as our university colleagues about a topic. An individual doesn’t have a name big enough to flash around, so we don’t get asked to share. Keep your hand down and your head down on the desk, please.
In any case, it has been good for me to come back to the weather and think through some of the larger implications. I’d just had the book declined by a big name academic press when Nashotah House terminated my position. For many years I couldn’t look at the manuscript since it seemed a symbol of my failure. No, the book isn’t everything that it could be, but there is some good information there. The larger implications are actually of some importance here. The weather is studied both by science and by religion. Both understand aspects of it that the other misses. I’m looking forward to exploring this with the good folks of Rutgers Presbyterian who were kind enough to invite a guy with nothing more than a book and an obscure name to come and talk about something that most academic colleagues just don’t notice.