The Addiction

I’m an addict.  It runs in the family.  My addiction, though, is learning new things.  Research, it seems, comes naturally to some and not to others.  Like any other activity, some people love it and others, well, don’t.  I think I knew this about my young self, but I didn’t have any context in which to frame it.  Jobs were seen as a kind of necessary evil—you had to do something so someone would pay you and you could buy food and pay the rent.  Nobody in my family could say, hey, that research interest of yours could become a career.  The impetus for even going to college came from a minister who changed my life in many ways, and his encouragement was seconded by several of my teachers.  Many of those I went to school with just stayed in the area and found jobs.

So I get onto a topic and begin to research it.  You soon come to know what Lewis Carroll meant about tumbling down rabbit holes.  It leads to Wonderland.  Always I’m surprised at how little I know.  I’ve learned some new things and that which I thought I knew proves to have been so minuscule that I wonder at my boldness of even trying to write books.  I guess I believe in giving back.  The other day someone asked me to write a follow-up to Weathering the Psalms.  As I told him, that was my plan when I was employed as a researcher.  What happened to my “career” led to my renewed interest in horror.  It just made sense in the light of circumstances.  When that happens, what can you do?  Research it.

There’s a sense, I suppose, in which you end up where you’re meant to be.  If I’d stayed in higher education I’d have had precious little motivation to write about horror and religion.  I had three or four vital research agendas, depending on where I might end up.  I’d have been happy to stay with my semitic goddesses.  I had a second book on that topic well underway.  Fully employed with an optimistic future, I’d given up watching horror.  So much so that I ignored The X-Files when it was running.  So the addiction changes specifics over time, but the drive to learn more underlies it.  Even this morning I learned some mind-expanding things, for me at least.  And I know I will keep coming back although it may cause problems for my career and it gets me nowhere in the larger scheme of things.  I’m helpless when I know my fix is as close as a book.


Sabbatical Request

I don’t know when I became one of them.  It seems that I was pretty busy in my early teaching days, and starting a family.  I didn’t feel, however, that every single minute was programmed down to the second.  I had time for writing, vacation, and family, as well as work.  The other day when I was sending out those reminders to authors that their books are a bit (years) overdue, I realized just how busy they are.  Then I took a moment and considered that I’m not sure how I became one of them.  The people who are too busy.  Clearly buying a house was a big part of it.  I’d been pretty busy before, but now I need to invent time in order to get everything done.  The staycations I allow myself end up with feelings of guilt for all that’s been left undone.

Maybe it doesn’t help that I can see the neighbors out my office window.  When I see one of them weed-whacking or mowing during the day, I think I need to do the same.  But I’m also out of string for the whacker.  I really need to get to Lowes so I can stock up—last time they had only one spool left, which is probably why I ran out.  To get to Lowes I need a weekend.  Preferably not one with temperatures in the high nineties.  And without meetings cutting into weekend time.  And when it’s not raining.  Time is slippery.  Even as I work I often have other things—many other things—I have to do running through the back of my mind.  How did I become so busy?

Speaking only for myself, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than reading and writing.  I do these daily only by carving out inviolable time for them.  It is costly time, I know, but to me it’s beyond price.  Thinking of these colleagues too busy to submit their books, I think back to my own professor days.  There’s no doubt that I read and write more now than I did then.  There were times (grading, accrediting body visits, commencement, etc.) when there simply wasn’t time to do anything else.  Many colleagues mention health issues on top of all this.  Academics, as those who supply (partially, but responsible for a goodly number of) books, the number published each year truly boggles the mind.  I would try to figure all this out, but I’m afraid I simply don’t have the time.


Search and Research

Woe to those who live to research but who have no professorship!  I have been prone to research since about high school, driven by the need to know.  Almost Wesleyan in my need for certainty, I have always been inclined to check things out.  It took college and a doctorate to teach me the necessary research skills.  It took years of teaching for me to learn how to frame questions on my own.  And it took years of being shunned by the academy to realize that as I’ve been pursuing my personal research agenda that I lack the time to fulfill it.  I’m a slow learner.  Yet I can’t give it up.  The thought process that led to Holy Horror was a kind of epiphany.  I could write a book without reading every last thing about the subject.  The problem, however, would always be time.  I’ve read an awful lot about horror media and I’m only beginning to scratch the surface.

I’m not totally naive.  Okay, I’m pretty far along on that path sometimes, but I want my readers to know that I understand movies and television are made for money.  It’s a business, I know.  But I’m an artist at heart and I like to think the creators are fond of their characters.  Writers are advised to drown their darlings, to put their protagonists on a cliff and then throw rocks at them.  And I also understand that money can make you do even worse to them.  Of course, I’m still thinking about Dark Shadows.  For me it’s been a rediscovery of my childhood.  And just how much time I’d need to make sense of just one television series with a five-year run.  There’s far more information on the web on Dark Shadows than I was able to find in print on Asherah for the years of my doctorate.

And the expense involved.  Plus, it’s only early April and the lawn needs mowing!  I’m still wearing a heavy jacket some days but the grass is always greener.  Period.  What a time to fall into a research reverie!  I need a sabbatical but they don’t have those in the 925 world.  And I need a professor’s salary to be able to afford the media required.  The Dark Shadows series alone has over 1200 episodes.  House of Dark Shadows introduced the fear of the cross to my understanding of Barnabas Collins.  My world has been shaken and to settle it I need research.  What I have, however, is work starting in just a few minutes.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

The Campus Library

Perhaps it’s an odd kind of nostalgia.  Many people can’t wait to be done with school and get on with “life.” Some of us remain fixated at the learning stage and society used to shuffle us into colleges and universities where we could be safely ignored.  One of the refrains in the very long song that is this blog has been the lack of a university library.  Although I’ve tried to get to know the academics in the Lehigh Valley really only one has made an effort to befriend me and when I was asking him about library access he actually did something about it.  Such acts of kindness are rare and require a kind of thinking that takes into account the circumstances of the academically othered.  I’ll be forever grateful.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a college or university library.  Many are protective and/or restrictive, as if knowledge is only for those academically employed.  I had to look up a couple of references for an article I was writing.  My colleague checked with his institution and yes, I was welcome to come in and use their collection.  The night before going to campus I had a series of nightmares of various librarians barring my attempt to get to the books.  I’d been trying to get there (in real life) for weeks.  Between family work schedules, the occasional weekend blizzard, and the library being closed for spring break, it ended up taking about six weeks to find the time to drive there, negotiate parking, and look up the references.

Everyone has a place they belong.  Mine has unwaveringly been the college campus.  It is home to me, even if it doesn’t recognize me.  I’d almost forgotten the feeling of being let loose in the stacks.  It was a Saturday morning and there was almost nobody else there.  As early as Grove City College I cherished the feeling of spending time in the library.  Few other students were hanging out there, but those of us who belong on campuses know that being surrounded by books is the only place that will ever feel like home.  Having looked up my references I wished that I had more to do.  I’d been to both the Dewey and the Library of Congress sections and, being a weekend, I had much else to do.  Stepping back out onto campus I was filled once again with a poignant nostalgia.  Getting to where you know you belong is a lengthy journey.


The Mystique of Research

One thing that many people may not understand about research is that those trained in it are basically learning how to find stuff out.  It doesn’t matter what the subject is, research is a matter of learning what’s available to help you understand that particular subject.  Typically it involves becoming familiar with the classic “standard books” on the topic then branching out.  Even the internet, however, has its limitations when it comes to trying to find out what’s available.  My curiosity extends far beyond the religion I often blog about.  I write about religion because I’ve studied it all my adult life.  When I discover a new area of interest, or rediscover it, I often wonder how to get the salient books on the topic.

Amazon isn’t a bad place to start, but they don’t have everything.  I’ve run searches on its powerful algorithms that come up with no results.  Bookfinder.com is great for locating out of print material, but it also depends on you knowing what to search for.  WorldCat and Google Books also help.  The one thing you really need, however, is time.  Research requires a lot of time.  You find a book on the subject and read.  Then you look up the sources the author used.  Search the names of other authors to find out what they’ve written.  Watch publishers’ catalogues for the new books they’re producing.  Read journals to see who’s writing on what.  It’s like a never-ending treasure hunt.  It’s beguiling and addictive.  But it’s limited to few full-time—those who are paid to find things out.  The rest of us make what time we can.

Prior to the internet we had, it seems, a lot more certainty.  Much of that certainty was false, but it was nevertheless firmly believed.  Many people despise researchers because they challenge what we’ve always believed about the world.  As if the truth were known x number of years ago and hasn’t changed at all since then.  We want things to stay the same—we want our wallets in the same place we’ve always put them so we can find them when we need them.  Then your told there’s new, virtual currency but you have to mine it.  I know many people who don’t even own computers.  Research opens new worlds, but not all people are natural explorers.  Some prefer to stay close to home and near to the certainties they learned growing up.  Others are restless and have to learn more.  And perhaps go places where we don’t even need our wallets.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

Graphic Graphomania

You can spot them fairly easily.  Graphomaniacs.  Perhaps it’s a bit closer to the surface when you work in publishing, but the person who writes too much can run risks.  Some authors turn out a book every few months.  While this may be okay for potboilers, for academics it is seldom possible to do this well.  Research and reflection take a long time.  Those who churn out book after book sometimes wonder why their works don’t sell.  Graphomania has to be reined in.  Horses have to be held.  I’m sympathetic, actually.  If you write every single day you’ll soon end up with a surplus.  So much so that your computer will tell you to empty some stuff out or it’ll go on strike.  I had to order a new terabyte drive this week exactly for that reason.

To free up some additional space on my laptop I went through the many, many folders that have essays, book drafts (both nonfiction and novels), stories, blog posts, etc.  While I didn’t throw them away, I had to clear them off my working disc.  As I did so I realized that the great majority of these writings will never see the light of day.  There are really a lot of them.  Part of the problem is you never know what you’ll feel like writing when you get up in the morning.  Sometimes the best ideas come after a wretched night’s tossing and turning.  Well-rested you can get up to a brain so content that it doesn’t have much to say.  Or that story you started yesterday may seem dumb today.  That nonfiction book that burned with passion just last week may now seem lame.  My fear is that by moving them off my hard disc they’ll become forgotten.

The terabyte drive is a thing of wonder.  It can hold so much information.  I have to go back and hook it up to my laptop to find it, however.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I’ll move on to other things.  I honestly can’t count the number of projects I have going.  Graphomania can be a problem.  This blog is a daily outlet, and you, my faithful few readers, are saints for coming back.  In my attic, next to the brick wall of external hard drives, are folders full of handwritten material.  Many of them are stories that are complete, but that haven’t been transcribed.  Some writers suggest flooding the market with your stuff.  Others of us know that graphomaniacs are feared in some quarters, and so we keep our own counsel.

Photo credit: NASA


Pay Per View

One of the things editors can teach academics is that the latter should pay more attention.  Especially to the world of publishing.  An erstwhile academic, I learned to go about research and publication in the traditional way: come up with an idea that nobody else has noticed or thought of, and write about it.  It is “publishing for the sake of knowledge.”  (Yes, that is Gorgias Press’s slogan, and yes, it is one of my hooks—marketing, anyone?)  The idea behind this is that knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.  Researchers of all kinds notice details of immense variety and there’s always room for more books.  Or at least there used to be.  The world of publishing on which academics rely, however, is rapidly transforming.  Money changes everything.

The world has too many problems (many of them generated by our own species) to pay too much attention to academics.  Universities, now following “business models” crank out more doctorates than there are jobs for employing said wannabe profs, and those who get jobs pay scant attention to knock-on changes in the publishing world.  Just the other day I was reading about “pay per use” schemes for academic writing that, unsurprisingly, came up with the fact that most academic books and articles lose money.  If someone has to pay to read your research, will they do it?  Especially if that research is on a topic that has no obvious connection with the mess we’re busy making of this world?  Probably not.  Publishing for the sake of knowledge is fast becoming a dusty artifact in the museum of quaint ideas.

For those still in the academic sector that means that research projects now have to be selected with an economic element in mind.  “Would anyone pay for this?” has to be one of the questions asked early on.  The question has to be answered honestly, which requires getting out from beyond the blinders of being part of the privileged class of those who are paid to think original thoughts.  Academia has followed the money.  A capitalistic system makes this inevitable.  How can you do business with an institution that doesn’t play by your accounting rules?  And academic publishers, which have difficulty turning a profit due to low sales volume, are bound to play along.  This situation will change how we seek knowledge.  More’s the pity since some of the things most interesting about the world are those that nobody would think to pay to view.


Searching Again

Research can be addictive.  Those who know me are generally aware of how I can’t let ideas go.  I suppose this is necessary for those who write books—concentrating on one subject for a long time is mentally taxing and can lead to early loss of interest.  Those of us inclined to embrace this activity live for the thrill of uncovering new ideas and making connections that we’d overlooked.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is a case in point.  Before submitting this book proposal I’d done a lot of reading on the subject of demons.  This is a dark topic, but those of us who live in temperate zones spend quite a bit of time without daylight, so I might think of this as a kind of therapy.  Or an excuse to do research.

Here’s often what happens: I’ll be writing along when suddenly a new question pops into my head.  Why was this or that the case?  The internet makes amateur research quite easy, but as someone raised on solid scholarly food, I need to check my sources.  When a professor I would’ve headed to the library with interlibrary loan slips in my hand.  These days I tend to turn to my own books and lament that I don’t have just the right one (there’s a reason, you see, that there are so many tomes in this house).  I try to find workarounds and used copies.  Perhaps I’ll pick up an adjunct class or two to be given library access again.  Meanwhile, the idea, like an ear worm, is burrowing into my conscious mind.  Until it’s time to go to work.

That great eight-hour stretch of day drains my energy.  Indeed, many employers count on taking the best you have to offer and making it their own.  What you do with “the rest of your time” is up to you.  Thing is, research is a full-time job.  Fortunately some of what I learn while on the clock will help me with my own research agenda.  The overlap isn’t especially strong, but now and again something I read in a manuscript will sync with what I do in the pre-dawn hours before I commit myself to the time-clock.  It’s a strange way to do research.  Back at Nashotah House I’d use the summers to follow the clues laid before my mind and, as long as I went to chapel, it was considered part of my employment.  Now it’s considered an avocation.  I can’t help myself, though.  Personal research is not part of the job description, but I’m an addict when it comes to learning new things.


Contracting Something

Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.

The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.

Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.


Original Research

“But are you able to continue your research?” they ask. Academics can be so hopelessly naive sometimes. I recently had a notice on academia.edu that I was in the 30-day top 5 percent of page views. So I’m feeling like the Bruce Springsteen of academics for a few seconds. Meanwhile institutions who look at my record wonder why I haven’t produced anything lately. It’s really quite simple. Take a 40-hour work week (a foreign environment to most academics), add a daily commute of 3 hours, and subtract access to an academic library. As the old computers in sci-fi movies used to say, “does not compute.” My research these days is limited to material that is actually able to keep me awake on the bus (thus excluding most academic monographs) and those that I can afford to buy on an editor’s salary. My research has slowed considerably, in other words, due to circumstances beyond my control.

thumb_IMG_2163_1024That’s why I’m sitting here perplexed. Despite it all, I have had a paper accepted for presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting this year. My project is on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow (thus the recent spate of books on Washington Irving and his hometown). Still, I had to challenge the budget and purchase a couple of things. The cover of my book has me confused. Son of Man, it says. Inside, however, is the text I need—Small Screen Revelations. (If you wonder why, watch Sleepy Hollow, or, if possible, come hear my paper.) The reason for the mismatch between the cover and content of my book is the price. A tome from the appropriately named Sheffield Phoenix Press, even used the volume costs almost $100. It’s just 200 pages. I managed to find a copy misbound for the bargain price of half that. Only an academic would pay $50 for a defective book just to get at the content. Am I able to continue my research? Reach for your wallets and see.

A large part of my job is spending time on university faculty webpages. Many of those I find haven’t published nearly as much as I have, but have comfy, tenured positions. Often it is because they’re the right brand. Catholics like Catholics, Presbyterians like Presbyterians, Baptists like Baptists. State universities hate them all. And once in a while I pull my doctoral robe out of my closet, press it to my face, and weep. I don’t know what a blue collar kid might have been thinking. Earn a challenging doctorate in an obscure field overseas and hope for a modest teaching position somewhere in the land of the most abundant colleges in the world? My race and gender should’ve come to mind long before I got that far. In some ways, I too am a misbound book. Am I able to continue my research? You be the judge.