2020 in Books

As has become traditional on this blog, I like to revisit my reading for the year before the next one begins.  No matter what else goes wrong, we have books.  As I noted yesterday, I’ll be devising my own reading challenge for the coming year and if nothing else, it’ll be diverse.  For 2020, according to Goodreads, I finished 78 books.  Since I was in the final stages of getting Nightmares with the Bible to the publisher, several books early on were about demons, and many of them were quite good.  The nonfiction that really stick out in my mind, however, includes D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic, Richard King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea, Gary D. Rhodes’ The Birth of the American Horror Film, Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Secret Body, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, and Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  If anything ties these books together it is likely their honesty when it comes to the spiritual quest.  It can legitimately take many directions.

Fiction has, at least for much of the year, been driven by a few factors: books I have on hand during a pandemic, The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge, and books on my reading wishlist.  That list is constantly growing and the books that stand out particularly are again diverse.  Especially memorable were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.  Apart from their diversity these books have little in common.  I suppose that’s a testament to the importance of reading widely.  On that list there are only two “white” men but a lot of great books.

Another couple of categories might apply: big books and short story collections.  Big books intimidate me, but I read five of over 500 pages: Ellison’s Invisible Man again, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (my longest book for the year), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  These books are all in the “classics” category, I see.  Short story collections are more edible, and I read nine of them, including four “by” Rod Serling.  The first was an edited collection of his works, and the other three were his own Twilight Zone adaptations.  I read a few plague books because of the pandemic, but they weren’t really among my favorites.  Perhaps they were a little too close to reality.  Nevertheless 2020 was a good year of reading, overall.  I’m looking ahead to what gems 2021 might hold.

For the Love of Gold

Do you ever get that feeling that you’ve been led along by a false premise that has gotten out of hand, like a practical joke that has gone too far? If I had to rate the books discussed on this blog in terms of urgency, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion would top that list. I’ve felt for a long time that something’s been wrong, but I didn’t possess the training or resources to discern what it might be. I think Carrette and King may have named it. Just a few pages in and I knew there was profound insight here. Religion has been taken over by capitalism and the result is that alternatives to the godless, sanctified free market are rapidly disappearing. In a truly Orwellian sense, we have been taught the language of capitalism and have lost the ability to frame our ideas in any other way. Free markets take no prisoners—one must assimilate or die. Religions, which had traditionally served as correctives to selfishness and greed, have been co-opted into the forces of unbridled gain for the few. Amorphously marketed as “spirituality,” what sounds like religious conviction now lives in the service of consumerism.

By slowly shifting all our language and metaphors into those of Reaganomics (the very fact that you know what that means shows how far gone we already are) the capitalist machine, supported by the flaccid terms of spirituality, has established a new god—capital—and has pilloried any who dare question it. Think of the trashy phrase “prosperity gospel” for just one minute and you’ll see what I mean. Those of us who disagree with the orthodoxy that meaning can be found in money have become the resistance in a war we did not start. The twin hellions of privatization and corporatization have sunk their fangs deeply into the jugular of society and its old-fashioned value of caring for others. People are, like strangers in a strange land, just marks for the powerful. We’ll buy anything if it looks attractive enough.

The problem with consumerism is that it is easy. We all love to play along because—who knows?—we might end up getting rich in the process. We have gained the world and lost our souls. Carrette and King show clearly how entrepreneurs have learned to market the language of religion while divesting it of its venom. Go along, it urges, everything is fine. Even the economic collapse brought on scarcely two decades after Reaganomics has failed to convince the average citizen that they are but a petroleum bi-product to grease the unrelenting gears of commerce. Anything, even salvation, can be sold. Back in April I stood beside the graves of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) and Karl Marx. And maybe in an unguarded moment I shed a tear or two that critical thinking seems to have been buried along with those who were brave enough to state the obvious.