Care and Keeping of Books

I take good care of books.  It’s my personal goal that after I’ve read a book you won’t be able to tell.  I used to mark books up, but it occurred to me that I want the books to outlast me and if someone else is to get the full benefit of them I shouldn’t be doing such scribbling.  Of course, when a book has to commute with you there’s bound to be some scuffing from being put into a briefcase along with other necessities.  On the days I don’t commute, I try to replicate bus time for reading.  I curl up in a chair with my book and a cup of coffee to warm my fingers, and read.  The other day as I did this, a drop of coffee made its way from my mug onto the open page.  I was aghast.

Reading a marred book page is eternally distracting.  My eye is immediately drawn to the imperfection and I sometimes can’t even make sense of the sentence in which the blemish occurs.  Not because I can’t read it, but because I can’t get beyond the hurt.  Coffee rings are chic, I know, on the cover of a book or a notebook page.  It’s one of the truest clichés of the literary crowd.  Coffee and a good book.  Not coffee in a good book!  I tried to get back into the flow of the narrative.  My eye kept wandering back to the spot I’d unintentionally marred—I’d violated my own principles.  Unintentionally of course—this isn’t Starbucks where the heat is set at a reasonable level and you don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm.  But still.  But still.

After many minutes of feeling like I’d shot a friend, I managed to move on.  I kept turning back to my coffee page to see if the damage was as distracting as I thought it was.  After work that night when I picked my book up again—commuting is a twice a day activity—I turned back to the damaged page and frowned.  Books are, to some of us, friends.  I want to treat them right.  I line them up in order on their shelves, knowing just where to find them when I need them again.  One careless drop of coffee had taken its eternal toll on an innocent tome.  I realize this world lacks perfection; I’m not naive.  Still, this book, which wasn’t cheap, now bears a scar that I dealt it.  Will I ever comprehend what that one page says?  I hope my silent friend will forgive.

Morning Thoughts

One of the persistent dangers of being a morning person is the fact that places aren’t open early when you have to be out and about. Since my wife had to work yesterday morning, instead of spending a good part of the weekend alone, I drove her to her location. (The fact that there was a used bookstore nearby had absolutely nothing to do with it, of course.) The bookstore didn’t open until ten. My wife’s meeting started at 7:30. Much of what I have to accomplish on the weekend involves the internet and occupies me well before such late hours. Although I’m anything but trendy, Starbucks is open early and it offers wifi. And it’s ubiquitous. Kind of like churches used to be. As I pulled out of the parking lot where my wife’s meeting was being held, I found a sign saying Starbucks, this-a-way.

It was still early (for the secular) when I arrived. In fact, the banner outside read “Now Open.” This implied that previously it hadn’t been open, so this was virgin Starbucks territory. It was early enough that a table was actually available. I had a lot to get done, and by the time I was finished the place was jammed. In fact, when I first arrived, some of the other new patrons were joking that they would move in now that Starbucks had come to town. Groups sat in small knots for an hour at a time. People borrowed the extra chairs at my table. Countless more came in and walked out with paper mugs steaming in the chill air. I was here to wait opening time for a used bookstore. I was pretty sure I was the only one with that motive.

There are more of us out there, however. While looking for a birthday idea for a writer friend of mine I ran across a writing box online. There were several reviews. Many people lamenting on Amazon the loss of the culture of the bookstore and the hand-written manuscript. They’re the ones who review used bookstores and weep the closing of indies with authentic tears. We’re the displaced. Our society is extinct. I love old books. Touching them takes me into the past. Yes, their words are public domain and can be found online, for free. What’s missing is the thingness of it all. I’m not a materialist, but I’m even less of an electronist. My spellcheck won’t even let me keep that word. Say what you will about the old way of doing things, paper was never so uppity as to refuse the words I intentionally placed upon it. At any time of day or night.

Private Miracles

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church is skeptical of miracles. Quick to point out pareidolia where it occurs, looking like the Blessed Virgin in a tree stump or highway underpass, this is no credulous organization. Everyday miracles, doctrinal ones, of course are accepted. Transubstantiation is a quotidian miracle as the mass is no mere ritual. Flashier miracles—even some very impressive ones—are treated with suspicion and the rigor of Scotland Yard. When one of my regular readers pointed out the bleeding communion host in Kearns, Utah, I knew I had to check it out. As is to be expected in such cases, the Catholic Church does not disappoint. Some are calling it a miracle, but those who are do not speak for the Diocese.

Keeping in mind that my source for the story is Fox (Fox news seems more interested than most in this incident), apparently what happened is that a parishioner returned a host to the priest during communion. The priest put the host in a glass of water to dissolve it, but instead it began to “bleed.” Church officials were called in to investigate. There are several things odd here, although I’m no inquisitor, that make me wonder about the veracity of the story. First: Fox news. There are other outlets as well, so I’ll let that go at the moment. When a person was given a wafer at Nashotah House and for whatever reason turned it back in, the celebrant simply ate it. Priests, by definition believers in miracles, need not worry about germs. Protecting the host from desecration was the main thing. Putting it in a glass of water? I suppose that’s acceptable in some places, but even an Episcopalian would be shocked. And why was the host returned? Surely it wasn’t defective.

The Eucharist is the central rite of the liturgical churches, and it isn’t taken lightly. Although it is a miracle-laced event, it is expected that the transformation will follow the prescribed rite. I sometimes ponder what priests would do in the face of a genuine, unexplainable wonder. The side of the believer that yearns for validation would surely want to put it on Fox news for all the world to see. The private side would want to let it happen without any need to say anything about it. Keep it a private miracle. In a year when Starbucks red is a sign of an impending war, I wonder if a bleeding host is the most apt way to get the attention of the unfaithful when a simple cup of coffee will do.

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Rumors of Wars

Now that Black Friday and Thanksgiving are behind us, the holiday season compels us to think of what comes next. Whether it is Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanza, people are preparing to celebrate during the longest nights of the year, hoping to encourage light to return. It is a most primitive urge. Darkness is easy to come by; light takes a little more effort. In the western world the season was largely instituted by the celebration of Christmas, although this took many, many years to catch on. Now it is a begrudging nod in the direction of workers who spend more and more of their time on the job since the internet makes it difficult to claim that we are unavailable. Smart phones, smart watches, tablets, and computers are ubiquitous, so access to work email is only a click away. In any case, the holiday season invariably brings stories of offended people to the surface.

A recent piece in The Baxter Bulletin, sent to me by my wife, rehearses the story of Baxter County, Arkansas and the challenge against a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. Such stories always seem to me to be cases with no winners. A courthouse should remain neutral territory, but the nativity scene hardly seems an offensive weapon. I can’t claim to know a great deal about the history of creche scenes, but it doesn’t appear likely that they were ever covert attempts to convert. They were celebrations, and nobody has a problem with them as long as they’re kept on private property or church garths. I do wonder, however, if driving them out of public sight really has any purpose. We all know that this time of year is gearing up to holidays when the ordinary takes the back seat for a few days and we can stop the rat race and reflect on a wonderful myth of biblical proportions.

Tree, bush, or asherah?

Tree, bush, or asherah?

Similar stories are unfolding in countless venues now that December is practically here. Even stopping into Starbucks for a cup of coffee can land you in the middle of a culture war. It would seem to me that in this troubled world we might instead try to focus on peace. Whether or not the story of the manger has any historicity at all, the fact is the first century was a period of extreme unrest. This was a moment to pause and imagine what a world without war might be like. Now the holidays have become an occasion for declaring a new kind of sniping war about who has the right to make reference to a legendary event. Or where they may do so. In some cases there may be legitimate cause for concern. Most of the time, however, only those fixated on belligerence manage to draw everyone in to a fractured fairy tale of a holiday season where money is at stake.

Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.

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Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

Haunted Pilgrim

No visit to Providence is complete without a tip of the hat to H. P. Lovecraft. As someone who dabbles in the noble art of writing, I have great appreciation for those who somehow made an impact (often only after they’ve died) on the literary world. I discovered Lovecraft only after I left Nashotah House, which was probably a good thing. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate his breadth of vision, populating the earth with ancient gods who emphasize the powerful and heartless side of divinity. His vivid images of Cthulhu pervade popular culture to a level that few of the uninitiated would ever expect. And yet, deep in the depths he lurks. So when I was in Providence over the weekend for my niece’s graduation, I spent an afternoon seeking out some time with H. P.

Place inherently partakes of that we term holiness. Where something happened matters. There is no science to explain it, but it is something people know. It is for this reason that I try to visit the homes and resting places of classic writers. Over the years we’ve visited the haunts of Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edna St Vincent Millay, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and others, as well as H. P. Lovecraft. Simply standing in or near the places they once frequented provides a form of inspiration unavailable in any other way. So it was that I found myself at 598 Angell Street in Providence. It is a house still occupied, with no indication of who once called this building home. Lovecraft lived here from 1904 to 1924. If it weren’t for the Lovecraft walking tour I found on the Internet, I would have never known.

In many ways a provincial man, Lovecraft was born and also died in Providence. Apart from a stint in New York City, he spent his time in his hometown. I walked to 454 Angell Street, the address at which he was born. I knew the building had been razed in the 1960s, but I wanted to see what society deems more important than preserving those places that sequester the holy for haunted pilgrims. Although I couldn’t tell for sure, since house numbers change, I believe his birthplace is now the Starbucks that sits pleasantly in a small commercial district. I wonder how many of the thirsty realize where they’re sitting. Have they read any of Lovecraft’s stories? If so, are they uncomfortable sipping coffee in such a spot? Or perhaps it has become a kind of secular sacrament—a toast to all artists whose pasts have been obliterated.