Sky Mercies

While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.

The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.

Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.


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.


Used Knowledge

One of the unadulterated pleasures of life—or maybe adulterated is the better adjective—is the used book sale. The year I missed the Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale felt like a year without a summer. There are other book sales around, but this one’s my favorite. Books are my heroin. You see, I became an academic because it was too difficult to make a living as a writer. Besides, I never formally studied writing and what are you without credentials? Just a poser making some claim of talent. Like most academics I learned to write in staid, measured prose, never exaggerating or showing any emotion. Research for that kind of writing requires a university library since who can afford those kinds of books and you need a JSTOR account to keep on top of all the journals. You read and read on the same topic for months at a time until you have something new to say. Thus knowledge, they tell us, progresses by baby-steps, into a safe and conservative future.

Nietzsche, meet Evangelicals

Nietzsche, meet Evangelicals

The reading that I do is of a different species. I’ve had academics ask me “why don’t you do research on the bus?” Have you ever tried to do research on a bus? Some stranger sleeping next to you with his/her body relaxing and melting into your side of the seat, their arm falling off their rotund belly onto you before being retracted to start the cycle all over again? And staid, measured prose before the sun comes up hardly makes the trip any faster. Of course editing pays much, much less than the professorate. So I buy cheap books. Nothing like a buck a book to bring out the reasonable side of any economically minded obscure private intellectual. You never know what you’ll find at a book sale. Some of my best reading experiences on public transit have been at the behest of orphaned books others turned out into the streets. Books I would never have read otherwise. Books that I feel would understand me.

The once and future academic in my brain tries to reconcile this with what I paid thousands and thousands of dollars to learn how to do (research). Isn’t this in some way pushing knowledge forward? After all, maybe a dozen people will read this post and that’s kind of like publishing, isn’t it? Don’t mind me, I’m just book drunk. It’s the used books talking. While my academic friends prepare themselves for a summer off, some going to vacation houses they justly deserve, I’ll be filling my commute with adulterated books. And hopefully by the time I reach the bottom of this stack another sale will come along so that I don’t have to go through withdrawal. Methadone for books hasn’t been invented yet, and besides, I take no substitutes.


Foundational Books

Over the weekend I visited one of my favorite used book stores, The Old Book Shop in Morristown. It’s neither huge nor fancy, but it has the feel that is so important to the restless mind. The feel of not knowing what you may find. The mystery of discovery. As I browsed, it occurred to me that although books of all varieties lodge here, the predominance of the old books tends toward the religious. The books associated with the church have survived for their centuries, closely followed by the classics—what was once considered the purview of the educated. I suppose one might argue that the breviaries, hymnals, and Bibles indicate overprinting on the part of overzealous presses, but I know that’s not the whole story. In fact, until quite recently the educated were expected to be religious as well. There was a kind of humility at work here. Even scientists respected the God who’d put all of this into place. This was not so much overprinting as it was meeting a prevalent need.

In early America, for example, if a household owned a book, it was more than likely a Bible. Bibles existed in profusion due to—putting it most crassly—demand and supply. People wanted to have a Bible. Particularly Protestants who’d been taught that it alone held the key to their salvation. There are some things you just don’t leave to chance. As that era continues to fade and people unload the books they no longer need or want, the Bibles and hymnals and prayer books make their way to antiquaries and I spend my weekends browsing among them and pondering how we came to be in this place.

Education—books—is/are foundational to our society. Books may be messy and lend to clutter, I’m told. In our apartment they climb in stacks alongside overfull bookshelves like ivy up the side of a tower, and yet I find them difficult to release. There’s knowledge here for the taking. The visit to the used bookstore inevitably leads to finds I hadn’t expected. There were no Bibles in my hand as I checked out, but no matter. I’ve got many Bibles at home. I’m aware that building requires foundations. Architecture may change over the centuries, but old foundations remain for millennia. To be educated is to be aware of them and appreciate them for what they are.

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Durable Goods

CharingCrossThose who love books share a soul. A weekend never feels complete to me without at least an hour spent in a bookstore. On one such weekend a clerk in our local indie recommended Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. The recommendation was actually for my wife, but knowing me, she said I’d like it. What’s not to like about a set of revealing letters between a struggling, New York-based writer and a London used bookstore clerk? Books tell the story of a person’s life. If I’m invited to someone’s house, I look at their books. I would expect the same if they ever came to see me. Kind of like dogs sniffing each other out. Books reveal the inner person. They also give me ideas of more things to read.

I can’t help but think we’ve lost something intangible in the world of ordering books online. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Amazon maybe more than is proper, but how many treasures have I found simply by browsing? The days are well past when a single person could claim to have read every book (and really, who would want to?) so there’s always something undiscovered lurking at the bookstore. And these days used bookstores have the most character. In Milwaukee I used to frequent a used bookstore that could have passed the building inspectors’ visit only by bribery. I spent happy hours there. You see, books are durable goods that can outlast their owners. Can anyone really ever own a book?

84, Charing Cross Road was an unexpected delight. A quick web search reveals that Marks & Co. Is no longer with us. It is now a McDonald’s. Helene Hanff is gone too. And she thought she was born a century too late! Yet here we are in the twenty-first century and books are still with us, despite our losses. They have something of eternity to teach us. The ebook has not yet managed to kill off print. Our local used bookstore closed some years back. I confess to visiting a Barnes and Noble in a state of desperation. There a guy, older than me, was talking to a clerk. I couldn’t help but overhear when they mentioned the used bookstore, now long gone. Even the clerk sighed that they were the only show left in town. Although they were strangers I knew that we somehow share a soul. So it is with those who love books.


Holy Haunted Book

Religion is one of those words that defies easy definition. As I’ve suggested before, you know it when you see it, but trying to pin the idea down is a different matter. Consequently, religion is closely related to a number of other areas of interest: philosophy, ethics, monsters, and the paranormal, to name a few. I was interested, therefore to see a blog post recently concerning a “haunted Bible.” Call me naive, but the thought had never occurred to me before: could a holy book be haunted? Churches are notorious for housing ghosts, of course. As someone who’s spent overnight retreats in churches I can vouch for the fact that a sanctuary after dark is a naturally eerie place. I’ve never seen a ghost in a church, however, and I’m not entirely convinced they exist, and if they do, what they might be. In any case, a haunted Bible is a different story.

David Weatherly is a fairly well-known paranormal writer. My web search brought up his blog where he explains that the haunted Bible was for sale on eBay with an asking price of $180,000. The owner, who remains anonymous, claimed to take no responsibility for any damage the supernatural scripture might cause. Instead of thinking that we have here a genuine haunted leather scripture, I know it can be nothing other than a genuine hoax (not on Weatherly’s part). Realtors know well that a haunting can, in today’s climate, counterintuitively drive the price of a house up. With people hungry for some element of the supernatural in their lives, and ghost hunters of all sorts on their televisions, they are willing to shell out a few more dollars to have a spirit around. And since ghosts can’t sign contracts, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there once you move in. The supernatural can, it turns out, be the perfect scam.

If items can be haunted, I suppose a Bible might as well. When an owner, however, turns down an offer of 50,000 pounds that odor you’re smelling is that of a rat. I love old books. I have a few around that have more than a century’s weight on them. Looking at used bookstores longingly, I see first editions of Poe or Shakespeare that sell for far less than the asking price of the most printed book in the western world. Bibles, if you know where to look, can be had for free. I’ve got at least a dozen of them myself. Nothing makes fakery quite so clear as greed. No wonder the haunted Bible was such a disconnect. There’s nothing paranormal about love of money. That’s all too normal for anyone who tries to sell a Bible for implied spirituality.

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Used Bookends

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday in a bookstore. It is actually a rare treat these days with Borders gone and some of the smaller indies having trouble keeping up. I particularly like used bookstores. Unlike most durable goods, books—at least some of them—grow in character with renewed ownership. Like most academics, I have books that had previously been owned by big names in the field. Sometimes because I was a student of one of their students, at other times because their library went for sale and I found the tome in a second-hand shop. A few years back I had to go to Boston for work, and I stopped at the Boston Book Annex only to find it closed. It’s sad when even a used bookstore can’t keep up.

So when my wife told me she had to work on Saturday, and it was in Montclair, my thoughts turned to the Montclair Book Center. It isn’t the largest bookstore around, but it does have used books and it is a healthy walk from my wife’s office. I never go planning to spend much, but being in a bookstore, you see things you didn’t know existed. When the staff comes up to ask if they can help me find anything I just smile and say, “No thanks, I just want to browse.” Maybe it’s because I have no idea what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it.

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I used to visit the Cranbury Bookworm. In a sprawling old house outside Princeton, I often found pleasant, used surprises there. Then the landlord evicted them. They sold off most of their stock and moved to a closet down the street. Even though it’s tiny, there are always others there. I’m never alone in a bookstore. Other patrons feel the draw. I wonder if everyone who reads doesn’t owe a debt of obligation to stop into their local bookstore and pitch in. I grew up in a town without any bookstores at all. The nearest one I knew of was thirty miles away. I know what it is to be book-deprived. It’s Saturday, and a little too cold to spend much time outdoors. It’s probably just an excuse, but you’ll find me in the bookstore nevertheless.


Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.