Honey and Wine

Academic writing tends to be limiting.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy reading a well-crafted academic work, but when facing a new one I always experience that sinking feeling that this will be difficult work.  That doesn’t stop me from getting a little thrill when something academic I’ve written appears.  Pickwick, an imprint of Wipf & Stock, recently released the cover of Some Wine and Honey for Simon, the Festschrift for Simon Parker to which I’ve contributed.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an orphaned article that required some polishing up to be able to submit.  Thinking back on it, I reflect on how much has changed since then.  How I’ve left the land of Festschriften.  How my own research has changed.

Research, traditionally wrought, requires an academic library and lots of time.  You need to be able to spend your hours requesting books and articles that you can’t afford—really publishers?  $40 to purchase twenty pages that I won’t even enjoy reading?  Access to JSTOR will cost you if you don’t have a university post.  Now I trawl Academia.edu hoping to catch what I need in my net.  Sometimes it works.  Other times you bring up a coelacanth.  That’s the way of research outside the academy.  Also, I find myself reading books that appeal to me rather than strictly books on topic.  Many of them aren’t academic, but they are informative.  Part of research, it seems to me, is learning to access sources you wouldn’t normally find.  There’s the element of discovery.

Monsters appealed to me as a research area since there hadn’t been much written on them academically and I’d read most of what had.  The field is starting to take off now, which means  high-priced monographs and inaccessible research.  Working in publishing I think I understand the mindset—employees are expensive, especially in the United States.  They require salaries so they can live, and medical coverage so they can continue to live.  And most books sell so few copies that they really aren’t profitable.  But I like to think people would read about monsters, if they were priced down around the level of the demographic that appreciates them.  So one of my academic articles is about to be released to the world along with some wine and honey.  I’m still trying to sort out how to contribute from the margins.  And I hope Simon, who was always kind to me, appreciates the effort to honor a scholar and a gentleman.

Good Company

It’s a matter of scale. If you read this blog chances are you like books. If you like books you probably know about remainders. When you walk into a bookstore and see a shelf or section of really cheap new books, you’ve found the remainders. This happens when a publisher overprints and, instead of pulping books (that hurts even to type!) the remaining stock is sold at just above cost so that retailers can add a small markup and make a marginal profit. Most authors don’t like to see their books remaindered, since it means demand wasn’t as high as the publisher anticipated. Expectation was that the book would do better than it did, now the publisher and bookseller just want to recoup some of their losses. Often there’s a marker stroke across the bottom pages of the book so you can’t return it for the retail price.

For those of us whose books sell in the double digits, seeing yourself on a remainder list would be kind of a thrill. The other day I looked at Wipf & Stock’s 50 percent off sale to find a copy of Weathering the Psalms listed. Probably it was overprinted for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, since I saw that they did have copies there again last November. If they hadn’t bothered to print out a bunch, I would never be on the remainder shelf in Eugene. I don’t mind because I’m in good company. Looking at the list I feel like I belong in some kind of academic crowd in the reduced bin. There’s a sense of community among the overprinted.

Turnabout, they say, is fair play. I’ve bought plenty of remaindered books in my life. Lately I buy used academic books because the new editions are out of the reach of an independent scholar who isn’t independently wealthy and who doesn’t have access to a university library. If I buy others cheaply, I turn the other page and expect the same back. Most of us who write academic books aren’t in it for the money. We want to be remembered for our contributions to the discussion. We took the many months and years it takes to research, write, and polish a book, and we want others to take an interest in what we have to say. It’s all about the dialogue. It’s all about the community. For those of us who never really found a home among the established academy, publication can mean a lot. It doesn’t matter that the books are sold cheaply—in fact, that’s good, because it means somebody might just read what you wrote. It’s all a matter of scale.

Weathering Qohelet

Over the weekend I finished the initial formatting of Weathering the Psalms, my long-suffering book on the weather terminology in the Psalter. While I’ll have to give it another going over, a strange cocktail of feelings has come over me in the process. Scholars age quickly. The time between putting that last period on that last sentence and the book showing up in a few dozen hands is generally over a year. You feel outdated. Not only that, but this book was finished, for all practical purposes, a dozen years ago. In this world of endless, indeed, almost insane academic publishing, many books and even more articles have appeared that I should have read, pondered deeply, and incorporated into my work. That, however, is a luxury reserved for those society deems fit to place in colleges, universities, and seminaries. The predominant feeling, apart from relief, was a kind of melancholy, however. The book represents a world that no longer exists. Indeed, a young scholar who no longer exists.

From the day I started teaching at Nashotah House in 1992 (or even before), I knew it would be a limited-time engagement. The then dean, interviewing me, knew that I was too liberal to fit the medieval theology then current (and still current) at the school. As a teacher of the “Old Testament,” however, the damage I might do was deemed minimal. I wrote several articles on my beloved Ugaritic, but no job interviews came. Those who’d sussed the system suggested I try publishing biblical material—after all, that’s where the jobs are. (Ha!) So I began. Weathering the Psalms took several years to research and write in scholarly isolation. I began rising at 4 a.m. to find the time to do the writing. Most of the book was written between four and six in the morning. Yes, it’s rough. And tentative. A young scholar unsure of himself. Now I’m an old man even more unsure of himself. Still, there are insights in that outdated tome that I hope some will find worth their time.

I have a photograph of myself that my daughter took at the time. I was putting on my boots to go shovel some snow. The face in the photograph is young. Optimistic, even. I was facing the weather. I’ve come to realize that all photographs are lies. They capture an instant of time that has already vanished. In my case, a livelihood. A dream that was shredded on the plains of some theologian’s ideological Somme. Winters seem to have become much harsher since then. Colleagues who’ve found jobs prosper while the rest of us fight against nightmares and that sense that all we ever tried to do was, in the end, vanity. One of the questions in the study, The Bible in American Life is, which is your favorite book of the Bible? Mine has always been Ecclesiastes. And even as I make final preparations to ship my manuscript to Wipf and Stock, I know that the preacher is right: there is nothing new under the sun.


Weathering the Psalms

Book contracts make me happy. In the case of an academic out of water, they are rare. Few people care what a PhD has to say unless s/he has a university appointment to back him or her up. Still, I wrote Weathering the Psalms while I was fully employed at Nashotah House. I carved the time out by waking at 4 a.m. to do my writing (a practice that has stayed with me ever since), and from 1995 to 2000, the bulk of the book slowly emerged. The day I was terminated at Nashotah I was working on a revision of the manuscript, a bit uncertain of what direction to go. After the trauma of that day, I couldn’t face my little project without the anxiety of association tainting the effort. It seemed to represent my failures in finding the job I knew I was meant to do. Such potent reminders soon weary even those of us who awake well before the sun.

Working in isolation, I had noticed that the weather is a very common motif in the Psalms. The problem is, any attempt to fit the evidence into an overarching scheme is artificial. I undertook a survey of all the weather references in the Psalms, and explained them as scientifically as a layman could. The result was not the smoothest reading, nor was it tied together with a strong thesis, but it was important. Although I have not been in a position to keep up with the research such a project requires, I’ve not seen anything similar emerge. The weather, however, still happens. And people still blame it on the divine. In ancient times there was no natural world. What we call nature was actively directed by the divine. The weather is probably only the most obvious example. We all know the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” This encapsulates the biblical view of the weather. This winter with its series of storms has reminded me of this, forcefully.

Photo credit: Don Amaro, wiki commons

Photo credit: Don Amaro, wiki commons

Ironically, editors started to show interest in the project only after I’d abandoned hope of ever getting it published. It was the fruit of my despair. It represented several years of my academic life, but, like its creator, it was growing older. So last week when a contract landed on my desk from Wipf and Stock, a profound happiness settled in. A sense of completion. I am not in a position to update the contents, but at least one academic publishing house sees the worth in the manuscript that came from so much personal experience. A decade is a long gestation period. I suppose if I had to write the book today it would reflect much more the experience of world-weariness that comes from not ever finding the job you know you were meant to do. Nevertheless, it is a small offering to the deity of the weather, and I am glad that, come next year, others will be able to share in my struggles to make sense of that world.