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British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.

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Theological Fiends

SuchADarkThingVampires are among the most theological of monsters. Not that I’m a theologian, but I sometimes read those who are. Although zombies and vampires rival one another for the ascendent monster of the moment, I’ve always had a soft spot for the vampire, conceptually. The actual idea of drinking blood has always distressed my vegetarian sensibilities, but there is a deep intrigue about the character who constantly takes and never gives. And sees in the dark. And is practically immortal, unless violently killed. All of these aspects, and more, have theological undertones. M. Jess Peacock’s Such A Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture deals with such ideas and more. A self-admitted fan of all things vampiric, Peacock finds unexpected angles to the undead metaphor that make for connections between Christianity and the cultural vampire. He explores Otto’s understanding of the holy and how vampires fit aspects of it, the importance of blood, theodicy, and sin, as well as religious iconography and why crosses work against vampires (when they do). Most fascinating, however, is how vampires effect social change.

Since I often write about monsters, and specifically vampires, on this blog, it should be no surprise that I should read such a book. The question of why vampires have such staying power in our society is one that many have pondered. Peacock, by tying the vampire into deep theological needs (and we’ve been taught for many decades that theological needs are unrealistic fantasies themselves) has perhaps found a reason why. Just because we deny a need doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Think of all those Medieval monks denying sexuality. Biology, no matter how transcendent our focus, has a way of reminding us that we have needs. Vampires are, if anything, very forthright about their requirements. You have blood, they need blood. They will take it any way they can. And this leads to its own kind of ethic where, in some movies and stories, we, the victims, end up rooting for the vampire.

The social justice aspect of Peacock’s study is the one I found most compelling. We live in an era in which financial vampires openly and selfishly drain the blood of any victims they may find. What they do is done in daylight and no crucifix is large enough, no stake is strong enough, to stop them. We sit in our theater seats and watch as the economy rises and falls with the wealthy and their willingness to invest (or not) in the very economy that made them rich. Elections are won now by money supplied by corporations. Yes, the presidency can be, and is, purchased. Most politicians don’t know the price of a loaf of bread. Christianity, in any case, understands bread and blood to be analogues. The two are complementary, and represent the totality of human need. The vampire, as Peacock notes, can symbolize the difficulties of social justice. They may have their fangs deeply embedded in our necks, but at some level we have come to love our vampires. Even when they give us nothing in return.

National Reading Month

Welcome to National Reading Month. Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss (Theordor Geisel). Since so many children begin reading with Dr. Seuss, March has been designated National Reading Month in his honor. Nothing could be more deserving of a holiday than reading. In an era when active, visual displays and lifelike animation readily draw eyes away from books, it is more important than ever to think about what reading has done for us. As a society, no significant advancements were made beyond agriculture and shepherding until writing was developed. We needed a way to convey knowledge not only over distance, but also over time. To participate in writing is to taste immortality. To read is to communicate with those long gone or far distant. How trivial we’ve made it all seem. Writing was a truly remarkable achievement. The entire purpose of schooling was originally to teach our young to read and do math. So we should all celebrate National Reading Month and put down the devices for a while and curl up with a book.

Okay, well, reading on devices does count. Still, some of us can’t help ourselves from acquiring books. I once visited a house of a friend’s relative on a trip. It turned out that we would be spending the night. As I glanced around my new surroundings I noticed something odd. There were no books in the house. None. It felt so hollowing that I knew I could not long remain there. Every room of our apartment (except the bathroom) has books. I travel with books. Even if it’s going to be a fairly brief car ride, I wonder what happens if I break down and don’t have anything to read while awaiting rescue? On the bus everyday I have at least one book with me, and sometimes two or three. I’m lost without them. Libraries and book stores are my favorite places to be. Surrounded by words, comforted by communication.

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Dr. Seuss was part of my childhood reading, but not so much as Bible stories and Easy Readers. We didn’t buy any Dr. Seuss, but I did check his books out from the library. When my daughter was born we corrected that misdemeanor. We purchased nearly every readily available book by Theodor Geisel, and this was in the days before Amazon. Some were difficult to locate, being in rural Wisconsin, but we persisted and instilled the love of reading into another generation. We have holidays to celebrate wars and victories in wars. Great deaths and momentous births. Love, fear, and the Irish. And yes, reading. The cracks in winter are beginning to show. Light is beginning, ever so slowly to increase. Why not celebrate the coming of the light with enlightenment for the mind? It’s time to read a book.

Whack-A-Prof

My Ph.D. was conferred in 1992. Not by design, I’ve held several jobs since then. One thing I’ve noticed over and over is that supervisors enjoy knocking down the egghead. If you don’t know me you’ll have to take my word for the fact that I’m quiet, not self-promoting, and actually uncertain about many things most people seem to take for granted. Even in the classroom I never used my education to appear superior to students—education is about all of us learning together. At least ideally. I do know some people flaunt their doctorates. A friend told me of customers pulling into the gas station and insisting on being addressed as doctor. (It might help to know that in New Jersey you are not allowed to pump your own gas.) My friend wryly noted, then they don’t even fill the tank. I had my own similar experience working in a camera shop in a Boston suburb. A patron had “Ph.D.” printed on her checks after her name. Company policy was that the signature had to match the printed name exactly, including title. This particular customer, proud to have Ph.D. flashed before your eyes refused to sign it after her name. When the police had to be called, as per company policy, many of us stared sheepishly at our feet as she signed the cursed three initials and declared she would from then on take her custom elsewhere.

Some of us pursue advanced degrees because we have no talent for anything else. I’m a born teacher, and I have always found the classroom the most congenial environment in which to be. I have had several bosses, however, who seem to think that knocking the Ph.D. down shows just how clever they are. I don’t claim to be smart. I never have. I am a hard worker, I read a lot, and I try to make sense of what I read. Some of the smartest people I know have the least formal education. It’s rare that I don’t assume the janitor knows more than I do about any given topic. (Well, maybe Asherah is a place where I can claim some specialist knowledge.) Otherwise, I take your word for it.

Our culture, however, enjoys putting those in higher education in their place. I hear the conversations behind closed doors. While I don’t claim to know very much—in fact, the longer I’m alive the less I claim to know—I do know that America doesn’t value its educators. It’s not just the professorate. Teachers, those to whom we entrust the very future, have been perennial scapegoats for society’s ills. We don’t pay them well, and many of them have to take second jobs in the summer to make ends meet. I guess we showed them! Who’s the smart one now? I can’t claim to know much, but it seems to me that education is one of the pure goods in society. We can’t make progress without learning. Gifted teachers should be esteemed—not pampered, but appreciated. Of course, I can feel better about myself if I show that I know more than you do. The only cure for that, I suggest, is more education.

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Live Long and Prosper

He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.

I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.

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As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.

Scientific Belief

AtlanticThe human brain is a marvelous thing. Neuroscientists find all kinds of surprises as they probe the gray matter in our heads. One of those findings is that we don’t always believe what we say we do. Some time ago I read Matthew Hutson’s Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Scientists didn’t like the book too much since it caught them with their empirical pants down. Really, there’s no shame in that. We are at the mercy of our own minds. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Hutson has a brief piece entitled “The Science of Superstition.” In the space of just over two columns he runs down the evidence that even those who claim materialism is the answer to all life’s mysteries, even those scientists can’t escape superstition. Friday the thirteenth, a couple of weeks back, I walked under a ladder on my way to work. What happened? I had to go to work. Is that bad luck? I suspect it’s a matter of opinion. I’m the first to admit, however, that I did have fleeting reservations.

Study after study, as cited by Hutson, shows that physiological measures indicate anxiety when those who don’t believe in God say bad things about him/her. We all attribute cause to natural events, even those steeped in the hard sciences. Thinking about death reveals subconscious beliefs about God. It’s the way we’re hardwired. Hutson himself, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really attribute much credence to the supernatural. This is all a matter of what our material brains believe. Interestingly, we are evolved to be open to religious ideas. Many choose to believe, despite our brains, that we are evolutionarily deceived. Screwed by natural selection, as it were.

Far more interesting, in my deluded opinion, is that we don’t really choose what to believe. At least not at first blush. Our brains tell us to believe in the invisible causation that just doesn’t fit in a material world. To get beyond that takes some effort. It does give one pause, however, to consider that blind evolution has puckishly kept all this in the mix. Does evolution have a sense of humor? Perhaps we are all taking all of this far too seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we think.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.