My Reading Addiction

A few days ago, I recommended reading as good therapy for a troubled time, in which many of us are out of work and stuck at home. I also offered this caution:

I have to be careful of this one, because I am a real book nerd, and I can easily find myself reading to the exclusion of all else.

This is absolutely true. Growing up, the family joke was that the house could be burning down and I would refuse to leave until I came to the end of the chapter I was reading. If there is any exaggeration at all in this joke, it is slight. I love reading. If I am ever given 24 hours to live, I will probably spend most of them reading. In that situation, I would buy a good bottle of Cognac and some chocolates, cheese, and olives, and I would sip and snack my way into the next world with a volume of Dickens or some such on my lap.

I always buy more books than I read, and frequently patronize libraries as well (or at least I did before COVID-19 struck). Every time I’ve moved to a new city (and I’ve done this more than I care to admit), one of my very first steps is to secure a local library card. I still have most of them, although many are, I’m sure, long-expired. My point is that I am surrounded by books. Our small apartment is fairly bursting at the seams with them. That’s okay. There are certainly worse addictions in the world.

This will show you how I operate:
I recently started reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which according to Amazon is 4,720 pages on its own. Those last three words are important; I will not be reading The Dark Tower on its own. Being a nerd, I poked around online and found some suggestions from other nerds on the best way to read the series. Turns out good ol’ Stephen King has worked aspects of some of his other books into The Dark Tower, and I found a site which shows me the best reading order for everything. To be thorough, I will need an additional eight books for the full Dark Tower experience. Heaven forbid I should settle for anything less than the full experience. I already have those other eight books (a few thousand more pages) on order!

The Last Man

Last Man

In 1818, Mary Shelly simultaneously set the stage for both horror and science fiction with her debut novel, Frankenstein. Then, not content to kill off a mere handful of people with a monster, in 1826 Shelley killed of EVERYBODY in The Last Man, the grim story of a global pandemic. I didn’t deliberately read it with COVID-19 in mind—Shelley’s book has been on my “to read” list for a while—but reading it now certainly makes the experience a bit creepier.

To set the stage:

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president. Founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died that year. Charles X was King of France. Beethoven was still composing. And according to Wikipedia, “Cayetano Ripoll became the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition at its last auto-da-fé, held in Valencia.” The Spanish Inquisition! Sounds like ancient history. The action of The Last Man takes place near the end of the 21st Century. In other words, not long from now.

Mary Shelly’s mother was philosopher/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband was poet Percy Shelley, and their companion was Lord Byron. To read her is to plunge yourself into a Romantic world of overwrought passions, where no one speaks—not even in the throes of death—without delivering a flowery oration. And why write “The sky cleared,” when instead you could write, “As Sampson with tug and strain stirred from their bases the columns that supported the Philistine temple, so did the gale shake the dense vapours propped on the horizon while the massy dome of clouds fell to the south, disclosing though the scattered web the clear empyrean, and the little stars, which were set at an immeasurable distance in the crystalline fields, showered their small rays on the glittering snow.”

If I had read this book even just a year ago, I probably would have viewed it as a quaint oddity. After all, the world Shelly paints, even though it is set more or less in our own time, is very much the world of the early 19th Century. The result is a weird sense of past, present, and future all coming together to witness the end of humankind. Here in 2020, that sounds less far-fetched than it would have in 1920 or even 2019.

Yet someone reading a newspaper today could be forgiven for not knowing that we too, like Shelley’s doomed characters, are in the midst of a global pandemic. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coming on the heels of two already tense months of economic shutdown and ongoing leadership problems in DC, has touched off a firestorm big enough to sweep COVID-19 from the front pages. The incident brought decades of police brutality and centuries of racism to a head, and set off a powder keg of protests, some of them violent, across the country.

But the pandemic has not gone away. Many fear that the wave of large-scale protests may in fact be providing fertile ground for spreading the virus even faster and further.

Oh yeah, and there’s still the problem of climate change.

Strange days, indeed.

 

 

Everything Old Is New Again

I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you.

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling” from the album Big Science (1982)

I first heard Laurie Anderson during my freshman year of college. I was at Northwestern University, suddenly out of Iowa and into the Big School in the Big City. I grew up in Des Moines, and compared to the rest of Iowa, we were the big city. I never thought my myself as a small-towner. Quite the contrary! I found Iowa outside of Des Moines to be painfully hick. Those farmers talked and looked hick. I was not like them; I was from the big capitol city of Des Moines!

Then I got to college. Northwestern is in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Suddenly I was competing with folks from Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I was now officially the hick. And I had never heard of Laurie Anderson.

I fell in love with her on first hearing. Her Big Science album was artsy and weird and quirky, and even though I thought I had fairly wide-ranging tastes, I had never heard anything quite like it. Since then, I have seen her on film, in concert, and hosting art shows. I’ve bought her books and her albums, then her cassettes, then her CDs.

But it was only a few days ago that I made a connection: Her lyrics remind me of Biblical poetry with its stairstepping lines and repetition.

Compare the above lyric to this, from the Old Testament:

Upon my bed, night after night,
I looked for the one whom I love with all y heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I will rise now and go all around the city,
Through the streets and the squares.
I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.

– Song of Songs 3:1-2

It was while reading this latter passage that the theme of looking and not finding jumped out at me, and only because I had just recorded a video in which I quoted the Laurie Anderson lines at the top of this post. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the theme that was similar; it was the writing style. Anderson uses this sort of building repetition frequently, as does the Bible. Consider these rather graphic verses:

She struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his skull.
At her feet he sank, he fell, and lay flat;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

– Judges 5:26-27

I love making connections between two things that you wouldn’t think shared something in common. The passage from Judges is part of “Deborah’s Song,” and is one of the very oldest pieces of writing in the Bible. I don’t know if Laurie Anderson deliberately borrowed her lyric style from ancient Hebrew poetry, but I’m happy to have spotted a similarity. Everything old is new again.
Continue reading Everything Old Is New Again

The Annals of America

annals of america

In this era of Wikipedia, it’s hard to imagine a time when we relied on bulky multi-volume printed encyclopedias to get our information. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a set of World Book encyclopedias, and that set got me all the way through high school. Then when I was out of school, I fell prey to a shifty hardselling salesman who conned me into buying an overpriced set of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Except it didn’t happen that way at all. There simply came a time when I missed my World Book, and wanted to update my library, so I called the salesman, not the other way around. He came to my apartment and sold me a handsome set of the 1985 15th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. The covers were padded and beautiful. It felt nice just to hold them, and reading them was even better. Yes, they were expensive, but I didn’t consider them overpriced. Over the years, I more than got my money’s worth out of those books.

Additionally, the encyclopedias came with a perk: a 20-volume set of collected period documents called The Annals of America. This awesome set of hardcover history books covered American history from Christopher Columbus through Gerald Ford. It was prepared in time for the 1976 American Bicentennial. I never made it through the entire set, but I read several of the volumes cover to cover, and bounced around plenty in the remainder. It was a valuable resource and again I more than got my money’s worth.

My last attempt to get through all 20 volumes in chronological order (I’m anal that way) came just after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was feeling patriotic, and thought there was never a better time to read about American history in depth. I started over at the very beginning. I wasn’t working at the time except for a part-time position, so I had lots of time to read, doing much of it while laying out by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The historic location only added to my feeling of intense patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a halt to all air travel. There were armed guards at government buildings. There was an odd feeling in the air. And there I was, getting my suntan and reading these hefty books.

Sadly and stupidly, I somehow got sidetracked and abandoned my project of reading The Annals of America straight through. Even more stupidly, my wife and I moved away from Cambridge, a town we loved, a couple years later. Then money grew tight and I had to sell several possessions which I now wish I had back. Included in that number was my beloved set of Encyclopædia Britannica and also The Annals of America. I hope whoever has them now is getting a lot out of them. I hope they are being read and loved, not gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.

 

The Persistence of Peanuts

I am a big fan of the comic strip Peanuts. I had dozens of the little paperback collections when I was a kid. There was a rather dense book of theology that I found in my grandpa’s store called The Parables of Peanuts (by Robert L. Short), and it featured many reprints of the cartoons. I could have just looked at the cartoons and skipped the text, but I have never been able to cheat my way through a book. I am a cover-to-cover reader, including the acknowledgements and all the other dull beginning and end bits. (Okay, I do sometimes make exceptions when it comes to academic works with massive numbers of citations.) When my grandparents gifted me a copy of The Parables of Peanuts, I insisted on reading the text that went along with the cartoons, even though I was far too young to understand it. There I was in grade school, reading about Kierkegaard, Barth, and others, not really absorbing what I was reading, but enjoying it nevertheless.

Maybe that was the start of my love of theology. Linus was my favorite Peanuts character by a wide margin, and he was unquestionably the theologian of the gang. Who can forget Linus reciting the Christmas story from Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas? I always thought of myself as a bit of a Linus. The philosopher. The good student. The nerd. The eccentric who carried a security blanket and believed in the Great Pumpkin.

In recent years, I checked out and read every volume of The Complete Peanuts (by Fantagraphics Books) from the library. (I’d love to own the whole set except [a] It would cost a lot of money and [b] I have no place to put all 26 volumes.) From Snoopy I learned about the Red Baron. From Linus I first heard the words “sincere” and “hypocritical.” Because of Schroeder I know December 16th is Beethoven’s birthday. I know the meaning of “pantophobia” and what a “fussbudget” is because of Lucy. I feel Charlie Brown’s pain, and agree with him that the laughter of children can be the cruelest sound on earth.

A year or two ago, I reread my old copy of The Parables of Peanuts. Kierkegaard still confuses me. Maybe I’ll never know as much about theology or philosophy as Linus.  But Linus, like all the Peanuts characters, had his own problems. He never saw the Great Pumpkin, and could never give up his security blanket. Miss Othmar was always beyond his reach. Lucy never won Schroeder’s love.  Snoopy never caught the Red Baron. And Charlie brown never kicked the football before Lucy yanked it away from him. But they all kept trying. I like to think they are still trying.

Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

Science and Theology

bible and sci-fi

Here are two books I’m currently reading: The Common English Bible Study Bible (With Apocrypha) and The Big Book of Science Fiction. I realize this pairing of books lends itself to jokes, and I didn’t put them together this morning by accident. They highlight a problem that has baffled humankind for centuries, if not millennia. What we are taught to believe does not always mesh with what our minds tell us.

I was raised in a Christian environment, and like many other people, there came a point in my childhood when I noticed a divergence between what I heard in church and what I heard at school. I remember feeling a great sense of relief when our church pastor’s sermon one Sunday promised to resolve the disparity. He told a story about a student not unlike myself who had approached his own pastor with a science textbook and a Bible, demanding to know how to resolve the two. The pastor in the story said, “The Bible is God’s word; the textbook is man’s word. We use the Bible in church to learn about God’s world, and we use the textbook in school to learn about man’s world.”

I was not happy with this answer. It was cleverly said, but resolved nothing. The pastor’s response skirted around the question in an effort to please both sides, but did not do justice to either. I have no satisfactory solution, but I know that asking the questions and searching diligently with open minds for the answers is a worthwhile pursuit. So I will continue to study theology AND science.

Here are two websites that are good places to start:

 

Easter 2020

Revelations of Divine Love - cover

Today is Easter. When I was a kid, Easter meant a fun search for candy eggs to start the day, extra special music at church, and usually a big lunch with extended family. Even if I didn’t get much out of the theology of the resurrection as a youngster, it was still a day of celebration.

But Easter 2020 finds the world in rough shape. There are no church services on account of coronavirus, except for some irresponsible and foolish congregations that think they are somehow immune to the disease. Family gatherings must be kept to a minimum. Restaurants are closed. Not to mention the many other crises currently affecting the planet. And to boot, it’s a dark, cold, rainy, ugly day weather-wise.

Oddly enough, I’ve been taking comfort in an unusual book: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. It’s an account of the visions that came to a Middle Age anchoress in 1373. When she wrote about her experiences, she wrote in Middle English, but I’m reading in a Modern English translation (Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-964118-5). I’ve never wholly bought into the phenomenon of holy visions, and I can’t say whether the things Julian saw were the product of a fever, an overactive imagination, or actual visits from a holy being. But her writing is lovely and affecting. Maybe reading her words is the best way I can celebrate Easter this year.

Holocaust

I have plugged John and Hank Green’s excellent online education series of videos, Crash Course, previously. Most recently, I suggested it as one of several options for how to spend time productively during the current COVID-19 crisis. (https://barefootvoosk.com/2020/03/19/10/)

The newest Crash Course video was just released this morning, and it is an especially poignant and disturbing one: The Holocaust,Genocides, and Mass Murder of WWII: Crash Course European History #40

 

This might not seem like the best viewing material for a world in the midst of a global pandemic, but let’s not forget that the problems that existed just before we all went into quarantine still exist. Climate change still exists. The United States still faces challenges to democracy under the current administration. And hatred still exists in all its many forms: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry, etc.

The Holocaust happened, and not all that long ago. There are still many people alive today who remember it. George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm, which I also mentioned recently, shows just how quickly authoritarianism can take root, and just how easily hatred can erase equality. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It’s happened before. If we’re not careful, it can happen again.

 

 

Science Fiction

Yesterday I mentioned Library of America. I recently bought two boxed sets of science fiction from them, American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1950s and American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s. When a schoolmate turned me on to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in junior high, it was love at first sight. I devoured every science fiction book I could lay my hands on. Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison (don’t tell him I put him in the sci-fi category!), and many others. This lasted most of the way through high school.

But tastes change, with books and in other things. I drifted away from science fiction, and mostly ignored it except for an occasional dose. But lately I’ve picked it up again in a big way. I’m especially drawn to the classic sci-fi of the 1970s and earlier, so the two LOA collections mentioned above are perfect, promising 3100+ pages of entertaining reading.

Here are a couple of lists I’ve found with some good book recommendation:

And if your science itch needs more scratching, check out a couiple of fun YouTube channels from VlogBrother Hank Green: