an eddy in the bitstream

Month: December 2004

books books books

I’m a reader: magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes, flyers. But I love books. Love the heft of them, the smell of them. Old hardcovers with the ragged paper edges; silky trade paperbacks, where the silkiness seems to rub off on my fingers; cheap mass markets I buy at the airport to divert me from the un-reality of jetting across the globe.

Love those books. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.


I know it’s not a new idea, but a MPR talk show the other morning got me thinking again about the contradictory feelings Americans have about ingesting foreign substances. Religion, television, caffiene, alcohol, pot, crack, meth — there’s this kind of continuum (a historically shifting continuum — see the 18th Amendment) as to what’s considered an acceptable drug and what isn’t. We’ve spent billions in the ‘war on drugs’ — and I think the war on drugs is a drug itself. One more distraction from real, intractable issues that our politicians prefer to ignore. Can’t deal with national health care? Start a foriegn war. Can’t deal with corporate feudalism and the growing class gap? Privatize social security.

Drugs are about distraction: avoiding your life by altering your consciousness. It’s not a problem because I don’t feel like it’s a problem anymore — or at least until this show is over, and then there’ll be another one. Or another beer. Or another hit. Or another cup of coffee.

We all do it (I’m all about distraction). What bothers me is that the people who complain most loudly about how bad street drugs are and fight against legalizing pot (as on the MPR show I referenced above) are next in line at Starbucks, or tuned into TV for a few hours the same night. It’s all about altering your state of mind.

What we don’t talk about is what we’re avoiding when we alter our minds. Would meth be at epidemic levels if ours was a culture that provided support and direction to our young people? Al Quaeda is attractive to young, disaffected Muslims the way meth is attractive to young disaffected Americans: it provides a focus for the violence and anger in the human heart.

We do drugs because we want to feel. Different. At all.

We do drugs because we’re hungry. For meaning, emotional connection, purpose. If we can’t find those, then at least we can distract ourselves from wanting them for awhile.

Can I Work Here? or, How I Became Confirmed in My Decision Not to Become a Librarian

Chilly November Monday. I circle the Wilson parking lot, vainly looking for a free space to leave my car. No luck. The pay ramp across the street does nicely. Whenever I come to the Wilson, I recall the first time I ever came, in college, with my girlfriend of the time, who revealed the Wilson to me as her favorite place to study. We suburban collegians hardly ever ventured into the city, so the Wilson seemed exotic. It still does. The reference librarian at the front desk is very helpful when I ask about their Middle Eastern collection, referring me to the ubiquitous computer terminals and the online catalog. She shows me how, if I click on Advanced Search, I can specify language, Arabic, if that’s what I am looking for. She assures me that though the special collection is no longer separate and is integrated into the regular collection, it’s still all there. I feel a little more intimidated, as if I should have known there was a special collection. I thank her kindly, and wander. I still don’t know what I am looking for, exactly, other than that I have decided to trust in my own curiosity, and to let my passionate eclecticism [read: attention deficit disorder] have full rein.

I decide that the books will be my focus here, and head upstairs to find an unoccupied computer. I’m going to start my research with John of Damascus, the focus of my first paper. A search for ‘Byzantine Christianity’ yields several hits, and since I haven’t yet committed to a topic, I trust in titles: if the title grabs me, at least there was a good marketing department behind the book, even if the author didn’t title it herself. My first choice: Why the Nations Rage: Killing in the Name of God, by Christopher Catherwood. It looks scholarly (Oxford), and the subject listings intrique: Violence — Religious aspects; War — Religious Aspects; Religious fanaticism. I admit, our last election and the war in Iraq have me saddened and puzzled, and I’m hoping this book might shed some light. I see it’s a second edition, 2002, with “some reflections on September 11, 2001.”

Now I must reveal my secret: I’m a proximity library user. I use the catalog to get a rough geographical bearing on where my interests lie, and then I go to the stacks and browse. I’m ready to be seduced: by a cover, a title, an interesting binding. This comes from so many years in used book stores, which don’t have catalogs and where hidden treasures await those with dumb luck and the patience to walk and read with one’s head craned at a 90-degree angle. I must confess that I know this shows how far I have to go to become a decent librarian, who can’t trust to dumb luck but instead spend time in research before getting to the stacks. Does it make more sense when I say I’m the kind of person who, rather than sit in traffic, will go 10 miles out of the way just so I can have the sense that I’m moving?

So: BL65 .V55 C38 2002 is my new haunt. Whatever I can find in that stack will become my research topic. Why the Nations… strikes me as a little lightweight, both in thesis and range. I skip to the end and read his essay on 9/11. It feels somehow soul-less and naive. Who knows, he writes, the Muslim world might come to its senses and surprise us, just as we were surprised by Russia in 1989. While his core themes — identity, nationalism, religion, violence — are all vital to the conversation about the world we are living in, he writes [self-admittedly] as a historian. A certain kind of historian. I am suspicious. I check the bibliography. Lots of references to Bernard Lewis (how do I know that name?). None to RenĂ© Girard. I am more suspicious. He underestimates the violence in American religion, coming across as overly optimistic and positive about the election of an evangelical to the presidency. He’s writing in spring of 2002, and he admits it’s dangerous to predict what will happen. But he totally misses the mark on Iraq, saying instead that America’s care not to be overly violent in Afghanistan is a good sign. [A sign we can now be suspicious about, given where our violent energies went next.]

Overcome by grief and hopelessness at the naive optimism of this learned historian, I wander back to the shelves. The first title to grab my eye: Sacred Longing: The Ecological Spirit and Global Culture. Ah, perhaps this is what I have been looking for. Mary C. Grey cites Celtic mysticism, feminist theology, Ghandian ethics, and Girardian psychology [yes, plenty of Girard here]. I’m soothed. A nice line: “a broken-hearted culture” that “no longer desires ‘the pearl of great price’…but merely the pearl” [x]. But my WASP-yness emerges eventually, rankling at lines like “the death of the goddess and the repression of female sexuality” [96]. I might be in the mood for this in the spring, but today is a cold November day, before the first snow, and I realize what I really long for is a good novel.

Back to the shelves. Kierkegaard’s Living Room: Faith and History in Philosophical Fragments. Some people might be bored by such a title; I get all warm and fuzzy, as if my old girlfriend had suddenly appeared in the aisle. Time, space, existential being. Flipping through David Mercer’s obviously thorough book is a nostalgia trip. After a minute, I realize I feel like a character in a Woody Allen film. Meeting his old flame unexpectedly in a cafe, on a rainy day, suddenly falling in love again, then, thankfully, remembering why it was they had broken up so many years ago, the rueful smile and adieu. Back on the shelf.

Farther afield, still looking for answers, I spy Meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom, by Roy Bhaskar. Alright, I’ll share exactly the mean thoughts I had. I instantly imagined Roy mugged and left for dead, the victim of a violent, tragic and uncreative end after a late-night binge following a book signing at Higher Planes bookstore in the east village. No doubt my own rejection of love and fullfillment, but I have a petty and scurvy heart. I do note, however, that it is volume 1, and there are no more volumes on the shelves.

I realize I need fiction, a good novel to assuage the guilt I now feel at wishing Roy such an inglorious end. But does the Wilson have a fiction section, I wonder, as I pass out of the religion section, past the ear-phoned, laptopped, lip-balmed, bed-headed undergrads. How can anyone read with their headphones turned up so loud?

Has Dalrymple written any fiction, I wonder? I check the catalog. There are over 60 Dalrymples listed in the catalog. I was shocked. I had never heard of that surname before this class, and there is a long extended family of authors. Incredible. But no fiction under Dalrymple, William. A recent book about India sounds interesting; made a note for later.

Down the hall is the Dewey decimal section, the other half of the strange hybrid of the U of MN cataloging system. I start looking at titles. These seem fictional, I think. Here’s one: A Bunch of Errors, by Salvador De Madaricga. A worn book, circa 1954. Perhaps a tragicomic existentialist farce, sure to lighten my mood? No. Instead, lines like “Duro glanced at him with contempuous serenity.” What is contemptuous serentity? An emotion I’ve never experienced or observed. Contempt I know well, serenity less so, but not the two together. Back on the shelf.

I realize I am hungry. A sure sign my patience is thin. Back down two floors and out of the Wilson. Heading back toward my car I see the North Country Coop and decide to see if they have any ready-to-eat foodstuffs. All the alternative rags are there for the taking, and I proudly see my local farmers’ cooperative represented in the freezer section, but nothing I’m ready to snap up and devour. Back to the car then, and on to the St Paul Central library, where fiction abounds and I can be sure to get something at Zelda’s Cafe.

Parking right in front! At midday, even. And Zelda does not disappoint, offering up a spicy chicken enchilada soup and a buttery croissant. My mood lifts. Anything is possible. St Paul, good food, and a beautiful library full of ordinary, unenrolled citizenry.

First stop is always the Magazine room, where I can catch the daily paper and whatever interesting periodicals happen to be in. I grab a recent (11/4/04) copy of the New York Review of Books — and lo! the cover article is by none other than William Dalrymple. What a revelation! Here I am chasing around looking for a topic for this paper, and Dalrymple has been waiting in my favorite spot all along. It is at this moment that I realize that I am truly not destined to be a librarian. My joy is in discovery and reading for myself, not for others, and in the random and unpredictable, the circumstantial and coincidental, not the careful and considered. I find little joy in imagining what others will find interesting, or helpful, or enriching. What I really love is going to the library without an agenda, and finding things that interest and entertain me. Perhaps my calling is to be a library-user, not a librarian.

In any case, I hunker down with Dalrymple. What a great writer. So humane and funny. The article is entitled, The Hidden Truths about Muslims and is a review of several books, including Bernard Lewis (mentioned throughout Catherwood). The first thing I notice is that Edward Said is referred to as ‘late’ — did I even know he had died? I must have missed that lamentable passing. Ah, and here’s the skinny on Lewis: a neoconservative whose theories about Muslim culture have defined current neoconservative foreign policy. I knew I didn’t trust him! Richard Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammed to the Reformation gets a glowing review. Oh! and even an extended reference to my original research topic, John of Damascus. Dalrymple writes, “under the rule of Umayyad caliphs of Damascus religious practice was freer [than under Byzantine Christianity] and the economy flourishing” [32]. John, and others, assumed Islam was just a heterodox form of Christianity. Tell that to the hawks in the White House!

I look up from my reading and around the room. How good it feels at this moment to be in a busy city library, surrounded by so many ordinary citizens hard at work on whatever their private errands might be.

Dalrymple quotes Lewis saying that the Muslims who attacked the U.S. believed that “the Americans have gone soft.” My conspiratorial brain starts ticking. What if that kind of rhetoric was simply there to inflame the gung-ho egos of armchair warriors, the ones without sons and daughters in the military, the ones who hadn’t served themselves — but who are serving themselves very handily right now.

Dalrymple ends with a funny little bit about English cooking and cultural assimilation in Muslim countries, and I am off to find a copy of Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent. I am hoping that the library has a copy but that it is checked out — a sign that someone else is as interested as I am. I am a little disappointed to find that they have a copy on the shelf. Well, it’s mine for the next few weeks.

I finally make it to the fiction room, with its asthmatic ventilation system and the great view of the Mississippi River. I wander again, not at all sure for what I am looking, when I stumple on one of my great favorites, Shusaku Endo, and a novel I have not yet read: The Final Martyrs. Endo wrote several novels about the ambivalent presence of Christianity in Japan and his own ambivalence with his Roman Catholicism. I look forward to reading it. Armed with the latest City Pages from North Country Coop, and two books from the St Paul Central, I head for home, anxious to dig into my reading.

And this leads me to my final thoughts on this project. I have realized that my joy is in reading and in discussing what I’ve read with other people. I have loved the readings for this class and visiting libraries. I haven’t enjoyed the feeling of knowing I have homework to do and exams to write. So this will be my first and last graduate class. I’ve realized, too, that I have a job that I like well enough, that certainly pays better than anything I could find in the library world (a sad commentary on the library world more than my current job). And I’ve realized something similar to what I learned when I was considering the priesthood several years ago. I don’t need to be a [priest, librarian, professor, musician, whatever] to enjoy the fruit of the profession. I still go to church, libraries, concerts; I still read books, discuss them with others, play music, think and grapple with ideas and my spiritual life. I just don’t draw a paycheck for any of it. And that actually makes me feel a little freer, to come and go as I will, to follow the paths that appear before me.

Part book review, part library search, part personal reflection. I think I deviate significantly from the syllabus. Oh well. I had a great deal of fun.

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