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One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

That stands for “To Be Read.”  One of the things that defines a bibliophile are the stacks of physical and/or e-books waiting “To Be Read.” You know how it goes. You are browsing in the bookstore or a library sale or online and you find a great bargain on a book you’ve wanted to read or you thought sounded interesting in a review you read. You can’t read it immediately so it goes on the stack–or one of the stacks.

If you are a bibliophile, you have probably struggled with this. On the one hand, there is the anticipation of reading the books, which sometimes can be as good as the actual reading! Just to look at the spines, the blurbs on the back of the book or the table of content can whet your appetite (and remind you why you bought that book in the first place).

On the other hand, this can verge on, or cross over the boundary to hoarding, particularly if it seems the piles are taking over your house! The challenge becomes even greater if you start getting sent books to review. I realized recently that I probably don’t have enough life left to read all the unread books I have, either in stacks in my house or on my Kindle. That for me seems to define the line where collecting is at least straying into the territory of hoarding–hard as it is to admit!

There is one TBR pile I probably won’t get rid of. It is by the bed and is what I’d call my “staging area.” When I finish a book, this is where I go for the next book to read. I usually filter books from other piles here as the pile shrinks. Right now the pile has some Jeff Shaara novels, a three volume Teddy Roosevelt biography, and some more “theological” books by Os Guinness, Jurgen Moltmann and an autobiography of Therese of Liseaux.  (Previews of future reviews!)

It’s the other piles that need to go. Truthfully, they all make the house look more cluttered. Either I do something or my family will stage an intervention! My first goal would be to clear the one in my spare bedroom by the end of the year (either by moving books into the stack by the bed or getting rid of them).

That confronts a reality I need to deal with. If the books have been on a TBR pile more than a couple years, I need to ask whether I’m really going to read them. This summer, I was able to give away two good size boxes of such books. Yes, I grieved, but I also remember what C.S. Lewis said about our libraries in heaven being comprised of the books we gave away on earth.

There is also the question of where books go after I’ve read them. Once again, it is increasingly apparent that unless it is a book I may re-read or reference, it probably needs to go. I’ve made a rule that I need to weed out a couple books for anything I shelve.

Finally, I can’t shrink these piles if I add to them! Perhaps a goal at this point is to not acquire a new book without reading five others and getting rid of at least that many. That means at most that I can acquire 24 books a year or 2 a month.

Here’s a big goal: have only the TBR pile by the bed by the end of next year. Looking for a good deal on books or even some free ones? Look for a big book purge next summer. It’s time to bring those TBR stacks in line with reality!

Worked to Death

I never had a father-in-law. My wife’s father passed away a few months before we got engaged. Her uncle walked her down the aisle. Listening to my wife’s stories, I wish I’d had the time to get to know him better. He was a blue collar worker in a manufacturing plant in Youngstown. He retired early on disability. In many ways, work took a severe toll on his body, and he died within a few years of retirement. It didn’t happen to everyone, but it is the story of many men in his generation, subject to physically demanding work and exposed to numerous chemical toxins before we knew the effects they could have.

Rich’s sermon this past Sunday explored the ways that work and death have been intertwined since the “crash”, as Rich put it. Adam and Eve refused to work God’s way by working to be like gods through partaking of the tree instead of working in trusting dependence upon God to sustain their lives. Instead of work being a kind of joyful and playful tending of God’s delightful world, it becomes hard and toilsome. Work itself wasn’t “the curse” but work came under the curse of a fallen existence running down toward death.

Work was a good thing that got messed up. Down inside us we still have this drive to use skill and intelligence to do something really well, whether it is to repair an automobile or mobilize a community service project, to write elegant computer code or to intelligently manage an organization. Yet even our noblest efforts seem fraught with difficulty. I work in a collegiate ministry I love with a wonderful team of students and colleagues. Yet death in various forms intrudes: a colleague or their spouse faces a serious illness, we subject ourselves to destructive anxiety in juggling competing demands, miscommunications and misunderstandings arise that gnaw at the pit of your stomach, or a piece of office hardware dies just before an important conference.

I was also challenged by the thought that our work may be part of a system that contributes to the death of others. As Ben noted, the computer I am writing this post on may have been made under terrible working conditions, as is much of the computer and communications technology we use. In some cases, the factory conditions have been so bad and the constraints on workers so great that some have concluded the only way out is to take one’s own life. It’s complicated sometimes–maybe the major thing we can do is communicate our concerns with vendors we most work with. I have known faculty who chose lines of research not funded by defense budgets or that had applications that could contribute, as far as they could tell, to killing.

Yet I also think we need to exercise care and humility as we talk about this with thoughtful Christians in the military, defense-related work or who serve as peace officers. For many, their work is focused on preventing war or guarding the law-abiding so far as that’s humanly possible in a fallen world and protecting the innocent when it is not. One of the things I wonder about for those of us in the ‘peace church’ tradition is how we might engage with thoughtful Christians who believe they are fulfilling their calling in Christ in defense or police work, even if we believe we may not join them. How do we deal with the fact that we may benefit from efforts we cannot in good conscience engage? It seems that we cannot help but be implicated in these systems that arise in a fallen world. Sadly, the tragedy of the intertwined nature of work and death is that even our best attempts often end badly and technology designed for good may nevertheless by used to kill. We might cut our losses (and should), but we can’t fix this thing. We need salvation in the ultimate sense!

Rich pointed out that we live between the world that is and the world that is to come. He concluded with some thoughts about working in light of the world to come. I wonder if one of the things this means is the recovery of the joyful, playful, and creative aspects of our work wherever possible in ways that bring the blessing of God to others. It can be joyful and fun to leave a generous tip at a restaurant, as Rich mentioned. It can be creative and life-giving to find ways in the company we work for to ensure that all our workers get a living wage. I wonder sometimes for those of us who seek to address the problems of the world whether an over-seriousness betrays inordinate and death-dealing anxiety. Where is the place for joyfulness and playfulness in these efforts? Isn’t there joy in any work done that saves or brings life? A simple example for me is the joy and laughter I’ve often experienced at our food pantry as we’ve sorted food we haven’t worked for and help people cart box loads of that food to their cars. Hunger and poverty are serious yet our joy and laughter point to the generosity of a God who meets us at our place of need and brokenness. And don’t we mimic the Creator when we pause after a work-day, or a performance, or when we’ve completed a piece of work that has gone well, and just savor the goodness?

By this we say that death doesn’t have the last word in our work, but the life of the world to come.

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper Blog

Where is “Miss Manners” When We Need Her?

In the last two days, I’ve observed three incidents of page administrators or blog owners who have needed to clarify what are appropriate comments or posts on their pages. It is interesting that two of them brought up the question of censorship. Apparently, this accusation was hurled at them by individuals whose posts were taken down. In one instance, the post was unrelated to the stated purpose of the blog and to the material in the particular post. This is an instance of “hi-jacking”, that is using someone’s site to promote an agenda other than the site owner’s or administrator’s. In another instance, it was because of the offensive language and personal attacks used by a person posting on the site.

"Judith Martin, Miami Bookfair International, 1989" by MDCarchives - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judith_Martin,_Miami_Bookfair_International,_1989.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Judith_Martin,_Miami_Bookfair_International,_1989.jpg

The Real Miss Manners: “Judith Martin, Miami Bookfair International, 1989″ by MDCarchives – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judith_Martin,_Miami_Bookfair_International,_1989.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Judith_Martin,_Miami_Bookfair_International,_1989.jpg

The truth is that this would fall under some usages of the word censorship. Broadcast media will “bleep” profanity. Magazines will simply refuse to print letters or other content submitted to them that falls outside their editorial purposes. One might argue that there is an appropriate form of censorship that says no particular media outlet must publish or broadcast whatever a person wants to say using their free speech rights.  I would argue that this extends to “new media” like blogs, Facebook pages and other interactive social media. Part of the “freedom of the press” of these outlets is to determine what they will and won’t publish. And those whose ideas are not accepted on certain blogs or pages are free to establish their own pages where they can freely express their ideas, and in turn determine what things fall outside the purpose of those pages.

Invidious censorship is different.  It is the effort of an outside body, whether a group of citizens or a government agency that seeks to prevent the publication or suppress the expression of ideas considered objectionable. The American Library Association (as quoted on this PBS site) puts it well:

What Is Censorship? Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.

For the ALA, technically censorship means the “The Removal of material from open access by government authority.” The ALA also distinguishes various levels of incidents in respect to materials in a library which may or may not lead to censorship: Inquiry, Expression of Concern, Complaint, Attack, and Censorship.

What the page admins and blog owners I mentioned above were dealing with is simply bad manners. It is bad manners to “hi-jack” conversations to promote one’s own agenda. It is bad manners to engage in personal attacks. It is bad manners to use profanity or coarse language in mixed company, which is what the internet is. Most of the time, this behavior is simply the result of individuals known around the ‘net as “trolls”. But one of their tactics is to hurl the accusation of “censorship” as a cover for their own bad manners and inappropriate behavior. Blog owners and page administrators should have no qualms about removing content like this. Sadly, I’ve seen some groups that run amuck because absentee administrators refuse to step in.

So far, I’ve personally experienced relatively few instances of this behavior. Here are my own (still evolving) guidelines for dealing with it:

1. I won’t tolerate profanity or ad hominem attacks, either upon myself or others. Let’s disagree without demonizing or using degrading language!

2. I also won’t tolerate posting comments unrelated to a post, particularly self-promoting or commercial material, but also anything that “hi-jacks” the conversation.

3. I try not to include spoilers in my review of fiction. If you include spoilers in your comments, I will take them down. I still like you, but I don’t want to spoil the end for others.

4. When in doubt, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and try to respond graciously. If you are a real person (and not a commercial entity or a “bot”) and have taken the time to read what I write, I appreciate that and hope we can have a thoughtful conversation.

On my “About” page, I write, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world. My hope is that this blog will contribute to the latter.” I hope you will hold me accountable to that standard in all I write on this blog, even as I hold others to this standard in their comments.

If you blog, or administer any pages, how do you approach “off topic” or otherwise inappropriate comments?


Review: State of Wonder

State of Wonder
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A letter arrives at Marina Singh’s pharmaceutical lab informing her company of the death of her co-worker, Anders Eckman. At the firm’s request he had gone to the Amazon to check on the research progress on a drug the company was funding, research being done by Annick Swenson. There are few details other than he died of a fever and was buried onsite. Marina’s boss (and lover), Mr Fox as he is known, and Anders wife (who still believes he is alive) both ask her to go to Brazil to find the truth. Marina can hardly say no, yet this trip brings to life her buried past. Before she studied pharmacology, she was an obstetrics resident under Dr. Swenson until she left the residency after performing an emergency C-section that resulted in a disfigured child.

"Ann Patchett 2012 Shankbone" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ann_Patchett_2012_Shankbone.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Ann_Patchett_2012_Shankbone.JPG

“Ann Patchett 2012 Shankbone” by David Shankbone – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ann_Patchett_2012_Shankbone.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Ann_Patchett_2012_Shankbone.JPG

As she journeys to Brazil, it is not a state of wonder we expect but a bad ending. She loses her luggage. She is stalled by a young couple, the Bovenders, who tend Dr. Swenson’s Manau apartment while she is in the jungle. Finally, she goes upriver with Dr. Swenson against her wishes into the heart of the Amazon rain forest if not the “heart of darkness”. Her arrival feels Conrad-esque, occurring at night, complete with natives who steal her belongings, and warnings of well camouflaged venomous snakes. She ends up staying with a deaf boy who had previously stayed with Eckman, Easter. Easter, at death’s door, was left with Dr. Swenson by a neighboring cannibalistic tribe.

Yet she survives and embarks on a journey of discovery that will involve a “descent into hell” (language used by Marina) at the end and yet also is filled with wonder. It turns out Dr. Swenson is only one of a number of researchers studying a small plot of trees visited by a unique species of moth and surrounded by psychedelic mushrooms. What’s more, the native women gnaw the bark every five days and continue to be fertile and bear children into their sixties and beyond. Dr. Swenson, experimenting on herself, is also pregnant at 73. But the compound they’ve isolated has other properties of global importance, which is why Dr. Swenson has stalled this research. Marina also confronts her past when she is called on by Dr. Swenson, debilitated by her pregnancy, to perform a C-section on a native woman facing a breech birth.

In the edge-of-your-seat climax, she learns the truth about Eckman, whose fate is wrapped up with that of the deaf boy, Easter. Like all of Patchett’s books that I have read, there were twists at the end, but I think ones that were better anticipated and coherent than in some of her works. And like all Patchett’s books, her writing is beautifully evocative and descriptive and her characters finely drawn in ways that explore the depths and complexities of the human condition. Of those I’ve read, I thought this one of her best.

View all my reviews

Ending Sexual Violence on Campus

beerLet me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

If my language seems blunt, it is because of the history of blaming victims, usually women, for “wearing that dress” or “drinking too much” saddles victims with guilt and mitigates the responsibility of the perpetrator, both in court and in the public eye. Men often use strategies of “getting her drunk” as an approach to sexual exploitation. There is no excuse for any of this, and frankly, as a male, I think that far from demonstrating virility, it is a demonstration of a kind of emotional, if not physical, impotence.

All this said, The Chronicle of Higher Education raised what I think is a key barrier to at least reducing sexual violence on campuses in an article titled, “Why Campuses Can’t Talk About Alcohol When It Comes to Sexual Assault.”  Why, you may ask, can’t we talk about alcohol even though at least half the sexual assaults that occur (and many go unreported) involve alcohol use by both parties? What it comes down to is that even attempts to educate about this in terms of safety and prevention, particularly with women, can be perceived as “blaming the victim.”

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

However, public safety officers often warn students at universities in urban environments about the dangers of crime and various safety practices from using campus escort services to avoiding walking alone in certain areas after certain times to locking doors and windows. If a crime against persons or property occurs, have these public safety officers been guilty of “blaming the victim”? No. Does any of this mitigate the responsibility of the person committing a crime against persons or property? No.

However, in the area of sexual assault, campus professionals tend to limit themselves to talking about “bystander intervention” and educating students about consent. I do think these can be important parts of a strategy to protect against sexual violence. My problem with this is in an alcohol-fueled atmosphere, will there be bystanders (designated bystanders?) whose judgment is unimpaired to intervene? And the giving and granting of consent involves sober judgment as well as restraint in the absence of consent–two things that tend to go out the window in an alcohol fueled atmosphere. What is even more insidious is that in most alcohol-related incidents of sexual assault, there is a greater likelihood that the parties do not know each other well.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

Yet it seems that until we find a way to talk with students candidly about alcohol in a way that educates for risk-reduction (including the risk to perpetrators of carrying a sexual offender status through life) without blaming victims, I don’t believe we will make a real dent in the incidence of sexual violence on university campuses. Sexual predators will intentionally use alcohol to perpetrate rape. Other perpetrators will simply make bad decisions and may end up with a criminal record they carry through life. And victims, even in the most accepting and supportive atmospheres, will carry the wounds of these encounters.

I’ve spent a career in collegiate ministry working with students. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of student life. In our work we seek to educate both men and women in the meaning of persons, including our sexuality, and the qualities of respect, responsibility, and restraint in the use of alcohol and the expression of our sexuality that leads to rich and joyful relationships and campus life. Sadly, we also sometimes deal with the victims of sexual violence, or even those simply bearing the scars of alcohol fueled hookups. And I get the “no-blame” thing. Victims blame themselves enough as it is. They need hope and support that life can begin anew.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

I just hope for the day where we don’t have to say this as much.


Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Repurposing

“What does a cigar box have to do with Youngstown?” Someone in a Facebook group where I posted last week’s blog on going back to school asked this question. It’s a good question. Cigar boxes reflect a value of working class people who came through the Depression of the 30s and salvaged everything they could. Why buy a pencil box when dad or an uncle had perfectly good cigar boxes laying around waiting to find a new use? What amazed me after I wrote this post was to find out how many people still had these cigar boxes!

A spray-painted Band-Aids box used for crayons

A spray-painted Band-Aids box used for crayons

People did this all the time. My wife’s father built a picket fence out of scrap lumber a neighbor was getting rid of. We have spray-painted old Band-Aids boxes (the metal ones with hinged lids) around the house that served as crayon holders when the cardboard boxes they came in wore out after a month. One of them is on a shelf in my garage filled with sockets for a socket wrench. Old tires and a piece of rope tied to a tree limb made a great swing. Or a tire filled with sand made an instant sandbox. Old inner tubes (when tires still had inner tubes) made great floats on trips to the lake.

My dad would pick up a case of Stroh’s beer every couple weeks at the Mahoning Wine Shop. He’d always exchange a case of empties for a new one. Often, I’d buy a bottle of pop at the local Lawson’s and sit beside the building and drink it so that I could go back and get my deposit. Moms had a rag bag of worn clothes to patch jeans or even make patchwork quilts. My wife still regrets that she didn’t get her mom’s button jar. We collected newspaper to take to the Volunteers of America, bagging them up in brown grocery bags or tying them up with twine. We had a separate refuse can for empty metal cans, probably going back to World War II when tin, copper and other metals were in short supply. Somewhere in the 60s we stopped doing this and just threw the stuff in landfills.

Dad was a saver. Old wire, string, pieces of wood, all sorts of nuts, bolts, screws, nails, wrapping paper, cardboard and more. He’d say, “you never know when you might need this.” At Christmas, he would make Christmas trees out of old cardboard from the cleaners (that they would put into folded shirts) and old wrapping paper, he’d poke holes in the cones, put an old string of lights in and make a mini Christmas tree.  My wife used to make Christmas wreaths out of coat hangers and tissue paper.

In many of our homes in working class neighborhoods it was a sin to be wasteful. You didn’t throw foil away that could be reused. You didn’t buy something at a store if you could adapt something that was laying around to serve the purpose. You saved coffee grounds and egg shells and vegetable scraps and put them into a compost pile and turned it back into the garden. Who needed fertilizer?

What I think this reflected was growing up in a time of personal and national scarcity. And at a family level, this was never too far away–if you could build a bit of cushion of savings, it might carry you through a strike, a job loss, or an illness. And so you looked for every way you could to economize.

Somewhere along the way, we got careless about all this. Aluminum cans and plastic bottles that could be tossed into the landfill came along. All of a sudden we discovered that we were awash in a sea of trash and using up non-renewable resources. As working class kids, we actually knew better. In recent years we have rediscovered in the mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” the things that were common sense wisdom among our parents and grandparents. It seems to me that this is one of the good things in our Youngstown cultural memory.

How did your family “repurpose” when you were growing up?


Reading: The Account of My Death May Be Greatly Exaggerated!

PewIt seems among bibliophiles there are apocalyptic prophesies about the death of reading. A Pew Research Center Report titled Younger Americans and Public Libraries suggests that this may not be the case:

  • As it turns out, 88 percent of those under 30 had read a book in the past year as opposed to 79 percent of those over 30.  The group reading the most appears to be those aged 16-17. They also borrow the most books.
  • More of those under 30 (62 vs. 53 percent) believe there are a number of resources that cannot be found on the internet.
  • The use of library websites among those under 30 is growing (up from 28 percent to 36 percent in two years).
  • Among those 16-29, 43 percent of them read a book every day versus 40 percent of those over 30.

There are some gray patches in these silver-lined clouds:

  • Library visits have dropped in the past year from 58 to 50 percent. Those over 30 have also used libraries less (dropping from 52 to 47 percent).
  • Younger users of libraries are less aware of all the services that libraries offer.
  • They are also less likely to report it to be a pleasant place to be and valuable to their community.

As I’ve thought about this report I have some questions:

  • I wonder why reading actually seems to be declining with age. One thing in the study is that two activities did increase with age — watching TV and reading news sources (print and internet). Is there a connection?
  • I wonder how much of the reading in the 16-29 cohort is “have to” reading related to academic pursuits as opposed to voluntary reading.
  • Related to this, I wonder, “what are people reading?” I would probably agree that most forms of reading, apart from those that seem to celebrate gruesome violence or are pornographic in nature, are better than not reading. It is probably difficult to measure this because of some of the implied value judgments involved yet literacy means more than just reading any books but also involves engaging books of enduring quality.

Here are a few of my reflections:

  • One obvious one is that libraries face the challenge of making the experience of being at the library pleasurable for those 16 to 29. I suspect part of this is that socializing among this age group is important and being “shushed” so that others can read or research is unpleasant. Our local library has a separate area for socializing as well as a coffee bar, both isolated from the reading and computer areas.
  • I’ve always found reference librarians extremely helpful, particularly in finding the stuff you can’t find online as well as pointing me to the best sources. But I wonder if there isn’t an intimidation factor. It was only in college when I was working in my college’s Student Development Program and we had talks by reference librarians that I came to appreciate all they can do. I confess I am unaware of the outreach efforts being made in this area but wonder if partnerships between librarians and teachers, perhaps around specific research assignments could be helpful. Again, our local library does something very helpful in having reference librarians at standing kiosks rather than sitting behind intimidating desks.
  • I do think at any age, the pleasure of losing oneself in a book is probably key to feeding a lifelong love of reading. At the same time, as we age, I do find typography, lighting, and font sizes an important factor in ease of reading. Again, I wonder if both libraries and booksellers might do more to promote resources that help aging readers to continue to find reading pleasurable.
  • I still consider the issue of reading well and without distraction an important one to be considered in our wireless age. I’m not sure that e-readers will last as a technology we use and the other wireless devices tend to stream texts, tweets, Facebook updates and email unless one turns these off to read.
  • Lastly, it was interesting that although older readers tended to use the library less, they valued it more. I personally wonder if this a function of the accumulated experience of usefulness we gain over a lifetime. I also think older readers may be more rooted in a community and understand how libraries contribute to the fabric of a community.

At any rate, there are reasons in this report to be hopeful rather than pessimistic about the future of reading. I also think it points to the importance of understanding how people read and how those of us who value literacy might continue to usher others into a lifelong love of reading.



Larry Hurtado's Blog

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[BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer

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