Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

The Favorite Book 2

The evolution of the ebook is a heated discussion. While there is the convenience of traveling with an e-reader like the IPad or a Galaxy tablet, there is a visceral loss of paper and ink. Scribbling in the margins does not work on an e-reader but hauling a bunch of books around in a backpack or a messenger bag is a series of frustrations too.

Even more, reading an ebook is a subtly different set of mental processes than a print book, especially non-fiction. In a print book, I may tag a sentence with a pencil in the margin that stands out for retrieval or further review. Often I read a sentence of which I am unsure and I let it remain unmarked although I tag the page number or the page itself in my memory, waiting to see if the next pages prove or disprove the relevancy. This is the process of reading a book and its arguments closely. If the sentence proves relevant, I will flip back a page or two because I am haphazardly counting pages as I continue to follow the argument of the sentence or the paragraph.

I find that in an ebook, the pages look altogether much more similar – the page with the large paragraph followed by the two small paragraphs blends away. Further, I am less conscious of swiping pages compared to turning pages. I lose track. Short arguments work well on an ebook but long, involved arguments are easier to comprehend on printed pages. These minor differences frustrate my long-time developing methodology for studying. The fixes that others have suggested are time-consuming and loss of time defeats the purpose.

The paper-based thesaurus is superb at presenting a lot of information quickly and taking the reading to further information just as speedily. Most online thesauri stink and fail either criterion, a lot of information quickly or access to expanded but related information just as rapidly. I say “most” because I was recently sent to a website that is a holy grail of computing promises; namely, transforming a process done with paper and ink into a better process in digital format. The ebook format excels.

Check out graphwords.com. Plug in a few common words and watch the maps blossom across the screen. Please, though, don’t blame me for all the time you spend with this word engine.

The Favorite Book

When authors are interviewed, inevitably one of the questions will be a variation of “Who is your favorite author?” or “What is the title of your favorite book?” because curious readers want to know. If the interview is published in the New York Times Book Review, the reader can guess the typical answer before reading it, choosing from the top twenty required-reading authors from English 101 and 301 at university. Modest or immodest, the author wants to inform competing authors that they are well versed in the English canon of good literature. Choosing from the canon is an intelligent and forward-thinking decision; knowledge of the canon is a prerequisite for author-in-residence and other excellent appointments. For the rest of us, however, we are less than impressed.

My own choices for a favorite book, if someone were to ask, are based on a long examination of my reading history. There are favorites from my teenage years that stick with me as well as college and graduate years. Between my office study and my house, I count over a thousand titles of which a number were brought in by the rest of the family. These past decades have been full of great titles and exciting reads. None of them qualify as my favorite.

The only criterion for my favorite book is the continual sparking of the imagination. When I crack open the same book again and again, I want to see new possibilities, new understandings and relationships. I want to be reminded how much there is still to learn. My favorite book, my only favorite that meets this high standard, is Roget’s Thesaurus.

The deadline is looming and the pile of tasks is thick but if I open this text to find a word, I can be derailed from my work in an instant. I may be looking for another noun for “gambler” but look, they have a list of all of the gambling games and another list of dice points and rolls. How does one play chuck-a-luck? Unrelated but on the same page is “bare naked fact” and it is listed under the rubric Existence. Someone decided that facts are the foundation of existence. Uh Huh.

Yep, Roget’s Thesaurus. Buried in the pages of the text is the genesis of a million novels and the opening nouns of every piece of non-fiction. Advertising taglines and poetic metaphors are lurking on any given page. For those who dream of writing a book or just hope to turn in a paper for a decent grade, there is no other text that can offer as hope, example or proof.

Carry on. (see entries 328.8, 330.15 and 360.2)

Saving Grandma

The following is a tribute to my students:

“As the children emerged from the cornfield and tromped through the back door of the old farmstead, the eldest called out, ‘Let’s eat grandma!”


“As the children emerged from the cornfield and tromped through the back door of the old farmstead, the eldest called out, ‘Let’s eat, grandma!”

These two sentences offer a brief lesson in the difference between “The Children of the Corn” and “The Children of the Comma”.  Only commas save lives.

The Book Stolen Most Often in U.S.A

The most stolen books according to Publisher’s Weekly is by author rather than by title. Literate thieves love everything Charles Burkowski wrote. The most stolen text, amassed by comparing a number of lists is the Bible.

The book that states twice, first in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5, “You shall not steal” is shoplifted more than most other choices in the bookstore. The irony is not that any person in America can get a Bible for free, a tradition most widespread by the Gideon Society but probably accommodated graciously by any church with a front door. Even the prison will give an inmate a copy of the Bible in Solitary Confinement.

The irony is The Bible does not contain the answers these thieves are seeking. Excuse me, the Bible does not contain “The Answers” that the desperate are seeking. People who believe and people who do not believe read the Bible and find all sorts of knowledge: folk beliefs, anthropology, philosophy, theology, history, songs, poems, wisdom sayings and ancient oracles. There may be only one God but the Bible gives us an array of ideas of how one might perceive God, from the All-knowing God of Genesis 1 to the God who exists but the human cannot fathom in Job 38.

The most depressing point of a stolen Bible is that the text is incomprehensible without a teacher. A theologian is going to read the text with a certain bias while a biblical scholar is going to teach the text using the tools of Literary Criticism. Answers: the Bible is best understood as generating questions, big ones about life and it meaning to small ones about the definition of word. The Bible is the product of a process and the study of the Bible is a process as well. One should seek out the text to find the questions; to find the answers, find a teacher.

Sledgehammer Literature

Sledgehammer literature is a phenomenon in modern publications of over-the-top manipulation of emotions or actions in the text to elicit a reciprocal visceral response from the reader. While sledgehammer writing is the preferred style of political opinion writers and advocacy pundits, the same “all faucets on full” writing appears to have migrated to fiction and not political non-fiction writing as well. Authors assume that wringing every last drop of emotional pain from an event is good writing or good for sales, perhaps. Good for one or the other, the prescription of pain, wrenching emotions, brutal self-evisceration and physical manifestations of such pepper the populist lit and literary lit with gut-twisting passages.

This is not bad writing. In fact sledgehammer literature is excellent writing that produces powerful reactions in readers, leaving them shifting uncomfortably in their chairs and on their couches. Typically the purpose of walking a person through a wrenching experience is conclusion of catharsis once the resolution is complete, like the ancient Greek plays that excelled first at presenting wrenching emotional circumstances. The unique characteristic of sledgehammer literature is that there is no catharsis at the end, only relief that the passage is done or disbelief that one stuck with the text and read through it. This type of literature beats up the reader for the sake of demonstrating that the writer can beat up the reader.

Sledgehammer literature is the epitome of technique by an author. Indeed, the mark of such literature is pure technique; missing is many of the other elements of the art of writing. While an excellent novel may have a particularly painful scene, the elements of plot, pacing, character development, and description will also be well pronounced. A novel of the sledgehammer variety relies on the visceral reaction to mask the deficiencies of the other ingredients.

Sledgehammer literature is best identified by its weak appeal to suspend disbelief. When elements are missing, when characters have no more depth to them than the pain they evince in the reader, the reader is left with little else but the pain. And who wants that much suffering really?