Keep your soul diligently

We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook and other places where the letters of each word are scrambled, but the first and last letters are kept unchanged. Sometimes these memes are accompanied by statements such as, “Only intelligent people are able to understand this message.” Actually, most adept readers are able to read them; as we learned to read, our brains developed shortcuts that recognize words even when the internal parts of the words have been changed.

But, by the same token, sometimes we mistake one word for another. The slip-up can be amusing, such as confusing “immorality” and “immortality.” Usually a second glance fixes the misreading. But this morning in my Bible reading, I faced a misreading that indicates just how overwhelming our current virus crisis has become.

I was reading Deuteronomy chapter four. I got to verse nine, which says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This is a trustworthy saying. But when my eyes first scanned the verse, my brain changed the beginning to, “Only take care, and keep your social distancing.”

Of course a second glance fixed the misreading. I suppose the words “take care” only added to the tendency to expect s…l d……..y to be “social distancing.” But my mildly amusing experience only shows how overwhelming this virus crisis has become, that I even expect the holy Word of God to command social distancing.

My experiences with the virus crisis are like those of most people. As an introvert, I don’t mind keeping my distance from other people. Three times a week I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. I do what I was taught as a child: I walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing the traffic. But now, with social distancing, if someone is coming toward me on the same side of the road, I cross to the other side to avoid that person. I’ve always wanted to do that. Now, not is it not rude to cross the road to avoid people—it’s recommended.

I’m very much blessed to have three jobs that all paid me my regular salary while I worked from home. Every week I write a sermon, and every Saturday I email it to the members of the congregation. Our church musician presents a concert of church music on Facebook every Sunday. We mail in our offerings, and my check comes in the mail. My history class was changed from classroom to online. Some students dropped out, and a couple have fallen behind on the work, but several are faithfully taking their quizzes (open book, since we don’t have the classroom discussion before the quiz) and—I expect—writing their essays that are due next week. But my full time job at the library raised the biggest concerns. How can a library function when the doors are locked and the workers are told to stay home?

The first week the library was closed, we were told that it was like snow days—we would stay home and be paid. The second week, they began encouraging us to do tasks at home that were somehow job related. Since I am an archivist, I began sorting and arranging the family pictures I brought from my father’s house several years ago. After they were arranged, I even started putting them on Facebook and tagging family members. I also explored the family genealogy. More than half the people who visit our research room in the library are doing genealogy—some in great depth, others just getting started. I’ve always been able to guide people to resources, but now I have much more experience in genealogical research and will be more helpful.

By the third week, we had a process of reporting how we were spending our time “on the clock.” But after that, the library decided that 75% of our hours had to be of direct benefit to the library system; the other 25% could be for learning and wellness activities. Some library branches began experimenting with curb-side services. Four branches are providing free meals to neighborhood children who usually get fed at school. My department remains locked up; but we are taking turns being in the building to answer the phone and help patrons.

Last week, with the phone-answering system in place, I was invited to return to my desk and continue processing archival materials. I must wear a mask everywhere in the building except at my desk; I must wash my hands frequently and wipe down surfaces often. This procedure might last for the rest of the summer.

Since it is losing some money—parking and meeting room fees, and overdue fines—the library director decided that he would reduce or eliminate some positions temporarily to save the library money. All positions will be restored when the crisis is over. People in eliminated positions retain their health insurance and other benefits but must apply for unemployment. Those who are reduced will—if the state government allows—work only part-time and receive unemployment money for the hours lost. I have been placed in the second category.

I do not feel comfortable with the likelihood that I will be receiving unemployment compensation for ten weeks or so. It’s not that I don’t need the money. It’s that every person thrown into the unemployment system is added to the financial burden that taxpayers like me and my children will be reimbursing for years to come. I disagree with the library’s decision to lower its costs by putting its workers temporarily into unemployment. In fact, I cannot help but view this as a cynical political ploy to deepen the crisis (and the feeling of crisis) at the expense of the current administration.

We will all get through this together. Stress and anxiety are high right now. (I spend little time on social media precisely because I rapidly tire of all the talk of virus and quarantine. It makes me shaky and queasy.) Meanwhile it’s important for each of us to take care, and keep our social distancing… I mean, keep our souls diligently. J.

Statistics that matter only to me

In 2018 I finished reading 143 books, bringing my yearly average for the last eighteen years up to 121.

During the twentieth century, I pretty much read what I wanted when I wanted (aside for school assignments, of course) without operating from lists or keeping any permanent records. In 2001 I decided to keep a list of what I was reading and what I wanted to read, and that action set a pattern that I continue to follow today. Typically I am reading selections from four or five different books every day, not including the Bible which I read through once a year. But I read through sets of similar books: fiction, philosophy, history, science fiction, or the like. Last year I read through the Christian medieval writers, from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy through the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing. I finished a series of science fiction/fantasy and then turned to ancient philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. I finished a series of books related to the Nixon administration and Watergate. I also read novels written by Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Chaim Potok, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Pynchon.

In addition to reading, I also wrote and published. In 2018 I published a study of the parables of Jesus, a collection of essays (most of which appeared first on this blog) called My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife, a study of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and a collection of short stories.

And, of course, I wrote for this blog. In 2018 I received 7,805 views from 5,223 visitors. I realize that many of my readers have considerably more views and visitors, but I aim for quality rather than quantity. (Who else recently said the same thing?) During the past year my most popular post was “23 Odd Facts about Man in the Moon,” which I suspect must be featured on some Andy Kaufman fan web site. The runner-up was “Hello, my name is Joe,” which I know is featured on a web site about robocalls. Next came “Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?” an essay which I included in My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife. In fourth place was “Four Heavens,” explaining the uses of the word “heaven” in the Bible, including what it means in Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth” and Paul’s reference in II Corinthians to the third heaven. Finally, a post that I wrote during the 2016 presidential campaign—one which received more than a thousand visits that year—is still performing well. Evidently Google and other search engines consider me a reliable source to answer the question, “Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?

I hope to continue to be a prolific reader and writer in 2019. I have already finished three books which I started last month, and I have several writing projects in store as well. May all of you enjoy your reading and your writing this year. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

Cover to cover

Last night I read about a dozen pages about the history of Yugoslavia, followed by half a dozen pages about Zoroastrianism. With that reading, I finished a task that has taken me almost three years, reading the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Macropaedia from cover to cover.

My family has owned this encyclopedia set for a while, as one might surmise from the mention of Yugoslavia. When a salesman came by the house sometime in the previous century, I jumped at the chance to own a copy of the prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica. When I was growing up, my family had two encyclopedia sets—one was called the Book of Knowledge, and the other was the Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia. I remember my mother coming home from the grocery store with the Funk & Wagnall’s, one volume every week until we had the entire set.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Encyclopedia Britannica, it consists of three sets of books. The first set is called the Micropaedia. Our edition has twelve volumes, consisting of short articles about a great many things. Following the Micropaedia comes the Macropaedia. Our edition has seventeen volumes, consisting of longer essays about important and complex topics, ranging from geography and history to biology, chemistry, physics, economics, psychology, philosophy, religion, and the fine arts. There is also a one volume Propaedia and a two volume index, for a total of thirty-two volumes.

When we got the encyclopedia set, I built a bookshelf to hold all thirty-two volumes. This shelf and its volumes have a prominent place in our living room. Nobody is ever expected to read an encyclopedia set from cover to cover; the encyclopedia is a reference source, a place to check if one wants to remember when Christopher Columbus died or how many symphonies Mozart wrote.

With the Britannica came a brochure about another set by the same publishing company: the Great Books of the Western World. I would have liked to buy that set, but the Britannica pretty well exhausted the book budget of the family for some time to come. I kept the brochure, though, and scoured the family library to see how many Great Books we already owned. When people asked what I wanted for Christmas or for my birthday, I would give them a list of Great Books not yet in our library. Over time, I hoped to accumulate the equivalent of the set of Great Books—not in matching covers or all the same size, but the content was what mattered to me.

Then came a windfall opportunity. I was volunteering to organize books for the used book sale at the local library. Donations come throughout the year, but the sale only takes place three weekends of the year. I noticed that a local college had donated a set of the Great Books. Three volumes were missing, and a couple more were water-damaged. As we moved around other books, I kept eying the set of Great Books. Finally I mentioned how much I wanted to own a set like that. The director of volunteers replied, “We can’t sell this set in this condition. Do you want to take it home?”

“How much are you charging?” I asked, with hope that it would be something I could afford.

“It’s a gift,” she answered. “It’s my way of thanking you for all your help.”

In late 2007, then, I brought home my free copy of the Great Books of the Western World. I pulled out the old brochure to identify the missing volumes, and I was delighted to see that I already owned copies of those works. Since it was late in the year, I decided that I would wait until January 1, 2008. Then, on New Year’s Day, I would begin reading Homer’s Iliad.

Nearly five years later, I had reached my goal. In five years I had read the entire Great Books series from Homer to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As I closed the last volume of the Great Books, I wondered what I should choose for my next great reading project. My eyes strayed across the room until they were captured by the Encyclopedia Britannica.

On January 1, 2013, I started reading about accounting. (“A one and A two…”) I didn’t read every day, but on the days I did read, I averaged about twenty pages. I was reminded about many things I had learned in high school and college and had forgotten. I found new material to add to my lectures in history classes. I finally understood things I had wondered about for years, such as what it means when someone says, “Polar bears aren’t really white; they just look white.” As I read, I tried to pick up one interesting new item to remember each day. I couldn’t list them all for you now, but some of them do spring to mind again from time to time. (Did you know that rabbits are not rodents?)

Of course the big question now is what big project do I want to start this January? The Micropaedia is trying to get my attention…  J.