Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Best Books Are Humorous

I've been on an admittedly self-indulgent kick lately, waxing philosophical about what makes for the best books. I write these posts as a reader, writer and editor, but I freely acknowledge that they remain my opinions, and I also readily admit that it's been important to me that each entry in the series prominently feature the letter H.

So far I've suggested that the best books are hard to read: they aren't poorly written or needlessly arcane, but they contain ideas that make us uncomfortable by ourselves, and so they are best read in community. I've also suggested that the best books are humble, in that they do not pretend to offer the last word on their subject matter, nor do their authors claim any authority beyond that which is immediately apparent to the reader. I have two Hs left, although I've forgotten one of them. So for this post I'll go with the H I remember: the best books are humorous.

I don't mean that the best books are joke books. In my humble opinion, most joke books are hard to read simply because they are (a) horrible and (b) not funny. Rather, I think the best books carry within their writing a sense of humor that is born out of the author's humility and extrapolated out into something more universally true. The stories these writers tell aren't necessarily fantastical absurdist escapism, although some of them may well be. But they are funny, because we recognize in them a bit of ourselves, a bit of our parents or our children, a bit of our most favorite and least favorite people.

Even painful subjects can be treated with some humor, but only in the best books can they thus be treated well. Such writers recognize that we don't cease to be human in the wake of tragedy or loss or otherwise difficult circumstances; we continue to feel the range of emotions common to the human condition. That includes humor, because even when we're sad some things will strike us as simply laughable.

I'd argue that the Bible can be counted among the best books at least in part because of its savvy use of humor. The first laugh in the Bible is recorded in the book of Genesis, when old and childless Sarah overhears God promising her husband a son. She laughed out of bitterness, denying it to God's face when he called her on it. But the last laugh was on her, when soon enough she found herself groaning through childbirth and bearing a son, whom she named, appropriately enough, Isaac, or "Laughter." It's a perfect story, and it's just a scene. Plenty more where that came from.

The best books are not merely humorous, of course, but I'd argue that a humorless book--whether a novel or a book of poems or a book of nonfiction or a book of holy scriptures--is not telling the reader the whole truth.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Somewhere in Middle America

This past weekend I was in three states in three days. I ate faux-Mexican food from two fast-food Mexican franchises. I left my shampoo in Omaha and two days' worth of facial hair in Marshalltown. I had no Internet access and no time to dilly dally.

I now consider it axiomatic that when you are visiting family and friends, you simply must not schedule yourself too tightly. I had to cut short my time with my friends the Heuertzes, who opened their home to me and covered my tab, and with my family the Marshalltown Gradys, who let me sleep on their futon and clutter up their already tightly packed weekend. I had to cancel lunch with my friend Web and, rather than enjoy a lunch with my parents, snatched a lunch out of their hands and ran back to my car. I was left in each instance wishing I had more time to catch up and wondering when I'll be able to shake loose enough time to visit again.

Still and all, it was an awesome weekend. I drove to Omaha to crash the book release party for Simple Spirituality, a book that you simply must read, and read slowly and deliberately. I had been the editor for the author, Chris Heuertz, and began to fancy myself his friend from early in the process. This was my second visit to his community, Word Made Flesh, and for more than a year I had been pining to get back and see all my new friends. Most of them were on hand for the party, along with some new friends: the artist who sculpted a prominent piece of public art based on the meditations that make up the book; the artist who in the intervening months had married my new friend from the advocacy team; the businessman who visits Chicago regularly to train franchisees in elder care. The next morning we talked next books, for Chris, for his wife Phileena, and for Word Made Flesh more broadly. I left an hour and a half behind schedule, wishing I could stay an extra day.

From there I drove like the wind to Marshalltown, Iowa, where my aunt Jeannine had set up a discussion for my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I got there just in time for Saturday mass, which means I woke my uncle from his nap for no good reason. At mass my cousin Molly and I were stupefied by how consistently we would flip randomly to the same page in the hymnal, and she sang "He Is the Lord; He Drives a Ford" under her breath to impress me, to my aunt's great chagrin. My cousin Kevin showed me an episode of Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog" while Uncle Pete grilled and cousins Colleen and Theresa got cleaned up from detassling corn and got dressed for their performance of Oliver. Pete is in the play as well, but he had to play host first.

That night Molly went back to school, Kevin chilled at home, Pete, Colleen and Theresa performed at the playhouse, and Jeannine and I went to a book discussion group, which was held in a Victorian house being meticulously restored by a single mother of four. Impressive. I spent the evening trying to keep up intellectually with a room full of omnicompetent women, a very accommodating young man and, at least for a while, the parish priest. I had worried that I wouldn't be able to keep the group's attention, but we had a spirited discussion that lasted several hours. The actors beat us home, actually--which was nice, because it allowed us some time to catch up.

The next morning Pete and the other kids went to mass while Jeannine and I talked about the evening. Then breakfast, then out the door an hour later than I had intended, wishing I had more time to at least see the play and my other aunt and uncle who were driving down later that morning. But I had a gig Sunday night that wouldn't wait.

I had intended to have lunch with my parents on the way home, but a giant freight train couldn't decide whether it wanted to go east or west, so I sat at an intersection for half an hour while it made up its mind. So I phoned ahead, and my parents had a sandwich and cookies waiting for me, because they are wonderful people. I made it home just barely in time for our church's Vacation Bible School, where I jumped around and made a fool of myself, and then frantically cleaned the house before my wife got home at 12:30am from her ten-day-trip to Guatemala.

So, how was your weekend?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Best Books Are Humble

It strikes me, having reread my previous post "The Best Books Are Hard to Read," that there's a vulnerability to conceit on the part of readers and writers of books that are hard to read. I maintain that the best books are clearly and compellingly written, yet leave the reader uncomfortable and in need of company. But the best books aren't merely hard to read; the best books are also humble.

That's not always been the case. Once upon a time the best books were written by the best people--at least according to the best publicists. Books were the domain of the privileged, the wildly successful, the ridiculously influential, the most likely to succeed. Thomas Merton wrote cavalierly about the inevitability of his friends being published in Seven Storey Mountain. Not to compare the two, but Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf could be published because he was going places.

But the best books are necessarily humble, in the sense that they can be written with only a modicum of authority. Merton does that; Hitler doesn't. Meanwhile, although book-writing still has some of its mystique, it has been effectively stripped of authority. If I--some random guy from the suburbs--can write two books (one about comic books, even though I have no background in the comic book industry beyond throwing a lot of my money at it), then really anyone can be elevated to the authority of the author. Ah, democracy.

That's OK, though, because authority is really somewhat ephemeral to begin with, and with some 200,000 titles in English being published every year, every book is ephemeral. No book can reasonably claim to have the final word, and woe to all of us if one book did have the final word, because only the heavy hand of providence could ensure that we'd find it in the enormous annual pile of print.

So the best books recognize that the hard things they have to say are only one voice in a much, much larger conversation, and that the conversation is ongoing, and that the things they say will, in the best world, ultimately be supplanted by better words and better thoughts.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Best Books Are Hard to Read

Here's a line from Thomas Merton's No Man Is an Island that I'm going to be chewing on for a while:

We too easily assume that we are our real selves, and that our choices are really the ones we want to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are (though morally imputable, no doubt) largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.

I'm reading this book by Merton alongside a book that might best be described as propaganda--a digest of several people's arguments against a predictable set of contrarian beliefs, presented with a high level of authoritarian conceit and adversarial derision. I read this other book and feel like I'm watching Fox News.

Both books are provocative, but only one strikes me as particularly conducive to constructive conversation and fruitful meditation. That's the Merton book; I'm not going to name the other one.

I've drawn a tentative conclusion about what makes a book good. It's tentative, so I could be convinced otherwise, and I should also say that I have in mind principally nonfiction books, although I suspect a similar principle applies to fiction as well. Here goes: The best books are hard to read.

By "hard" I don't mean unintelligible; I think part of the craft of writing is clear and compelling prose, rich and evocative poetry. More and more, however, I think that a book should be hard enough to read that we can't be by ourselves with it. The best books leave us unsettled, uncomfortable, moved in such a way that we feel a need to share it, to borrow wisdom from people we love and trust in order to better wrestle with it, to lay it open in front of other people and say, "What must I do with this?" The best books compel us toward something we may not even be able to yet identify, while humbling us enough to turn to others for support. The best books don't send us to our friends to wag our fingers at them but to ask them to read with us, guide us, pray for us.

If that's true, then perhaps the best reader ever was King Josiah, who when read the books of Moses by his royal secretary, "ripped his robes in dismay" and ordered his court to "pray to GOD for me and what's left of Israel and Judah. Find out what we must do in response to what is written in this book" (2 Chronicles 34:19-20). I guess even audio books can be good.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

It Takes a Village

Last night was my book release party, a reading and signing event at a local Barnes & Noble. It was a fun time; my friend Ken from Carpe Diem Video Productions crafted an intricate video archive of the event; check back here over the next couple of weeks for the first look. I was reunited with friends from various eras and spheres of my life, and I spoke for three hours straight in an outdoor voice. My apologies to the non-Me-Ville bookbuyers last night.

I once heard a conservative humorist say he wanted to write a book called "It takes a village to raise an idiot." He was critiquing the Clinton administration--Hillary Clinton had recently released her book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child--but I nearly spit out my coffee over the title alone. It does strike me, however, that some things are best pursued not in solitude but in community, such that even something so self-indulgent as a book signing is made richer and more enjoyable by the participation of many people:

* friends who lent me their talents, such as my friend Ken the filmmaker or my friend Elaina, who got the best photo of me with my wife in recent memory
* friends such as the Arnotts, who bought me a special pen to use in signing the books
* friends such as the Cotes and the Bigelows, who already had copies of the book but who bought more just for kicks
* friends such as the Hsus and my brother Steve, who kept their kids up late or who deferred going home for the night so that they could be a part of the evening
* friends such as Myron, who didn't come to the signing, choosing instead to take care of my other responsibilities so I could be free to play
* friends such as Kristie and Mark, who patiently endured being put on the spot for the sake of the theatricality of the night
* friends such as Dave and Eric and Rachel, who scrambled from one event to the other in support of multiple friends with overlapping special occasions
* friends such as Emily, who showed up early, knowing nearly nobody

It can truly be said that a book signing without people would be incredibly sad. But last night I came home happy, because for a few hours last night I was surrounded by friends.

Sniff, sniff. I handed out a quiz last night: the first person to correctly determine which of the following fourteen quotations are from Deliver Us from Me-Ville, and which are from random crazy bloggers (emphasis on "random," I confess I took quotes out of context to make them sound crazy), gets a free copy of the book.

1. “Life is passing by so fast. Where have I been? What have I been doing?”
2. “We’re a meandering step on an evolutionary journey dictated by random events and mathematical possibilities.”
3. “The annals of power are reduced in our minds to an abstraction.”
4. “I offer all my salutations to the Guru.”
5. “A single, solitary human being couldn’t possibly embody such complexity of feeling in one life, right?”
6. “When you buy any informational product or downloadable software, do you feel better about it when it has an image of a book cover or a software box, even though you know it’s just a download?”
7. “Countless men and women are dehumanized by new technologies that render them incompetent or, at worse, inconsequential.”
8. “Don’t think too much. It's not good for my health.”
9. “The world is alternately enticed and threatened by watching us.”
10. “I simply want to retaliate.”
11. “I'm not in the sand because I was seeking the shade.”
12. “This was my first move and extremely difficult for me as I was leaving all my friends behind and starting new. Wow. I am getting way off topic.”
13. “Self-denial isn’t a willful act.”
14. “May the simple act of nourishing . . . bring you thankfulness.”

Monday, July 07, 2008

Oak is to Brook as Barnes is to Noble

In case you're among the handful of people I haven't already pestered about this . . .


Wednesday night, July 9 (that's real soon), I'll be at the Barnes & Noble in Oak Brook, Illinois, to read from, answer questions about and sign copies of my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I'll be getting there at 7pm and reading at 8pm. The store will kick me out at 9pm. I'd love to have you join me before they do.

I fully recognize that a two-hour book signing is not worth traveling across country for, but if you're in the Chicago area, please do consider coming out. A friend of mine will be videotaping the whole thing, so if you aren't able to come, check back here or on Facebook for a video archive. Sure to be exciting; I tend to spit when I talk.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

North Carolina

I'm fighting sleep in Macomb, Illinois, as I wait for a midnight concert by Over the Rhine to cap off my first day at the Cornerstone Christian Music Festival. I spoke here this morning to a tent full of high school students, and since then I've been realizing that North Carolina is quickly becoming my favorite state.

I've reconnected with one person here and met fifteen to twenty others, nearly all of whom live in North Carolina, all of whom are remarkably thoughtful, wildly creative and wonderfully hospitable. I've been to North Carolina only once, for a conference in Charlotte, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and now I'm wondering if there's something in the water that makes people there cool. It's just a theory, of course . . .

I spoke on the challenge of abandoning our wrong ideas about God without being abandoned by God. It went fine, I suppose, although I could have benefited from one more cup of coffee before I went up. The general idea was that our ideas about God aren't necessarily transferable from vicissitude to vicissitude, but that they become comfortable and so we cling to them when we should be clinging to God. So the challenge is to lean into the discomfort of living without failed ideas of God, in the hope that God himself will sustain us. Or something like that. I feel sorry for the poor folks who drove all the way in from my favorite state just to hear that, although at least they have a long, long road trip to decipher it.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...