The Reading Radicals

Over lunch, a friend and I were talking about my post from yesterday and about David Edwards’s Burning All Illusions. Though I still fear that some of his ideas are being called in from way too far out in left field, it was wonderful to share ideas with some one who also senses that there is a kind of madness lurking at the edges of our nicely constructed social reality. She and I both would identify as “conscious hypocrites” (my husband’s phrase – he certainly includes himself in this camp too); sometimes I think we tend to get carried away by the sweep of our own consciousness. But that is another matter…

Since we are both library types, we drifted to the topic of the book itself. Usually, I am an obsessive underliner who has not truly absorbed a work unless its margins are dripping with my slanted script, but this time I actually borrowed Edwards’s book from the library. I was pleased because I found I was interacting with the text in a different way by taking notes in my journal as I read. Instead of cramming my thoughts between printed paragraphs, I was able to take the time to move further into ideas and take them over several pages. My liberation from the book was enabled by the fact that Google Books has the text available online. I could mark page numbers in my notes with the confidence that I could reference the book whenever I needed – even without paying Amazon twelve or fifteen dollars for the privilege.

I was about to wax complimentary on the fact that Edwards was such a democratic soul (in the originaly sense of “democratic” that goes beyond the limping giant that currently could be called democracy) that he allowed his decade old book to be fully available online, but I just looked a little closer and realized that “limited preview” in this case means that scattered pages are missing. The first chapters seem fully available, but it seems they start leaving out bits of the punchline as you delve deeper into the work. I guess I will figure out how lucky a reader I am depending on whether the passages I found most stirring are available. At any rate, the limitations of digitization projects does not really affect what we were trying to discuss (though it may prove a lot about my ambivalence about compensating people for their work and wanting to make information available to everyone).

We talked about the ownership of books and the drive to possess knowledge if not by reading them, then at least by purchasing them. There is so much ego tied up in filling shelves with spines that reflect who we are as people, both to those who might visit our homes and to ourselves (when all seems too confusing and desperate, at least we stare at the legion of titles and contemplate all of those authors who had things figured out well enough to write it all down). In a time when we drown in paper and curse junk mail and do not even have time to keep up with the magazines that arrive like clockwork, how is it that we can justify purchasing just one more book to get us over the free shipping limit?

My friend had the idea that it is an inherent distrust in the structures of our culture to be the ideal guardians of a beloved book; she felt that there were some volumes she couldn’t leave to chance because they just meant too much to her. I agree with that need to protect an object we can love so intimately, a sacred symbol of the ideas that alter the course of lives. Also I think such behavior is a half-acknowledgment of the sense of impermanence so many of us have. But I also think it to be an interesting example of the way that our addiction to the material and to security in general becomes abundantly clear. I can become galvanized by idealistic talk of changing the way that society defines success and decry the capitalist system that allows the rich to become even more ridiculously wealthy at the expense of those who happen to speak funny languages or live in far flung lands, but I shudder at giving up a book collecting habit that can be described as nothing other than a crazy luxury (especially since, as I said, I spend Monday through Friday in a library boasting one million volumes).

This little radical heart has a lot more searching to do before it is going to convince this bibliophile to change her ways. Maybe if I do a little more reading…

(And thanks to the divine Miss M for inadvertently playing a role in tonight’s entry!)

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.