Sunday, June 17, 2012


My days have been less about writing and more about reading in the last month. In particular, I felt I had to better elucidate the theme of my book proposal, so I was doing some more background research to make the more ambiguous points clearer. So, in plain speech--most of it is non-fiction reading.

I attended Book Expo America in Manhattan, which was at its usual place, the Jacob Javits Center. Why I always go to this as a person who hates crowds, I don't know. It is the one conference where you can be guaranteed that people will congregate in the middle of aisles, and generally walk around as though everyone else is invisible, scanning the rows as if trying to find a sign of life while people try to get around them. It's like trying to get around the tourists in Times Square. Walking in New York requires a certain speed and rhythm, and having someone abstractly stop in the middle and start looking around, oblivious to everyone around them, is a bit like driving behind someone who hits the brake every 3 seconds. It should be no surprise that New Yorkers experience "sidewalk rage".

A couple of tips for Book Expo if you ever go--for one, be selective. There is always the urge to take every free book handed to you, but a fair amount of it is stuff you would never read, nor would anyone else you know. I always ask what the book is about before taking it, if the author is not familiar. And be careful about taking big, thick books--unless you can easily dump your stuff in a nearby car or hotel room, you will sustain permanent shoulder damage from carrying all that stuff around. The Javits Center is not near anything, so you have to walk if you've taken public transport from anywhere. The other tip has to do with food--don't spend $6.00 on a cup of coffee, if you walk around the exhibits when they open, someone will inevitably be giving away free coffee and breakfast. Vendors also have plenty of snacks, though be careful--the best snacks are at the Christian booksellers, so you have to decide if the homemade chocolate chip cookies are worth their spiel.

I have not started on any of my Book Expo books, though I will tell you that my favorite find is from Coffee House Press. It is a book giving the top 50 favorite reads of proprietors and/or staff of various independent bookstores. They tell me that next year they are going to get the "favorite 50" lists of librarians, so all my colleagues should start to give this some thought.

The current volume is entitled "Read This!" and will be out in September.

My current reads have been James Hillman's "The Dream and the Underworld", Daniel Lerro's "Earth Spirits and Sky Gods", and Rupert Sheldrake's "The Science Delusion", and I've finished all three. Now I am revisiting Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment".

I discussed Hillman in my last blog post. In addition to his objection about interpreting dreams in terms of waking life (dissolving the underworld into the upper world), he also feels that one should not interpret the dream-ego as "objective" while everything else is "subjective". The dream-ego is as symbolic as everything else in the dream. The most interesting chapter to me was on barriers--things that get in the way of our need to negotiate death, which is what the underworld is about, after all. One that stood out to me was "Christianization". To quote Hillman: "The ascension [of Christ] requires that we leave not only our blood behind, like the thymos which did not belong in the underworld and whose desires cost soul. Paul goes Heraclitus one better--or worse, because the Christian ascensional mystery exchanges psyche for pneuma. We pay for spirit with our souls. Christianism's defeat of the underworld is also a loss of soul."

That thought, in fact, forms the very idea of the book I'm working on. But I will leave that for now.

Sheldrake's "Science Delusion" should be required reading for the 21st century. As I've mentioned previously, Sheldrake's thesis is that materialistic philosophy, while it has helped us develop technologies, now undermines science's ability to move forward. He has ten chapters that cover the ten core assumptions of materialism, and he takes them apart. He noted that hardcore materialists like to deny consciousness, vitality, and "soul" (for lack of any real scientific term for this phenomena), but they fail to convincingly remove vitalism from their arguments. They just stick the soul somewhere else--like the genes, for instance. They say the mind is in the brain, but neurological experiments over the last 50-60 years have not proven this. Additionally, science has a group of skeptics that are as difficult as the most fundamentalist Christian believers.

Robert Anton Wilson once said in an interview: "I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity, I had done enough of that in my other books. I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical. All fundamentalism is comical, unless you believe in it, in which case you'd become a fanatic yourself, and want everybody else to share your fundamentalism. But if you're not a fundamentalist yourself, fundamentalists are the funniest people on the planet. The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they're rational!"

Sheldrake can point to various examples of this. One of my favorites is a story about Richard Dawkins. Dawkins wanted Sheldrake to "debate" him on the belief in paranormal phenomena. We're not talking ghosts at this point--just things like intuition, telepathy, precognition. Sheldrake used to dismiss such phenomena, until another highly respected professor suggested to him that there might be something to it. When he encountered examples, he organized experiments. He was able to demonstrate to a certain degree that such "abilities" are a natural part of human experience, experienced by everyone at some time, and statistically occur at significant levels above chance. (It should also be noted that most "psi" research has the strictest blind controls of any experimental field--much stricter than biology or chemistry or even psychology.) When he confronted Dawkins on this, Dawkins said he was not "interested in the evidence"--he just wanted to show that anyone who believed in such phenomena were "enemies of reason" (as his TV show was called). However, in almost all cases, the skeptics won't even look at the evidence. The possibility doesn't fit into their worldview, so no evidence is valid and it doesn't exist. Which doesn't sound much different to me from a fundamentalist Christian who says that the world was created in 7 days because it fits their worldview, and so evidence of evolution must be simply faked. They say the same things on opposite sides of the coin.

Lerro's book is on the development of religion in the Iron Age from a dialectical materialist/Marxist standpoint. The Iron Age is the era I'm most concerned with in the book I'm working on, and Lerro makes many good points, though I don't think his argument represents the whole picture. It does give an interesting context for the disenfranchisement of the underworld.

So, that leaves me at Bettelheim. Bettelheim's book is also a very important one, as it discusses the psychoanalytic importance of fairy tales in the lives of young children. They cannot be regarded as unrealistic "wish fulfillments" or stories that are too violent, or as giving an unrealistic picture of life because they always have "happy endings". Fairy tales are a tool for children to negotiate unconscious anxieties. Children are much closer to the collective unconscious than adults, as they haven't fully formed their conscious egos. Fairy tales, more so than other children's stories, set up a symbolic crisis and a means of resolution, which, as Bettelheim's research demonstrates, allows children to negotiate their difficulties and develop their personalities.

I am now thinking about my own list of 50 books. But I will save that for another post.

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