Tag Archives: books

Telling the Truth about God: book launch

TtTaG cover

‘Telling the Truth about God’ was published by John Hunt/Christian Alternative press in 2019 as part of their Quaker Quicks series. It can be purchased as a paperback or eBook from the publisher, or ordered from any ordinary bookshop either in person or online.

My book, Telling the Truth about God, is out this month! Copies are already in some book shops and can be ordered online, including direct from the publisher.

I am also holding a book launch event for it – Saturday 6th April, 2pm, at the CLC bookshop in Birmingham (at Carrs Lane). Refreshments will be provided, and I’ll be signing copies and talking a bit about the book and how I came to write it.

Full details in the book launch flyer [pdf].

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Reading: January

During January, I read 20 books. You can find the details of all of them on my Goodreads account, but I thought it might be interesting to share some general observations about them. Later in the year, as I get further into my research project, I might write more detailed reviews of my reading as a way to share my research, but for January something broader seems in order.

Four books were related to my research work on liberal Quaker theology. Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly and Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order actually have a lot in common – one newer and one older, one more convergent and one firmly in the conservative tradition, but both explorations of Quaker practice and its underlying theology. The Promise of Paradox is more generally Christian, while also having clear Quaker roots, and God the Trickster? is at once both a typical liberal Quaker anthology (the anthology format is characteristic of the need to incorporate a range of views), but at the same time unapologetically only represents one strand of Quaker experience.

I read nine novels and one graphic novel. Some of these had been sitting on my shelf or my reading list for a while – I bought Black Panther #1 and read it almost straight away, but it had been on my ‘to obtain’ list for two years. Others were suggested to me – I owned a copy of Decline and Fall anyway, and re-read it after maybe fifteen years to discuss it with a book club. (Interesting that I’d kept it, actually, since I rarely re-read things and tend to pass novels on after a year or two.) One, All the Conspirators, was a good read but had been sent to me by mistake when I tried to order another book by Isherwood!

I also read six non-fiction books not directly related to my research. Ireland: a Short History is probably heavier than most people require as holiday preparation, but was very readable for a textbook and certainly succeeded in filling me in on the background. Living a Feminist Life had been on my reading list for a while and had lots of helpful insights, while Queer City, which I’d also been thinking of reading for some time, turned out not to be worth it at all. I made up for that disappointment with a different and excellent biography, Scanty Particulars: the Life of Dr James Barry.

There are other ways to divide up books, of course. There’s author identity, for example: of those 20 books, 9 were by women, 10 by men, and one an anthology. As far as I know, none of the authors were trans (although gender complexity is a major feature of the biography of James Barry). I think that all but three of the authors were white. Similarly, to the best of my knowledge all but three of the authors were straight.

Or there’s format: I read five of the books on my Kindle, and the rest on paper (14 paperbacks and one hardback). Two, a graphic novel and a history through old photographs, were heavily illustrated, while the rest were mainly text.

Or method of obtaining them: one through a book club/circulating library, four from Woodbrooke’s library, three from the Library of Birmingham, one from the University of Birmingham library, three picked up in second-hand shops, one ordered second-hand online, and one sent by accident when I ordered something else. Apart from the five Kindle books, only the graphic novel was purchased new, for which I should probably apologise to my author friends. 🙂

Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!

Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.

Putting Quaker faith & practice in context

This is the last month of the project to as Quakers to read Quaker faith & practice together. Many groups won’t finish yet, some people are just starting, and I hope we’ll all go on engaging with the book in different ways. If you’ve been reading and you’d like to give some feedback, you can do that through this one-question survey. The material suggested by the calendar for this month, though, falls nearly-but-not-quite outside Qf&p itself: the ‘Introduction’ at the beginning, and the ‘Notes on the history of the text’ at the end (no link because it’s not, currently, in the online version: I’ve made enquires about that). Layout nerds will note that while most parts of Qf&p have paragraph numbers (chapter number, dot, paragraph number, like this: 13.02), both these sections have page numbers.

IMG_20170408_114015

The first page of the Introduction, showing page number rather than paragraph numbers.

Both sections also have the function of putting Qf&p into a broader context. The Introduction describes some of the history of the text and also talks in some detail about the composition of this text, noting concerns of the Revision Committee: “special attention has been given to the inclusion of a wider range of contributions from women”, for example. It ends with this comment: “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.” This isn’t, as I read it, intended to diminish the value of the book, but rather to point to the purpose of the book. A book of discipline, of which Quaker faith & practice is an example, aims to steer the reader towards the right way of living. In some cases it will be very specific about that (about the right ordering of meetings for worship for business, for example). In other cases it will offer the prayerful reflections of some who have faced the same or similar challenges before, and leave the reader to discern their own way forward.

For me, the value of reading these sections right at the end is that they help to make sure we understand what Quaker faith & practice thinks it is, and how it came to be. The ‘Notes on the history of the text’ are especially useful in clarifying that Qf&p is one stage in a process, a process which has been changing with technology (books of extracts were circulating in manuscript form before a printed volume was produced in 1783) and with the needs of the Society (people often tell me it should be produced in two volumes, but in the late nineteenth century our book of discipline was printed in three volumes). I don’t know where that process will take us next, but I hope and pray that knowing this text – and some of its history – will help us make good decisions in due course.

If you haven’t started reading yet, there’s still time: at the moment it looks like the question of whether this is the right time for the next revision of our book of discipline will come to Yearly Meeting in May 2018.

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 21

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have been invited, by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group of which I am a member, to read and get to know our current Book of Discipline – Quaker faith & practice – before deciding whether or not it is time to revise it.

We are beginning with Chapter 21, Personal journey. This chapter contains selections of extracts about youth, age, living a full life, creativity, and death; these are partly arranged in a chronological way, with youth first and death towards the end, and partly not – some could be part of life at any age, and by ending the chapter with ‘Suffering and healing’, rather than death, reading it as a whole is not as bleak as it could be.

One thing that struck me about the chapter as a whole is the metaphor of journey for life. This is a familiar and much used one – we talk about spiritual journeys often, for example, and the image of travel underlies talk about finding Quakerism being like coming home. However, it isn’t always a helpful image. Many of us only set out to travel physically when we have an aim n mind, and the spiritual search does not always or even often work like that. Many of us find travel uncomfortable, something to be endured until we can arrive, and but this is not at all the attitude to life I find in these extracts. It’s all very well to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s very rarely been my experience of actual travel. (In the picture at the top of this post, I’m travelling to work; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be going if the destination weren’t important to me.)

Doubts about the title asides, this chapter contains some of my favourite passages. I can’t possibly pick out every one, so here are three which I find myself especially treasuring at the moment.

21.01. This passage by Rufus Jones speaks about how he came to learn Quakerism in a Quaker household. He talks, not of being taught, although words were involved, but of being shown, of the religion of his family being something they did together. It’s clear that there was teaching – including Bible reading every day – but that, in memory at least, it was also centrally about experience.

21.19. Dorothy Nimmo’s story is, as she says in the passage, a classic one, and it’s a classic for a reason. This passage reminds me of a debate I sometimes have with my friends about whether I am a  Slytherin. (I am.) It also describes an experience I have had, and I’m sure many others have had, of coming to Meeting with nothing to offer except a need. “Whatever you have.” As someone who has been reprimanded in other settings for being too needy and demanding, I find the idea that I can come to Meeting with nothing but a need very freeing.

21.68. This passage by Iain Law speaks about suffering and death, and how the particular circumstances of Andrew’s death made it difficult to talk about among Friends. The specifics of this passage arise from a historical moment which deserves to be remembered as such; but it also speaks to a broader issues, to the problems which can arise when we are fearful of the reactions of Friends and hold back in ministry. I’ve done this myself – or at other times, not held back, and been met with confused, upset, confusing and upsetting responses.

Before finishing this post, I want to take a moment to address two questions that are asked in the introduction to the Reading Qf&p project: one about the history and development of Quakerism, and one about the authority of the text.

One big issue in the development of Quaker thought is discussed in this chapter – attitudes to creativity and especially to music. This chapter is clear that although early Friends were opposed to music, Friends today are not – indeed, we are broadly in favour of the arts even as we choose to use them not at all or only very sparingly in our worship. There are hints, however, of another shift – Quakers may not officially celebrate Christmas but in 21.25 we can pray for spiritual gifts to be in our Christmas stockings.

What authority does this text have? It inspires and suggests. This chapter doesn’t give instructions but recounts personal responses to situations which we may recognise echoed in our own lives. This chapter can’t have the authority f command because of the subject matter it deals with – too personal, too emotional – but perhaps it can have an authority of guidance: when you are in situations like these, here are some recommendations, some suggestions, some previous experiences to reflect on and, at least, know that you are not alone.

R is for Reading

Reading is on my mind as I prepare to teach a new group of undergraduates – in only a month! – including writing lecture slides of tips for succeeding at university. One of the things I remember being told when I began to study philosophy was that there was a lot to be gained from reading a text more than once – reading the whole way through to get the shape of the argument, and then again for bits I didn’t get the first time, and perhaps again for details after that. This goes against all my instincts, which are to read things once and then assume that – absent a long gap or a particular new slant – I don’t need to read anything again. That’s good enough for novels (although there are a handful which I have read more than once, or intend to read again one day). It works well enough for some philosophical texts – especially if I took good notes on the first pass, or if it turns out not to be as useful for the current project as I hoped it would be – but the advice to read again is sometimes sound. In particular, denser texts often benefit from two passes – one for shape and one for detail. It can be easy to get distracted by the detail and miss the shape if you don’t read this way.

Have you ever been to a big museum, or somewhere like a Sealife centre, where there are loads of fascinating things to look at but the overall pattern is hidden by the wealth of detail? I have a cousin who, especially in childhood, liked to hurry through such places on a first pass, getting the overall picture, and would then request to be taken back to specific exhibits which had been deemed worthy of further attention. This approach gives you a view which many people never get – I’ve been to the London Aquarium, but I looked at fish; I couldn’t draw you a map of the place, even though I gradually became aware that sometimes I was looking at the same fish again from a different angle.

This advice – read carefully, read twice – is coupled with another co-intuitive piece of advice which makes good sense in some contexts: don’t read too much. It’s tempting to try and read everything you can find on a subject when you’ve been asked to write an essay about it, but this doesn’t actually make good essays. Exactly how much you need to read does vary between topics – are you looking at facts, or opinions, or arguments, or theory, or a mixture? – but in general, something you’ve skim-read and referenced doesn’t add as much to an essay as something which you’ve read and thought about carefully. Going back to the aquarium metaphor, the more carefully you’ve looked at the fish in a particular tank and the longer you’ve spent with them, the more you’ll be able to tell me about them. You need to look at enough other tanks to be able to compare the fish and point out what is special about them, but after a certain point, looking at more tanks of sharks won’t improve your essay on seahorses.

tl;dr: reading is an important skill, and quality can be more important than quantity.