Tag Archives: books

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.

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Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

Book collections

I’ve been rearranging my books again – I had to unshelve a lot of them to wash some mould off the wall, and I took the opportunity to start sorting them out a bit. This was also much needed due to the seven+ years of comings, goings, and general muddle.

Although there are overlaps and grey-area cases, my books do roughly break into a series of collections.

Fiction. Novels and short stories, all of which I only keep in the long-term collection if I’m likely to read them again – these are mainly the exceptionally good (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Good Omens), the fannishly relevant (e.g. novelisations of Star Wars, Harry Potter), the somehow distinctive (including a few which are hilariously bad – e.g. Druid’s Blood), and fantasy epics so long and/or complicated that you need to re-read the previous parts before the new one comes out (e.g. Katherine Kerr’s Dverry cycle).

Poetry. Individual authors and anthologies. In the recent weeding, I decided to only keep these if they were one of the following three things: a) something I’d studied, 2) something I really liked, or 3) something I found intriguing.

Archaeology. The majority of this collection is about British prehistory, with a particular focus on stone circles and other monuments. There are a few forays into other areas – cathedrals, for example – and a steadily growing range of specific guidebooks, both thematic (bog bodies, fogous, religion) and geographic (Lewis and Harris, the Llyn Peninsula, Cornwall).

Miscellaneous fact. I suspect this is actually two collections, one of the sort of fact books I read from cover to cover (Table-Rappers, anything by Jon Ronson), and one of the sort of fact books I dip into sometimes (the dictionary of place names, Mythic Woods). This division is somewhat blurred by books which are not quite either – Seals, Peter Sellers: A Celebration). At the moment I haven’t decided on an order in which to put them, except by size. Maybe I’ll do it strictly by size, then at least they’ll look neat.

Plays and scripts. Unsure what to do with my Greek tragedies, set of Bernard Shaw plays, Two Ronnies scripts, and Richard Curtis screenplays, I have put them all together. The logic of this is a little dubious but perhaps I’ll sort them chronologically so they are easier to find.

Humour. These are the sorts of books which I used to read in odd moments where I now do Facebook quizzes and browse Tumblr tags. I have sent a lot to the charity shops but some old favourites remain (Max Headroom, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, The Unadulterated Cat, etc.).

Children’s books. This is a mixture of classics from my own childhood (Thomas the Tank Engine belongs to my parents and I don’t know what became of Ben Goes to Hospital, but there’s still The House at Pooh Corner and some others of that sort), together with recent acquisitions aimed at doing ‘religion stuff’ with my Brownies. The latter probably needs weeding now I’ve tried some of them out and have a better idea what goes down well.

Spike Milligan. I hunt all over for these when they’re spread out in fiction/poetry/scripts/(auto)biography/children’s books/humour/something else again, so I decided to give them their own space. I have more than I thought I did, although I’m a long way short of a complete collection.

Religion. Mainly academic books, mainly on subjects I have studied in the past or needed as background but not pursued further – when I have, they tend to be in one of the categories below. There’s also the kind of ‘religion’ book I pick up as general reading – Why I am a Muslim, Principles: Zen, that kind of thing.

Quakerism. We might be quiet in Meeting, but we are very willing to talk, and publish, the rest of the time. I’ve been collecting recent Quaker literature for over three years, and the shelf – and the box of pamphlets – have extended rapidly.

Gender studies and sexuality. I haven’t added much to this collection since I finished my MA, but it’s a useful core to which I refer from time to time. It also complements another specific collection:

Jewish feminism. Very much at the overlap of gender studies and religious studies, I bought all kinds of fascinating books in the course of my theology undergraduate dissertation and my MA dissertation, and have been pleased to use and extend my collection in teaching about this as well.

Philosophy. Again, a background collection of a) things I studied and might want to go back to one day, and b) those pop culture and philosophy books (I can’t recall ever buying one for myself, but I can see why they appeal when people are trying to buy presents for me).

Theology. Post-PhD, this collection is heavily focused on George Lindbeck, John Hick, and Don Cupitt, although it does also contain a lot of feminist stuff and bits of this and that.

Wittgenstein. Both primary and secondary texts, things I just ended up consulting so often – or didn’t find in the library – that I bought them.

Paganism. More a practitioner’s collection than an academic one, this has been formed by periods (perhaps I should say spells) of buying everything relevant I could find, or could find second-hand, and then times of weeding as it became clearer what my real interests are. It’s now so large I think it’s about to need splitting into a series of smaller collections, probably including mythology, Wicca, Druidry, the Northern Traditions, hilarious 101 books, herbals, and a small shrine to Ronald Hutton.

Practical reference books. Distinct from mere factual books in virtue of being useful, these include craft books (cross stitch patterns, bead jewellery), recipe books (The Bean Book, Nanny Ogg), and Girlguiding publications (four or five generations of Brownie handbooks, among other things).

Graphic novels. Some of Sandman, some Hellblazer, a variety of superheroes, a few serious ones like How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, and of course some Wolverine, because he gets everywhere.

Books I haven’t read yet. These have now run to two shelves and are threatening to start a third, so I think I’d better stop writing blog posts and get some reading done!

B is for… Books

I expect a lot of people will write about books… most of the neo-pagans I know began their journeys in paganism through a library or a bookshop. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to share some of our favourite books, so here are some of mine. (Note that these are not really recommendations – such a thing needs to be more specifically tailored to a person and a time, as elf said – but notes on what I have found useful to me at specific times in the past.)

Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, R J Stewart
This was one of the first books about paganism I read, as I followed the trails from archaeology and mythology into neo-paganism and the possibility of continuing practice. I had the library copy out for so long that eventually I had to buy a copy of my own! As a very beginning beginner, the images in this book were some of my earliest altars – I love the image of Brigid especially, though others have spoken equally clearly to my condition over the years. It probably had something to do with my choice of the name Rhiannon, too.

Quaker Faith and Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting
I vaguely remember the discussions which happened in 1994 when Quakers in Britain revised this book, which lays down ‘right ordering’ for our practice and collects inspiration and wisdom from previous and present generations. It isn’t strictly pagan – it’s a book of Christian discipline – but the understanding of Christianity presented, and the attitude to other religions, allows for much exploration. I try to take seriously the advice to “think it possible that you may be mistaken.” (17)

The Urban Primitive, Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein
This was the book which made pagan practice seem like a real possibility for me, town-dwelling and chronically ill. There’s a lot in it which I’ll never use – but the underlying attitude ‘you can do magic anywhere, with anything, and nobody else has to know’ got me started on magic and magical prayer at a time when more ‘cuddly’ books just set up an impossibly romantic goal. Parts which stand out in particular are the advice about clothes, the city deities, and the poem in the front.

The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm
I was delighted when I discovered that this heavy book was also out on Kindle – the ebook reader makes it comfortable for me to read things which my wrists and shoulders would otherwise hate. It was one of the first things I bought on the Kindle, and I read it last year when I was going through some very tough times. Besides being a wealth of information and leading me to explore and re-explore several branches of the English magical tradition, further research on Carr-Gomm’s work lead me to the OBOD Bardic Course which is enriching my life at the moment.

Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism, Isaac Bonewits

Bonewits’s writing is witty and accessible and erudite all at once. In this book he gives an overview of the development of Druidism – much of the recent material drawn from his own experience. It’s a good introduction. I enjoyed Ronald Hutton’s work on the history of Druidry, too, but I’m doing a PhD, and academic writing doesn’t seem so heavy any more. I also hesitated over which of Bonewits’s books to include here, as I have also enjoyed Real Magic and Neopagan Rites  as well as his web writing. There’s something down to earth and practical about Bonewits, though, and this is the book I’d recommend to someone just starting to ask, ‘what is this druid thing anyway?’