By their book piles ye shall know them

It’s been a long time – a very long time, maybe a year now? – since I wrote anything ordinary around here.

It is June. The winter that seemed like it would never end has ended; the mounds of dirty snow long gone, replaced by tangled mounds of rhododendrons and day-lilies and whatever those little green things are. I moved a pile of day-lilies last month and it looks like a few of them have forgiven me enough to bloom this year anyway. (They will be fine. It is all but impossible to kill day-lilies around here. Drive out a remote country road ten miles into nowhere, and you will eventually see a fine bank of orange day-lilies, and know that somewhere nearby there is a cellar wall or an old family cemetery, all that remains of an abandoned homestead. The stone walls and the day-lilies remember.)

The spring term is complete and I am now two weeks into the summer term, which means that I have added a small pile of books, on African-American humanism and theatrical improv, to the previous four semesters’ book piles. It is the navigational hazard of a scholarly life (or the approximation thereof), compounded by a genuine lack of places to put more bookshelves. I have books on the sideboard and books on the table and books next to the back porch door.

And then there are the personal books – books that pre-dated seminary, some of them going back to my undergraduate days, two transcontinental moves ago, and newer acquisitions. Since last fall I have started to attract orphaned books – the remnants of other people’s libraries that are ready to move on to a new keeper. So my basement has four or five boxes now, from two different people’s collections, and when I was offered a chance to go through someone else’s book cull last weekend I was extremely judicious in my selection and still ended up with a small pile of things that will, I hope, prove either interesting or beneficial.

I can’t even really categorize them any more. They mix themselves up by project: pastoral caregiving, poetry, Pagan ritual design, Universalist history, psychology, art, a pile of hymnals and a pile of meditation manuals… and a pile of books on craft technique and another pile of Bibles. I think that pile is all Bibles. I’d have to go look.

I am trying, these days, to buy books electronically whenever I can – if only because I am running out of places to put them.

Sometimes I look at the piles of books on the bedroom floor and want not so much to read them as to have read them, to already have absorbed and internalized whatever wisdom or perspective a particular author has about a particular thing. Even I cannot possibly read fast enough and deeply enough to internalize all of the knowledge that is already contained between covers in my possession — and there is more, new, faster information coming through the computer every single day.

And all these books – a fragment of a fraction of the sum total of human knowledge and understanding – are still too much for any one person to master in a natural lifetime.

The world is changing fast and the things we know turn out to be uncertain. I find this strangely exhilarating, the breathless leap into the unknown, unknowable future. There is a lot of conversation right now that is moving too fast for me to reflect and comment on it; conversation about the sustainability of our economic models, the entangled and interdependent nature of the problems we face (as individuals, communities, institutions, and cultures), the necessity of shifting our fundamental assumptions about how the world works, or ought to work. It is messy and terrifying and – to me at least – a rich and beautiful opportunity.

So what do we do with it?

I’m in favor of indexing. Knowing where to find a bit of information is probably more important most of the time than actually having it memorized, especially for bits of information that are subject to frequent change. Moving from memorization of an established body of knowledge to an efficient indexing system is a piece of the deeper-level shift from “one right answer once and for all time” to “let’s see what works now and come back and check again later if we need to.” It is no longer enough to know what is true; we need to be able to learn what truth looks like, over and over again, as it grows and changes and multiplies.

I’m also in favor of… I don’t know what the professionals call it, but what I think of as pattern analysis or the big-picture view: being able to perceive what emerges through considering lots of disparate data points all together; the chronological arc of history, perhaps, or parallel timelines, or comparing the distribution patterns from one group of data sets to those of an unrelated group of data sets. (I’m reminded of James Gleick’s Chaos, which I read back in the early 1990s. I have a copy around here someplace. I think it’s in the pile next to the back door with Starhawk and Clinebell and Welch.) It’s about looking for similarities and parallels, appreciating correlations and releasing the need to attribute causality or blame. “Whose fault was it?” and “How exactly did it start?” are less important questions than “What are we going to do from here?”

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