Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bookshelves and memory

Oops.  I've let things slide blog-wise for two and a half weeks.  I realize this doesn't affect the balance of power in the Middle East or cure cancer or anything important, but I suppose it does represent a dereliction of duty of sorts.
After a late-morning/early-afternoon visit to a urologist for an ultrasound (of the non-invasive type, thankfully) followed by time playing with old Excel files and trying to put them together into one file (I'm discovering that I'm not a fan of spreadsheets), I'm in my impromptu home office looking at one bookshelf, one among many in this house, and letting them remind me of the variety of bumps and bruises and twists and turns my strange little life has taken.  The nostalgia (some positive, some less so) is less about the books themselves or the contents thereof than about the places in life that caused me to add those books to my library.  Some of them should probably have been given away or traded in to the local library or moved in some manner.  Some of them I'll hold forever whether I ever read them again or not.  Some of them I'd love to get rid of, but then somebody else might read them, and I really don't want to be party to that.
There are non-book items on the shelf, to be sure: a plush Snoopy that plays some winter/Christmas tune if you squeeze the snowflake he's holding, a baseball decorated with images from a drawing at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg (a souvenir from my wife's trip there), a stray pencil sharpener, three composer "action figures" -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven -- still in original packaging.  But the books themselves are a varied lot that would have told me things about myself I wasn't always sharp enough to notice, if only I'd been paying more attention.
This is a bit of a miscellaneous shelf.  Others are more tightly organized; old musicological volumes on one, hymnals and books on worship on another, texts from theology or biblical classes or church history on another.  This shelf holds stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else and doesn't really go together.
There are a few books dating from my first trip around as a seminarian: a couple of old handbook/companion volumes to the '75 and 91 Baptist Hymnals, The Church Anthem Book, McElrath and Eskew's Sing With Understanding.  A handful of books on this shelf date from this second turn as seminarian; texts from classes I've taken in Christian Education and Celtic Spirituality, other books acquired not as textbooks but in relation to subjects covered in courses I've taken or that simply have forced themselves upon my mind since starting here -- a couple of volumes on Paul, for example, as well as a Wendell Berry book and a pair by Sara Miles.
As noted above, most of the textbooks I've acquired here are on bookshelves elsewhere in the house, as are most of the old musicological books I didn't give away.  A number of the books on this bookshelf do date back to my teaching years, though.  Not the KU years, but at my previous stop, a small evangelical school in south Florida.  Some of them were books I used in attempting to teach courses in the small church music program the school offered.  That was a strange experience.  I was actually happy for the chance to put that old church music degree to use, but the experience only taught me that, barely more than a decade after acquiring it, my knowledge of the field was hopelessly out of date.  I could no longer avoid the whole "contemporary" worship phenomenon, for example, as I had successfully done while living in Tallahassee.  The end result probably was that I had more to learn in the class than I was able to teach.
Other books on the shelf dating from that period are more general, philosophical volumes on the subject of "Christian higher education" or on evangelicalism more generally.  These were generally an attempt to understand more fully the environment in which I found myself at this particular school.  I can't say the attempt was totally successful, but it did lead to my figuring out that I really wasn't an evangelical anymore, if I had ever been a "real" evangelical in the first place.  At the time the experience seemed a signal and confirmation that I was indeed on the right track, moving away from that seminary experience and into academia.  Perhaps in hindsight, the experience was less of an end and more of a beginning of, or at least a preliminary to the fool's errand on which I now find myself.  A few others date from the period for different reasons; one represents a faculty book club gone horribly awry, a couple of others relate to conferences attended while on the faculty there, and a couple I know date from the period, but for the life of me I can't remember why I acquired them.
There are several books by N.T. Wright on this shelf.  These were in fact mostly acquired before officially setting off on this fool's errand, but have been useful along the way.  Again, perhaps if I'd paid more attention at the time I'd have picked up on the fact that something was going on in my soul to which I wasn't paying sufficient attention.
A few of the books were picked up in the preparation for coming to Union.  One was for the preparatory "communities of learning" program Union offers, and a couple of the others, including Pastor by Will Willimon, were acquired just because they seemed relevant to the experience.  Others are more individual in their purpose in my collection: one by a former college professor of mine, a couple acquired solely because of their provocative titles (such as Jesus Was a Liberal), a couple purchased just to read on long plane trips, a couple from a visit to Colonial Williamsburg recently, and a few here and there that I can't even remember when or why I picked up.
It's a bit of a jumble, which is a fairly accurate description of my life.  It would not make for a good biography -- too jumbled, rather incoherent in too many places.  Life, of course, does not obey literary rules or Hollywood scripts.  At times it feels less like one life than two or three or four.  How many more are yet to come, who knows?
The books have their own merit, of course, as written word does, but they also live in a context, my context, and in some cases that context has overwhelmed the content and given to those books meanings that their authors could not or would not have intended.  They have become markers of a life strangely lived, rather like a jigsaw puzzle with broken pieces; hard to piece together but still revealing a picture when nudged together carefully.  In this case, though, the puzzle is unfinished, and I don't even have all the pieces necessary to complete it yet.

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