Monthly Archives: January 2015
It’s time to wrap up our discussion of the Hebrew Bible. While there is no doubt a great deal more I could write, my mission in doing this series of posts is not to study any particular author or work in detail. Rather, it is more of a reading journal to share my reflections on how the Great Books apply to my own writing and, hopefully, get some of my fellow writers interested in studying classics. I think four posts on the Hebrew Bible is enough for that purpose.
Before I go on I should admit that I only read 26 of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible this time around. One reason was that these are the 26 book directly referenced in Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, which I was reading concurrently. Partly it is because I have read the remaining books before and am eager to get back to the Greek classics. The main reason though, is that all the rest of the books are prophetic works, and I tend to find prophecy hard reading.
Modern literature doesn’t have any direct parallel to the biblical genre of prophecy. The closest thing would probably be those glossy hardbacks written by “experts” predicting financial doom. I don’t tend to enjoy those either, because the writing tends to be poor, the advice is often self-contradictory and, if you pick one up from twenty years ago, you find out that few of the predictions actually happened.
Biblical prophecy is like that, except that the source of the revealed knowledge is supposed to be God, instead of some proprietary computer model or insider knowledge. The writing style is often grating–Jack Miles refers to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as “the manic, the depressive, and the psychotic” prophets, respectively. Because most of the books are collections of different speeches to different groups, the same book will often contradict itself several times. It doesn’t help that some of the books were written by multiple authors. Isaiah, for instance, was probably penned by at least three writers. And then, the fatal problem: many of the prophecies never came to pass.
The basic premise of most of the prophets was that if Israel didn’t straighten out and stop sinning, God would wipe out the country. Afterwards, however, a remnant of the people would survive and be rewarded for their holiness. Well, the destruction certainly happened, several times. The reward, at least in terms that would fulfill the prophecies, hasn’t happened yet.
Of course, Christians see themselves as the remnant, the coming of Jesus as fulfilling many of the prophecies, and their reward in terms of an afterlife and/or a coming kingdom of God on Earth. Muslims also find meaning in the prophecies, although they assert that the words of Mohamed, the final prophet, were necessary to make sense of everything. I don’t wish to detour too far into comparative eschatology, however, so let us stay within the context of Judaism and within the biblical period. Reading the prophetic books, it really seems that the predictions were meant literally and were expected to happen quite soon, within a few generations at most. Most of them didn’t, and Israel slowly lost interest in prophecy as a genre.
And yet, quite a few prophetic books ended up in the Hebrew Bible, and hence to the Christian Old Testament. While the prophetic movement lasted, it deeply affected Jewish thought and history. But I still find the prophetic books a tough read.
This brings us round to the issue of a canon. I’ve already written about the purposes of the Torah and the historical books, but why were other books included in the “official” Hebrew Bible? Why does it include so many prophecies that didn’t quite come true, a books of folk wisdom (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), a temple hymnal (Psalms), or secular historical fiction (Esther) and love poetry (Song of Songs)?
In the days of scrolls, the cannon was not as important. Scrolls were expensive, so people usually only bought the ones they liked or thought were important. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most intact library we know of from the period. That collection includes several apocryphal works but omits the book of Esther. Once the various books in the tradition began to be bond together into a single bible codex, though, the issue of what to put in and what to leave out became critical, since it would shape religious thought for the next two millennia (and counting). We must wonder what criteria these ancient anthologists used, and what philosophical platforms they were trying to support.
Jewish canonization is interesting to us from a standpoint of studying the Hebrew Bible. Canonization in general is a critical issue in any study of the Great Books. Which books are Great, and why? In my own Great Books study I am mostly sticking to Mortimer Adler’s list. Adler’s criteria for a great book were that it had to be influential, you had to be able to read it over and over and get something new from it each time, and it had to be applicable to many times and places. This sounds good in theory, yet other Great Books collections, such as the Harvard Classics, apply similar criteria and come up with very different lists. If I Googled for an hour, I bet I could find fifty different reading lists which each contained someone’s idea of Great Books.
Luckily for me, I don’t need to buy all the Great Books in a single set, such as Adler’s Great Books of the Western World. Rather, my situation is more like the Essenes as they collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. Between free e-books from Project Gutenberg and used paperback classics, I have the freedom to collect and study the works that appeal to me, while still getting the ones that appear on most of the lists.
I would like to return to our discussion of the Hebrew Bible by speaking about some of the ways it has influenced modern literature. The difficulty with that topic, though, is where to start. The Bible has touched our literature more pervasively than any other work. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, being longer containing a greater proportion of narrative, has probably provided even more ideas than the New Testament. The only body of writings which has a comparative influence, at least in English, is Shakespeare’s works. Accordingly, to make the discussion manageable, I will stick to a few examples from a single genre: science fiction. I further narrow it down by discussing only classic sci-fi. Aside from the fact that I like classic sci-fi and have read quite a bit of it, I appreciate the irony that a genre which is often considered the antithesis of spiritual literature and criticised for marginalizing God still manages to mention the Hebrew Bible with such regularity.
Warning, this post contains spoilers!
Consider the fact that the names of at least eleven episodes of the original Star Trek series are recognizable biblical allusions. Gene Roddenberry was a well known secular humanist and in his vision of the future humanity had “moved beyond religion”, but that never stopped his writing team from freely mining the Hebrew Bible for ideas.
The Bible itself makes an appearance in numerous short stories and novels of the 20th century. If you read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in school, perhaps you remember Guy Montag, the protagonist pouring over his contraband copy of the Book of Ecclesiastes, trying to find the hidden worth in the books which his dystopian society had ordered him to burn. In an even more dramatic scene, he tears pages from a Bible to force a former English professor to help him.
More interesting still are the authors who reinterpreted stories from the bible. Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question”, one of the top sci-fi stories of all time, is about a series of powerful self-aware computers, the Multivacs, that spend millennia pondering how to prevent the ultimate heat death of the universe. Finally, after the whole universe has wound down into darkness, the last computer figures it out, and announces “Let there be light.” Asimov, it is interesting to note, also wrote a rather excellent Guide to the Bible.
Actually, if you will excuse the digression, the way God is described in the early books of the Hebrew Bible is not inconsistent with a powerful machine intelligence. God has no back story or childhood, is essentially genderless, and and only slowly begins to manifest human emotions or speak of himself in terms of human relationships. It is almost as if he was an all-powerful sentient computer which was suddenly turned on one day.
As another example of reinterpretation, take Robert Heinlein’s Job a Comedy of Justice. This novel, a satirical critique of Evangelical Christianity (one of Heinlein’s favorite targets) is among my favorite late-period Heinlein works. The protagonist Alex and his lover Marga are bounced from one alternate timeline to another. Each time the transition occurs they lose everything they have, often including their very clothing. Through it all, Alex remains true to his faith in God and keeps the biblical law as he understands it. As a result, when the result that when the rapture occurs he goes to heaven and is soon made a saint. Heaven, unfortunately, is not nearly so pleasant as he had hoped. To make matters worse, pagan Marga is not brought with him. He arranges to be transferred to Hell where he eventually meets Satan and finally gets a straight story for why he was persecuted. Satan still feels bad about his role in the original Job incident from the Bible. With Satan’s assistance, Alex is able to appeal his case to a higher power on the grounds that God has been inconsistent in his treatment of his creations. His appeal is successful and he and Marga are reincarnated in yet another timeline to live out there lives with no memory of what has transpired.
Other authors weave in biblical elements more subtly. JRR Tolkien, although his work is not, strictly speaking, science fiction, is a good example. Tolkien was quite learned about the Hebrew Bible and was a contributor to the Jerusalem Bible, for which he translated the Book of Jonah. The tone and pacing of several passages in the Lord of the Rings are very reminiscent of that of the biblical Deuteronomistic History. The cosmology of Middle Earth, in which a creator god works through lesser celestial beings to influence the created world is reminiscent of the God of the Hebrew bible and his use of angelic messengers. Like Lucifer in the Bible, one of Tolkien’s the angelic Varda revolts against the creator and becomes an enemy to humanity. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, though it draws on many different mythologies for inspiration, is deliberately organized in the same fashion as the Hebrew Bible, with separate works of different genres bound together, starting with a creation myth. Tolkien saw it as artificial scripture to complement his artificial elven language, a projects which he could not even have begun without a deep knowledge of both linguistics and sacred texts.
There are many other examples I could describe, but these should give you a taste of the many ways the Hebrew Bible influenced classic science fiction, as it has every genre of literature in Western Civilization.
The other day, a post from the University of Phoenix showed up in my news feed, extolling their doctoral programs. I couldn’t resist firing off a quick comment:
I stand by the claim. The primary factor that affects the perceived quality of a doctoral program is the number of graduates who get assistant professor jobs at top schools.
UOP’s community manager responded to my comment by throwing out a red herring about how the programs are “practitioner focused”, which has nothing to do with what I said. Even if you are working in the private sector, the reputation of the school matters, and the reputation is driven by tenure-track placements. I was interested, though, to find out that the program has been going on since 2002. Then again, it isn’t surprising I had never heard of it, since no UOP graduates were teaching at the university where I went to graduate school, or seem to be publishing in any of the journals I read.
Later one of their current doctoral candidates tried to turn the discussion around and make it about me. Thank you, Jennifer, but I already have a career. Some of us are interested in the system itself, not just punching our own tickets.
So, as amusing as it is to troll the University of Phoenix on social media, why am I bringing this up on my blog? Well, as I thought about it over the weekend, I realized the existence of such a thing as an online “practitioner focused” doctoral degree is symptomatic of a larger educational issue.
First, let’s consider why any practitioner, which I take to mean someone who is not interested in teaching or public sector research, would need a doctoral degree. I can only think of two reasons: either they think it will prepare them for some sort of private sector research, or it is purely for prestige–one more certificate on the “I love me” wall of the office.
The first possibility is dubious. In my own field, it is hard to think of any sort of research one could do with a DBA that they couldn’t do with an MBA. Really, once you have a handle on statistics, theory of knowledge, and the basic experimental and data gathering methods then the rest is just reviewing the literature and keeping current in your own specialty. I did all of the above in business school. Then again, I went to the University of California, not the University of Phoenix.
The second possibility seems more likely, but also disturbing and a bit odious. If people are getting doctoral degrees purely to get a pay bump or impress consulting clients, and not because of a calling to academia or because they really want to create knowledge, then the product itself, the degree, becomes much harder to differentiate. The market for doctoral degrees moves away from monopolistic competition towards a purely competitive situation; one doctorate is as good as another, so schools compete on price. They maximize their profit by pricing a doctorate so that their marginal revenue is equal to their marginal cost, so they have every incentive to push down the marginal cost, so as to push down the price and sell more degrees. The actual academic content provides very little of the value proposition, and is neglected. The degree is cheapened. In other words, the same thing happens to the DBA that is happening to the MBA.
The DBA becomes the new MBA. The MBA (or some other master’s degree) is already the new BA. Meanwhile, President Obama is pushing for free community college for most students, which will effectively make the AA the new high school diploma. The entire educational process becomes stretched out, and for what? I’m convinced that students don’t learn any more by the time they graduate than they did a generation ago.
The problems in our educational system exist at every level, from kindergarten to postdoc, and I certainly don’t know how to fix them. But I do believe that the only reason to get a doctoral degree that makes sense is because you want to be an academic, and only if the degree itself still means something.
With apologies and all due respect, University of Phoenix, please do not expect to see an application packet from me any time soon.
This post was published simultaneously on LinkedIn.
“This looks really nice for a self-published book,” said my friend as she handed me a novel. Looking down at it, I too knew immediately that is was self published. How was it so obvious to both of us? The cover was professionally done with a well composed photograph and good use of color. The bar code was in the right place, and the page and cover stock were normal commercial grade. But to people who knew what they were looking at, the book screamed “self-published”. We talked about it, and came up with a list of the top five tip-offs that give away a self published book.
The good news is that most readers are probably not sophisticated enough to pick up on these tells. My friend is a librarian and I am a writer and sometime editor. Between us we have handled many thousands of books. Unfortunately, if you are a writer, we are exactly the sort of people who you need to impress to get your book reviewed or have it added to the order sheet for a major library system. If serious “book people” read your book you don’t want them to think “this is pretty good for a self published book”, but just “this is good book.”
The Five Giveaways
1. (Lack of) Editing. I couldn’t finish three of the last five self-published books I read because the editing was so poor. Being an editor myself, my hand kept jerking uncontrollably towards the cup where I keep my red pens. It took me completely out of the plot and ruined the books for me. Nearly all new writers underestimate the role that editors play in a finished book. In fact, editing is at least as important as writing, and it’s hard to edit your own writing effectively. If you truly can’t afford to hire an editor, then at least find a fellow writer and trade editing services with them. Usually, however, hiring a real freelance editor is worth the investment. If you go this route, be aware that a legitimate editor will be able to provide references from former clients, will have some sort of free trial plan (in which you send them a few pages to edit so you can evaluate their work). You should also try to hire someone with experience in your genre. Also, be aware that there are different types of editors: line editors tell you how to improve your plot, what you should cut out, and how you can improve your style. Copy editors catch mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and usage (and no, your word processor’s grammar checker is no substitute). Technical editors (also called technical consultants) will catch mistakes you make in facts and details. For instance, if you are writing a book about the military and you were never in the military, you absolutely need a military person to read your manuscript and tell you where you screwed up. Otherwise your readers will point it out–brutally–in your Amazon reviews. Few people are good at all three kinds of editing, so you may need to find more than one editor.
2. “Typeset” in Microsoft Word. Many printers these days require a “print ready” .pdf file. Most self-publishing authors generate it by exporting from the same word processor they use for writing. Unfortunately, word processors do a horrible job of spacing and justifying text. True, you can often fix badly spaced lines by manually moving hyphens and adjusting kerning, but its easier just to use software that’s actually designed for the job. There are plenty of good, relatively affordable, desktop publishing packages available. Or be like the real power users and typeset in LaTex, a free computer language designed for creating publication-ready documents. The learning curve in LaTex is a bit steep; expect to spend two or three weeks doing tutorials before you can create anything useful. I don’t know anyone who has invested the time who has regretted it afterwards, however.
3. Fonts. Most writers are sophisticated enough to stay away from tacky and hard to read fonts. In fact, most seem to be too conservative and opt for Times New Roman (TNR) for their body text. TNR is a decent all-purpose font, but I would never use it for a self-published book. First of all, it was designed and optimized for newspaper text, not book text. It is narrower than most serif fonts, because newspaper columns are relatively narrow. A font designed for books, such as Minion or Palatino, is more likely to give you an optimum column count for comfortable reading. More important, however, is that TNR is the default font in most word processing programs. As soon as I see it I think “word processor = amateur job”. If you are interested in learning more about typography, you may want to download Peter Wilson’s free, incredibly detailed e-book.
4. Cheap Binding. Larger printers use a large, automated “perfect binding” machine which uses hot glue to attach book covers to the pages. Hardbacks and higher quality trade paperbacks also have each folded signature of pages stitched together before the gluing step, resulting in an extremely durable book. In contrast, smaller print shops and most print on demand (POD) operations rely on a small desktop thermal binding machine to attach covers. Unfortunately, bindings produced on the smaller machines have a reputation for being less durable and shedding pages. Pros can usually look at the glue strip of a binding and tell which kind it is. Public librarians in particular tend to avoid ordering books with cheap bindings, because they worry about pages coming out. Ask ahead of time about the binding technology a printer uses. If possible, try to examine another book from the same printer to make sure it’s a quality product.
5. Bad Blurb. The blurb or summary on the back of your book is one of your most critical pieces of marketing communication. Imagine that your potential reader is about to get on an air plane and has only a few minutes to pick out a book. Is she going to read a boring full-page blurb? Is she going to read at all if the first sentence doesn’t grab her attention? Actually, if your book is already being sold in an airport then you don’t need any advice from me, but its still useful to visualize the airport scenario. The back covers of many self published books are covered with text that reads like the review the author hopes someone will write. No one is going to read that. Write three of four good sentences that command attention and say what the book is actually about, and go with that. My theory about why authors write such long blurbs is because they are self conscious about not having any review excerpts, and they try to fill white space. They aren’t fooling anyone.
There are other giveaways which I could mention, but I think these are the five biggest red flags. You’ve worked hard to write your book, maybe for years. It is worth taking a little more time to attend to the details and publish a professional product that will make a good impression on the people who matter.
The so-called Deuteronomistic History, which is composed of the seven books of the Hebrew Bible from Deuteronomy through Kings, is one of the most interesting and accessible parts of the Bible. If it were written today, it would be marketed as a historical fiction trilogy and publishers would have trouble restraining themselves from putting the overused words “Game of Thrones style epic” in the back cover blurb. Actually, I enjoy it for the same reasons that I enjoyed George R.R. Martin‘s books; it is a sweeping story with numerous well-draw characters and a good mixture of politics, sex, and gore.
In my last post I mentioned that the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before they enter the holy land, is essentially the prologue to the books which follow it. Like any good prologue, it sets the scene and catches the readers up on what has happened in previous books, summarizing the major events of Exodus through Numbers and reiterating the terms of the covenant between the Israelites and God. It then foreshadows the plot and themes for the story that follows: God is about to deliver on his part of the bargain by giving the land of Canaan to his followers. Their responsibility is to eradicate all other gods and their followers and to observe the law, as passed down through Moses. As long as they deliver on their side the good life will be theirs–a country of their own, fertility, and divine protection. However, any failure to honor the covenant will result in horrific punishment,
[T]he Lord will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies. He will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt of which you were in dread and they shall cling to you.. Every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will inflict on you until you are destroyed…And just as the Lord took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction; you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to possess…The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt…and there you shall offer yourselves as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer. (Deut 28:59-68)
If they rebel, God will wipe them out and the survivors won’t even be fit to be slaves. The dramatic tension is palpable because, with an introduction like this, you just know that they won’t be able to live up to the covenant and bad things are going to happen.
Initially things go fairly well. The Israelites easily overwhelm the locals. Soon, though, things start to go wrong, preventing the complete genocide that had God ordered. The Gibeonites maneuver Joshua into agreeing to nearly annex their towns instead of massacring their population. In other towns the women are allowed to live and intermarry with the Israelite men and start converting them to the local religion. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem like the Israelites will ever be able to dislodge the Phoenicians in their fortified cities on the coast. Despite these hiccups, however, the conquest is substantially complete by the end of Joshua. The land is parceled off to the tribes of Israel and the horde disbands to take up residence in their newly gained real estate.
The whole country immediately descends into anarchy and stays that way until part way through Samuel. It’s more or less every town for themselves. Actually, the situation isn’t too different from the way Greece was in Homer’s time. As in Homer, heroes emerge–heroic in terms of abilities, not morality. Men like Gideon or Sampson could have shown up at the siege of Troy and fit right in, with their super strength and fondness for dirty tricks. Things are truly horrible; the nearest modern analogue would be the bad parts of Somalia. Even I winced a little at such cheerful anecdotes as the Ammonite king who made a habit of gauging the right eye out of every Israelite he met (1 Sam 10) , or the Kenite woman who was persuaded to double-cross her ally and killed him by hammering a tent stake through his skull (Judg 4:21).
The closest thing to law and order happens when a local leader (referred to as a judge) manages to scrape together a strong enough militia to fight off the latest invader or establish martial law over a small area.
There is plenty of gratuitous violence between the Israelites themselves. In Judges 19 and 20 we read about the concubine of a Levite man who is gang-raped to death. Her husband, who had used her as a decoy to avoid the same fate himself, responds by dismembering her corpse and sending the pieces to his allies to get their attention. They proceed to massacre every Benjaminite they can find until they realize that they have gone to far and the tribe is in danger of becoming extinct. Making peace with the Benjaminites, they give them permission to kidnap and rape every maiden they can catch at a particular religious festival so they can rebuild their bloodline. The author ends many of these passages with the words “In those days there was no King in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The main purpose of this section is to justify the need for the monarchy to come.Gradually, things get better. The later judges are able to hold larger and larger sections of the country. The last judge, Samuel, is the de facto leader of all of Israel. Samuel has very little formal authority, though. The people are ready for a real king and pressure Samuel to appoint one. He eventually relents and chooses Saul. As soon as Israel has a king, the game of thrones begins in earnest. For the rest of the monarchy the court is a snake pit of intrigue. When Saul and his heir are killed in war one of his former commanders, David, seizes power. David had previously fled the country after Saul had plotted to have him killed. Upon his return, he becomes the best king in the history of Israel: strong in war, stronger in politics, and–most importantly–a devout follower of Yahweh. David is adept at maneuvering his underlings into assassinations and other unsavory actions, while maintaining plausible deniability. This allows him to eliminate anyone who stands in his way, while still remaining popular with the people.
David is succeeded by his son Solomon, who is neither as politically adept nor as devout. Solomon has the good fortune to rule during a long economic boom. Under his leadership Israel becomes decadent and complacent and tolerates the worship of foreign gods, once again earning divine punishment. After Solomon the ten tribes in the North of the country break away and the House of David is left only with Judah and Benjamin. The books of Kings follows the history of the Kings of Judah and Israel. When a king is devout, his country prospers. When a king strays from the law, the people are punished. The overall trend, though, is downhill. By the end of the story, both kingdoms are alternately puppet states of Egypt and Assyria. Finally, Israel is conquered outright by Assyria. Later a new superpower, Babylon, annexes both Assyria and Judah and another great epoch of Hebrew history comes to an end.From this point Israel is never again ruled by an independent monarch. It won’t even become an independent Jewish country again until the 20th century. The era of chiefs and kings is over, while the era of scribes and prophets is just beginning. Next time I post about the Hebrew Bible, I will be discussing their writings.