Monthly Archives: April 2011

Some thoughts about books





In the interest of full disclosure, I should disclaim that I work at a book bindery.  Having thus provided that information, I want to share with you some thoughts garnered from my unique perspective in support good old-fashioned books!

1) Paper and board bound-books are made by hand or by machines and hands in concert.  Then, they are sold and held by hands, sometimes enscribed by hands bearing ink.  Books are passed from older hands to younger hands, from friends’ hands to friends’ hands, and from mentors’ hands to apprentices’ hands.  They are enscribed with messages of love, fidelity, friendship and memory.  These make books very special objects, with a heritage and sometimes a sacred quality. 

I have seen books of all kinds brought for repair at the book bindery: Bibles with family trees or personal notes, daily reading books with inscriptions from deceased loved ones on the inside cover and professional reference books with detailed notes from one’s passion and profession.  There is nothing in the world that can replace such personal relics.  (Certainly, no piece of tech gadget!)

2) If we move away from paper books do we also move away from our authors?  What happens to the book signings and autographed copies we gain from face-to-face connections during book readings and book signings?  I feel as though we, as a society, underestimate what is lost when we move increaingly into a digital world and increasingly leave paper behind.  I observe this in the dwindling number of cards and letters I have to store as much as I do in trying to figure out how I could write a note on the inside of an e-book cover.

I will close with a hypothesis, namely, that I believe if we literally lose touch with our trees then we will cease to value them, even in nature.  It is a bold statement, but ultimately I think paper books help us to recall the Giving Tree, and in doing so bring to mind the inherent value of trees and forests.  Certainly, landowners who preserve forest land and tree farms for paper and wood industries will value the trees far less if they bring in no income and that land will be sold to developers for shopping centers and suburban cookie-cutter homes.

So, in conclusion let me just say, if you are thinking about giving me a gift, know that I have an Amazon wishlist and I hope you add a personal note on the inside cover!

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NHL embraces history

The greatest playoff competition in the world is going on right now.  It is the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs!  This format is a newer one–a team must win four games against each of four opponents to have the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup–but the trophy is the same old and storied cup.

Few sports embrace their history quite like ice hockey players and the NHL do, but this year, their entire marketing campaign for the playoffs is centered around the sport’s great historical playoff moments.  In addition, the league has a separate site devoted to the top 64 Stanley Cup playoff moments:  Here you can watch and vote on the 64 best moments set up in a tournament style playoff.

Photo credit: Scotty Hockey blog

It is a brilliant way to expose new fans to some of the games most exhilarating moments and its rich history.  Going back to days before the “Original Six”, Lord Stanley’s Cup has been given to hockey’s champions.  It is the only trophy that spends a day with each teammate on the winning team and the only one that has ever ended up in Mario Lemieux’s swimming pool.

Sports buffs are history fans!  Just ask the NHL!

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Determining what Jesus looked like, Lecture ~ Walter’s Art Gallery

Friday, I attended a lecture at the Walter’s Art Gallery: “Is this the Face of Christ? A Good Friday Lecture”

Bring your light lunch to this richly illustrated talk, in which Gary Vikan will explore the emergence of the ‘canonical’ face of Christ in the early medieval period. For nearly 1,500 years, illustrators of the story of Jesus of all backgrounds — from Byzantine mosaics to Hollywood filmmakers — have remained true to this face.

Dr. Vikan will explore how that face was and is used in Orthodox devotion, and how, over the centuries, it was subtly adapted theologically and stylistically to suit the various Christian nations of the world.

Gary Vikan is the director of the Walters Art Museum.

Early Christian examples of Christ in art, depicted him in a number of classical motifs: the classical shepherd, hero and philosopher.  These appear especially on Roman sarcophagi of early Christians, who at the time existed as an underground cult in a society where religious syncretism was the norm and the Christian and Jewish cults resisted it to their detriment.

Vikan went onto describe the development of pilgrimage and relic-veneration through the acts of Helen, Constantine’s mother in the Holy Land.  This comes, at least in part, out of an older classical, pagan tradition, but in the Christian tradition Christ and the saints transfered their holiness to the things they touched and the places they visited.  For early Christians before Constantine’s conversion this compunction to travel and collect material was largely unknown as God was understood to be everywhere.  This notion of holiness-concentrated from the Late Antique is the origin for the pilgrimages and relics of Christendom.

It is roughly from this point that the lecture turned to a very specific relic: a shroud discovered around 550 AD/CE.  The significance of this shroud comes from a story, in which King Abgar of Edessa sends messengers to ask for aid from Jesus, who refuses Abgar’s request.  Determined for some source of aid, Abgar sends a painter to capture an image of Jesus, but Christ’s radiance prevents him from his mission.  Jesus takes a piece of fabric and wipes his face with it, giving it to the artist, and upon this the image of his face is preserved.  This is the semitic image of Jesus that becomes the canonical image of Jesus in the Orthodox religions and eventually moves to the West (Vikan hypothesized by the mid-7th century it has certainly made the trip).

Once it is clear, from the tradition of Abgar, what Jesus looks like, it is the only way he can be represented.  (It also mandates that the image of Jesus be two-dimensional, because that is the way the image is past down from Jesus, himself, thus ruling out statuary.)  Having said that, each culture (indeed, each artist) makes the image its own–something regarded as quite natural since Jesus is the Son of Man.  A debate, and ultimately a conflict, arises over the images: iconoclasts ultimately believing that the images, or icons, were the objects of worship and thus idols to be cast down and destroyed; whereas, iconophiles regarded the image as an object of veneration–not worship–which served to focus the faithful.  Icons could do more by harnessing the holiness on the image.  As a result, they were frequently brought to the city walls for defense–a practice continuing in twentieth-century Russia, even as recently as the Cold War.

This adoption of the image of Christ to one’s culture persists today in artistic representations of Jesus and in cinematic representations.

Werner Sullivan's blue-eyed Jesus

In America, the persistent image of the blue-eyed Jesus Christ starts with the painting (that was handed out to every G.I. in World War II) by a Swedish-American immigrant, Werner Sullivan.  This prompts the image of Jesus in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told and subsequently Mel Gibson’s selection of James Caviezel for The Passion.  Thus, the image of  the (anglo-) American Jesus.

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Holy Relics: highlighting sacred objects left by holy lives

Reliquary with Madonna and Child and Saints. Photo credit: Walter's Art Gallery "Treasures of Heaven" Special Exhibit

The trade in relics has a long history–one that also exists independently of Christianity.  As with any other trades, it grew out of a demand, but its origins are far less economic in nature than one might assume.  Many early examples of reliquaries and their veneration had less to do with material objects or bartering finger bones and much more to do with the tradition of laying a holy person to rest–especially in the case of martyrs where such care was often neglected by executioners if not directly thwarted–and were actually tombs.  This tradition begins with Joseph of Arimathea burying the crucified Jesus Christ.  In later years, the site of such tombs, particularly in Roman catacombs, became places to congregate and worship for the early underground Church.  This is, in fact, why St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is located at that spot: it was long associated with the burial site of the apostle Peter after his execution.

It is actually the case for many Christian martyrs of the Roman and Late Antique eras (and with holy personages of the medieval era, as well) that their remains were deliberately sought our for Christian burial and that churches were thus built locally in honor of these holy men and women.  Thus, from early Christianity we see a tradition of churches being linked to holy remains.  Later churches and monasteries would seek their own relics, ranging from the remains of local holy men and women to the remains of ancient Christians of biblical, or comparable, status.

As a result, a religious tradition fused in varying degrees with economic supply and demand.  In consequence, fraudulent paraphernalia was passed off as holy relics by merchants in the trade.  Ronald C. Finucane shed a great deal of light on the shenanigans in the case of English relics, although he did so, admittedly, with rather more contempt for his subjects than is really becoming in a historian’s monograph.  Umberto Eco’s fictional Brother William of Baskerville rather famously tells his pupil, Adso, about a cathedral in France wherein the head of John the Baptist at age 12 was preserved.  Further intellectual pursuits in this line include estimating the size of the True Cross once all the splinters attributed to it were assembled.  However, it is equal folly to ignore the skepticism that many medieval personages, holy or otherwise, held for the relics trade as it would be to naively trust every tradition out of reverence.  It is also irresponsible to assume that everyone interested was so out of vanity or greed.  Such assumptions oversimplify a culture that is already foreign and difficult to access.

Having said that, I suggest two things: 1) While it is impossible that every relic be what it is claimed to be, it is not impossible that some relics are exactly what they are claimed to be.  (This is a separate discussion from what it is claimed relics can do or have done.)  2) The historic and scientific veracity is, in fact, of secondary relevance–particularly in this day and age–to the believer.  (I do not mean to imply with this last point that deception is the goal!)

Relics of St. Chrysanthus and Daria. Photo credit: National Geographic News (online)

It is, in fact, quite probable that many of the local relics are the remains of local saints.  This has recently been tested by an Italian team and filmed by National Geographic.  The most recent episode of National Geographic Explorer, “Mystery of the Murdered Saints”, showed that it is possible to corroborate or disprove such claims, concluding that the examples they worked with could not be disproved and are plausibly what and who they are claimed to be.  However, that is where it ends as the historical fields are unlikely to be able to prove the majority of cases.  As is so frustratingly typical of studies seeking answers in the past, scientists and other practitioners of historical studies can so often only demonstrate possibility or probability in verifying historical accounts.  (It is an interesting episode, as it also shows the steps taken to secure and preserve the remains by the Christians who venerated them.)

But, why is it necessary to demonstrate that the traditions are verifiably fact and the relics are everything that it is claimed of them?  From a historian’s standpoint the saints’ lives have a truth that does not require the stories to be histories or even accurate biographies.  Such readings allow for historical truths to emerge, even if they do not provide historical “facts”.  Even if there is not a word of “fact” in a given saints’ life, the work conveys a great deal about the time period.  Of course, there are the basic realia–evidence of found things, such as a coffee grinder, for example–but there are also the mores and cultural realities that an author betrays and which often reveal a world view very foreign to our own.  Furthermore, what matters to the historian first and foremost is the value the believers of his studied era placed on the relics–be it commercial or religious.  As we access these foreign peoples through their texts it is impossible to prove who knew about a fraudulent relic unless it is clearly known and stated by contemporary observers.  Knowing that a finger of St. John the Baptist is actually a chicken bone tells us very little about the place in which it was reverently held–especially as relics were generally concealed in reliquaries for protection and thus most people would not see it directly or would only see a chip of it.

Even aside from this, however, I am not sure that every religious story must be true to be of value to a believer.  For a believer, the story can carry religious and moral veritas (truth) without requiring historical “facts” be behind it.  For most people who hold a religious value for relics, they need not be “real” for they serve much the same purpose as religious art–they are pieces of sacred memory; for others, they retain the value of a talisman, in which case belief is 9/10 of the law.

In addition to the National Geographic episode (click here to see the show’s run), the Walter’s Art Gallery is also featuring two special exhibits: Treasures of Heaven, Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe and Relics and Reliquaries Reconsidered (the latter in conjunction with the students of Maryland Institute College of Art).  Most of the major museums in the U.S. featuring western art include Christian reliquaries in their collection, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (and the Cloisters–associated with the Met) and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art among others–of course, not all reliquaries are Christian examples!

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“Let me look that up” the Smart Phone effect

I love my smart phone!  I am plugged in!  I get my e-mail, texts, photos, Google, Facebook… oh! and I can make phone calls.  It is at the ready whenever I need to see what’s going on or need a quick answer.

Pocket computing has certainly evolved from the days when it was limited to a pocket calculator.  We seek everything from movie schedules to book series, from ancient authors to constitutional law, from phrase translations to animal species, etc., etc.  For quick encyclopedic or dictionary-like information it is a wonderful thing–just think how many spousal arguments have been headed off with, “I don’t think that’s quite right, honey.  Why don’t we Google it?”

On the other hand, sometimes accuracy requires comparing information from multiple sources.  Sometimes, encouraged by the convenience and speed of smart-phone– and Google-searches, we neglect the process of finding good information for more complex questions that cannot, in fact, be simply “looked up“.  Now, I don’t mean a questions like life, the universe and everything (the answer is clearly 42).  But, I do think we have a tendency to assume that facts are clear when in most fields facts are pretty rare outside of high-school math or spelling (and, even then!).

You may ask a question which seems to have a clear factual answer waiting at the other end, but so often there is not.  For example: When was the Declaration of Independence written?  You expect to look up the answer and find a date, but it is seldom that simple, as with the case of the Declaration: do you mean when it was completed or when it was started?  Which version of the Declaration are you inquiring after–one of the drafts Jefferson wrote or the final draft revised by Congress?  Let’s say you ask your original question–maybe you put it to one of those deceptively helpful websites, such as–if someone responds with a specific date he or she could be [correctly or erroneously] answering any of the listed qualifying questions!  He or she may not even bother to tell you which answer you got!  (If you really want to challenge this idea, then Google what Planned Parenthood does with tax-payer’s dollars–if you pick five different sources you will probably get nearly that many answers!)

I’m not saying that I do not “look things up“–I do it all the time!–I just think we as a society are being conditioned by the ease of smart phones, tablets and the search engine in general to expect straightforward factual answers that are easily available, regardless of the complexity of the subject.  Sometimes a question is a really good one and we should take the trouble to dig a little deeper.  Obviously, I am painting with a broad brush, but I know how busy and chaotic my life is and how desirable quick information and easy answers are, so my writing this is as much a warning to myself as anyone else.  It is ridiculous when I stop, think and have to admit that I cannot figure out how I managed before I got the smart phone…  When was that?  I got it when this model first came out on the market…  Hmm, let me look that up!

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Academics vs. a beautiful Spring day

My college has an absurdly late Spring Break this year–this is in part due to Easter being late this year.  I am an adjunct I do not have an office, I am underpaid and I have no benefits.  (I’m not exactly complaining, but it helps to appreciate the context.)  We are all sitting in our classrooms totally burnt out!  Outside, today, was the quintessential perfect Spring day–after a handful of truly flawed attempts at Spring days–and, I was supposed to teach in windowless classrooms to students who are equally burnt out?

On the one hand, one could argue that this is the moment where you are tested as a teacher, can you take your students to the next level even though they have other things on their minds–which to be fair they always do, but right now more so–sure I could, except that I can’t muster the passion I normally have for my own subject when outside life is a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem after a long dragging winter!

I know students are paying good money to be educated, but I fully support the notion that sometimes class should be cancelled; a break should be had; a brain should be occupied by the elemental benefits of sun and green–even with pollen!–and scientifically-supported stimulation.  Won’t they perform better on their projects after a day with a little more of that and a little less of me in our dungeon classroom, anyway?  I could be wrong, here, but I venture to suggest that authorizing a rousing game of hookie was the best thing I did, today.  On another day, I will be forced to accept that nice as it is, we got to buckle down, but not today.  (Hey, maybe since I have already offered it, I can reason that buckling down later is only fair!)

Enjoy your day!

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Opening Day thoughts about baseball and history

Baseball is one of the oldest games in America.  Whether you follow it or not, it is deeply ingrained in our culture and our history.  In my Sports in America history class, I recently took a large chunk of class time to show The Tenth Inning from Ken Burns’s Baseball PBS series.  Sports are such a huge part of our culture.  They intertwine with our lives socially, economically, morally and sometimes politically.  Sports competition is a metaphor for business, political candidacies, casual relationships and academics.  They also mirror our society in its troubles, successes, pessimism and optimism.

We see globalization in politics and economics expanding in our professional sports.  We see cheating in college sports as much as we see it in college academics.  We see scandals of the familiar variety blown up in the media.  We see uncommon philanthropy quietly pursued on the sidelines, in the off season.  We see winning motivate hard work and greatness, as well as shortcuts and duplicity.

Watching Ken Burns’s wonderful work, a tapestry of contemporary music, sports photography, sports writers and history, one observes the escape from Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals to the juiced home run race of McGuire and Sosa.  Almost no one wanted to talk about steroids then!  Sports reporters recalled the cocaine scandal of the ’80s and shuttered.  One also notes down in Houston a stadium still named after Enron.  And, one recalls with chills and tears the season of 9/11 when everyone who had begun to detest the New York Yankees suddenly rallied behind them . . everyone outside of Arizona, that is.

It is serendipity that I happened to show this concurrently with the Barry Bonds perjury trial and Opening Day-week.  In full disclosure, I am not a baseball fan, but I am a romantic for its entanglement in America’s past–I envy baseball fans.  (While I live in Baltimore, I keep an eye on the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, despite their indomitable success at losing, and shake my head at the incompetence and greed of Pirate’s ownership daring to operate in the same city as the Rooney family and Mario Lemieux.)  Otherwise, I am fully on the outside looking in, not fully comprehending the rules and beauties of the sport, but nonetheless appreciating its entrenchment in our culture.

Part of baseball’s magic is that it is played in the summer.  But, the other part comes from its roots, predating the Civil War, and being integrally caught up in American history.


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