Category Archives: Book culture

What about a metrical hymn for Hanukkah? Nah…

The story of Hanukkah comes from the Talmud and the Mishnah, although there are references to a very similar story in the Apocrypha. 2 Maccabees mentions a Hanukkah-like festival in a passage beginning:

Therefore whereas we are now purposed to keep the purification of the temple upon the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], we thought it necessary to certify you thereof, that ye also might keep it, as the feast of the tabernacles, and of the fire, which was given us when Neemias offered sacrifice, after that he had builded the temple and the altar. [2 Maccabees 1.18, KJV]

There’s another, more interesting, description of a Hanukkah-like purification of the Temple at 2 Maccabees 10.1-8. I love this story; besides which, the successful fight against the tyrant who prevented the Jews from practicing their own religion has a certain poignancy today when it is dangerous for Christians to practice their religion in some parts of the world, dangerous for Muslims to practice their religion in many Western countries, and still dangerous for Jews to be Jews in many places in the world.

I’d love to have the talent to take the gorgeous prose of the King James Version of 2 Maccabees 10, and turn it into a metrical rhyming version of this story. I’ve been working on this, and have several partial verses, like “When Maccabeus and his band / De dum de dum de dum / De dum invader’s heavy hand…”; and “…public square, / De dum de dum, and then destroyed / The cursed idols there.” I’ve also got one whole verse:

They cleansed the temple, kindled fire,
    Gave thanks that they were free;
And asked the Lord to keep them safe
    From barbarous tyranny.

Or maybe it should be “blasphemous tyranny” — the passage at hand offers both possibilities.

Of course, if I ever did manage to write such a hymn, it would be unusable in any Unitarian Universalist congregation:— the term “Lord” (which is the way the translators indicate “Adonai,” as opposed to “God” for “Elohim”) would not be acceptable; it would be a hymn by a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist interpreting an apocryphal Christian text which we ordinarily ignore and which doesn’t really tell a Jewish story which means it’s probably cultural misappropriation; and it would be filtered through my liberation theology but Unitarian Universalists don’t really like songs and hymns that talk about freedom unless they’re African American songs or unless we’re talking about freedom to think what you want as opposed to literal freedom from bondage and oppression.

This is my main failing as a hymnodist. It’s bad enough that I can’t write good rhymed metrical verse, but it’s much worse that the hymns I want to write are hymns no one would ever want to sing.

Bah, humbug

‘Tis the season to hate Christmas, and your pal Mr. Crankypants is right out there in front of the crowd of Christmas-haters. The two different stories you can read in Matthew and Luke are just fine (though it does irk Mr. C. that Christmas-lovers continually get their angels mixed up with their magi, and their basic Christmas holiday mixed up with their Epiphany holiday). The consumerist Christmas, on the other hand, has no redeeming value, unless you’re a retailer with a heart of black ink.

Into the Christmas consumerist fray steps a brave economist, Professor Joel Waldfogel of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In his book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Give Presents for the Holidays, Waldfogel “looks at decades of retail spending data to make the case that buying gifts destroys wealth and happiness — and in many cases it would be better to not buy presents for the holidays at all. So put down that credit card and think before you use money you don’t have to buy things that recipients don’t really want.”

Now, repeat after Mr. Crankypants: “Bah! humbug! Christmas humbug!”

Thanks to Carol for the tip!

100 years later

Today, I went on the Powell’s Books Web site and ordered Mark Twain’s Autobiography, published on November 15, 100 years after Twain’s death. Coincidentally, today Dick D. from the Palo Alto church sent me this passage which he found in Twain’s Autobiography:

The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould — that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died — have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.

As Dick said, plus ça change….

Metrical paraphrases of religious texts

I’ve been comparing two metrical paraphrases of Psalm 19.1-4, one by the poet and writer Joseph Addison, and one by the poet and hymnodist Isaac Watts. It’s instructive to see how two different hymnodists handle the exact same subject.

First, they use two different meters: Addison’s version is in Long Meter Doubled (L.M.D.) which is somewhat easier to find a tune for, while Watts’ version is in Second, both take liberties with the original text, adding imagery, emphasizing and de-emphasizing what appeals to them. Third, they reflect different theological stances: Watts begins with the straightforward phrase “Great God,” while Addison prefers to use more oblique references like the “great Original”, “Hand” and “Creator”, and Addison also refers to “Reason” which since it is capitalized is personified. Fourth, Watts’ hymn directly addresses God, while Addison’s hymn speaks about God and God’s works. Fifth, while both are enjoyable hymns to sing (considered in terms of the rhymes, rhythms which aren’t too herky-kerky, “mouth-feel”, etc.) Watts’ verse is sturdy, bold, and tends towards the ecstatic; Addison’s verse is more nuanced, lower-key, and feels more subtle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both hymns are worthy of being called poetry — I don’t cringe when I sing them, and they’re worth singing more than once.

This kind of comparison is helpful for those of us who want to think about how to evaluate new hymns written by religious liberals hymnodists — and/or for those who may want to take a stab at writing new liberal religious hymns. Not that we should imitate Addison or Watts (although that may be a good idea), but we should start thinking about articulating criteria about what makes a good or poor hymn text.

I’ll include the full text of both hymns, plus the text from the King James Bible from which the hymns were drawn, after the jump. Update: I’ve added the Scottish Psalter’s metrical paraphrase of this same text at the very end of this post. Continue reading

Hey, I know that guy…

It’s my day off, the day I take as a sabbath. I head over to Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. OK, so I go over to bookstores in Berkeley and north Oakland maybe once or twice a month, and I never see anyone I know. But this time I recognize a guy standing there looking through the poetry books. Of course he’s another Unitarian Universalist minister. He’s looking for an obscure Ferlenghetti book, I’m looking for an interlinear translation of The Canterbury Tales. Unitarian Universalist ministers are such geeks, which is one of the reasons I love my line of work.

Before you ask: While many Berkeley bookstores have gone under, a fair number remain including Moe’s, Pegasus, Pendragon, Shakespeare & Co., Eastwind, Half Price Books, Dark Carnival, Diesel — it’s still worth a trip.

Death of the codex? Maybe not.

Christian Century magazine just published an excellent essay on their Web site titled “Booting up books.” The author, Rodney Clapp, begins by saying, “Hardly a day passes without someone declaring the death of the book.” Clapp goes on to say:

The form of the book that many now think is passing away is the codex, in which leaves of paper are bound into a single brick. Invented by the Romans in the third century before Christ, the codex is a remarkable piece of technology—it is compact, durable and affordable. With its folio organizational system (that is, page numbering and chapter labeling) and such devices as a table of contents and an index it is an efficient and precise vehicle of textual memory and communication.

This is a good distinction to make. When people claim the book is dying, what they really mean is that the codex is dying. (I do wonder if there were people mourning the death of the scroll after the codex was invented, but I digress.) Yet Clapp says the codex may not be dead after all:

The electronic book, as its name admits, depends on an abundant and cheap supply of electricity. It has been commonly assumed that electronic reading media would be less ecologically burdensome than the “dead-tree” technologies of print media. But Chris Anderson argues on his blog The Long Tail that “dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than Web media.” Nicholson Baker in McSweeney’s observes that in 2006 computer server farms consumed 60 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, while paper mills consumed 75 billion kilowatt hours. This means servers and paper mills already leave “a roughly comparable carbon footprint”—and server energy consumption is increasing exponentially.

Maybe now that we’re past peak oil, we better not count on the electronic book lasting for more than a century.

The next state of being

Carol came home, made a sandwich, told me about her day, then said, “Did you hear J. D. Salinger died?”

“Finally,” I said.

“What do you mean?” she said.

Twenty years ago, Salinger was one of my literary idols, and news of his death would have sent me into a tizzy. But since then I’ve grown tired of the way Salinger courted publicity by claiming to be a recluse; any time his book sales began to decline, he sued someone to get back in the news. Twenty years ago, I wanted to know what happened to his fictional family, the Glasses, after the events in the story “Franny and Zooey.” But now I’m bored by the preciousness of his characters’ dialogue, bored by Salinger’s half-baked mysticism, bored by his stories in which nothing much happens.

A year or so ago, I met one of Salinger’s neighbors, and this person knew Salinger about as well as a long-time neighbor in a small town could know someone. This neighbor described a man who was deaf as a post, with a long-suffering wife; someone who was cranky and mean but worthy of his neighbor’s amused affection. He was just what you’d expect of an outsider who had moved to a backwater hill town in New England and had tried to imitate an eccentric New Englander; he was not some immortal writer, he was just an ordinary nutty old man.

“Now that he’s dead,” I said to Carol, “maybe this will put an end to all the speculation about what he’s been writing for the past forty years.”

Given that Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” was unreadable crap, you can feel pretty sure he wrote nothing of value after that. But I don’t think Salinger will be allowed to rest in peace. His literary executors will be tempted to follow the path blazed by J. R. R. Tolkien’s son, and cobble together scraps of left-over writing into bad books that will sell tens of thousands of copies. Right now, I’m praying that someone will burn all Salinger’s unpublished manuscripts before they are inflicted on the public. Let the old crank die a decent death.

Significantly, Salinger’s literary agents released a statement in which they stated there won’t be a funeral or memorial service. There are those who want no final end to his life. There are those who hope to turn J. D. Salinger into a zombie, neither alive nor dead, putrescent but tottering forward into a century in which he does not belong.

Just as I feared

From what Wired has to say about the new “Que” e-reader from Plastic Logic, it has everything I want in an e-reader — ability to handle multiple document formats from .epub to .doc files; large screen capable of adequately displaying online versions of newspapers; light and slim; etc. They’re taking pre-orders now for delivery in mid-April. But I will not be ordering one, because it costs $650.

When devices like this are available for $100, I will take e-readers seriously. Not until then.