Friday, December 06, 2013

Good/better/best books of the year(s)

People who work with books know the end of the year brings a slew of Best books of the year lists. Publishers Weekly does its list early, and the New York Times does a long list of notables. One of my favorite lists to contribute to and read is an idiosyncratic list of PW editors’ favorite books. As in, what we really liked. It’s a revelation: book revelation, self-revelation, revelation from colleagues. It’s also a freedom from obligation to follow what’s trending and what should be talked about and instead permission to follow the heart.

I picked John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars because it swept me away and it helped me forget that my sister was dying as I read it. Thinking about my reaction reminded me about the roots of my love for books. In seventh grade I wrote a poem Books Are Our Friends and I won a prize for it: a book. Of course. On occasions when I have talked to students about what I do and sought to encourage reading, I have told them that if they like to read, they will never be lonely. I still think books are magic carpets for the imagination, Netflix and HBO notwithstanding.

The Fault in Our Stars
resonated on a lot of levels for me. Anything that echoes Shakespeare piques my interest. The author is also profoundly voicey; you get the picture pretty quickly. Green’s background as a hospital chaplain was another lure. As a young adult book, it was more straightforward and offered refuge from existential irony and artsy explorations of postmodern specialized subcultures and gave a chance to look at human-condition, no-escape issues like mortality. And the pages almost turned themselves, even though I was reading it on my Kindle.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Blessed Are the Faithful

(I read this at the funeral of my sister Barbara on Oct. 7, 2013. She was 64.) 
Somebody else wrote: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
I write: Blessed are the faithful.
My sister Barbara was married to her husband Alan for 43 years, and they celebrated that anniversary with a dinner out one week before she died. 
Blessed are the faithful. 
Barbara, our brother Richard, and I and our spouses and kids celebrated every Christmas and Thanksgiving together since the late 1980s, after our parents Lillian and Adolph Zdun died. Add most Easters and a whole lot of Fourth of Julys, with various in-laws in various combinations at various houses. 
Blessed are the faithful.
Easter was Barbara’s holiday, and she made the ham and the Easter eggs and put out the butter shaped like a lamb and the small glass of vinegar for your ham and a shot glass with a salt and pepper mixture for your eggs. We had the butter lamb and the vinegar and the salt mixture because that’s what we had and how we had it when we were growing up in Chicago and celebrating Easter. Thanksgiving was my holiday, and every year Barb and Alan carved the turkey because I’m a vegetarian and I can cook a turkey but don’t know how to slice it.
Blessed are the faithful.
Barbara is the family memory keeper, and hers was always the first card to arrive – early -- for birthdays and wedding anniversaries. She signed the cards with her round, neat handwriting: "Love and joy, Barb and Alan." She always remembered my children’s birthdays; there were always cards and gifts.
Blessed are the faithful. 
Barbara got her first job right after high school in 1967 and she worked at different jobs, starting with Illinois Bell and ending with United Airlines and there was a crafts store in between, until she retired in November 2011.  That adds up to 44 years. It says in her obituary that she was a longtime member of her needlework guild and her house in Niles where she lived for more than 30 years is decorated with her needlework, lots of pieces with tiny, regular, beautiful, time-consuming, patience-requiring stitches.
Blessed are the faithful.
She was diagnosed with cancer in December 2011 and lived bravely through a year of chemotherapy, one gamma knife surgery, and weeks of radiation treatment earlier this year. She got out of bed – late! – every day until a couple weeks ago after the doctor said nothing more could be done. Then she didn’t get out of bed for a while, but then she changed her mind and answered the phone when I called and she celebrated her wedding anniversary last week and went grocery shopping on Monday because those are things you do when you live your life. 
Blessed are the faithful.
I prayed for my sister right after I woke up every morning during her illness and asked God to give her healing and strength. She got one out of two. I have had some strong words with God and the only answer I got, as far as I can understand, is blessed are the faithful. 
You are all friends and relatives of Barbara and Alan and our family who came to say goodbye and honor and love your friend. Some of those ties that bind us go way, way back. Thank you for staying faithful to her. 
Blessed are the faithful.    

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Theologians: PW Talks with Christian Wiman

By Marcia Z. Nelson | Feb 08, 2013
Publishers Weekly
In the decidedly secular literary world, poet Christian Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2005, stands out as one who’s willing to talk about God. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, but he leaves that post in the fall for Yale University’s Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music. In My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Wiman offers urgent essays on faith and mortality, studded with his and others’ poetry.

How are you feeling?
Good. Really well. I had a bone marrow transplant [in October 2011] and have done well since then. It’s been a long recovery. I get tested all the time.
Do people back away from you at cocktail parties if you say something about God?
I do think it unnerves some people. I do think there’s an antipathy toward Christianity per se, [but] I don’t find an antipathy toward religion in general.
Christianity in this country has taken some noxious forms. I think many Christians are uneasy with the term “Christian.” Skepticism about the language of Christianity is extremely healthy right now.

Who’s on your theology play list?
I wrestle with midcentury Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner. They’re so impenetrable. I don’t really believe in systematic theology, I don’t believe God can be systematized. [But in their writings] there’s something that comes across in flashes—that illuminates whole areas of belief.
You have been speaking about religion these days. What are you hearing from people?
I find a tremendous spiritual hunger among both secular and religious [people]. Everyone seems to be fighting for a way to articulate this hunger. I don’t think contemporary churches are answering this need. I certainly don’t think secular culture is answering this need. One of the places I think this need can be addressed most effectively is art.
How ready are you for the job change?
My whole life has been arrowing toward a job like this, and I’m incredibly grateful to the Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School for creating it for me. I think it’s a really bold move on their part to bring in a poet to investigate the ways in which poetry and theology interact.
And how do they interact?
Poets can learn from theologians and vice versa. Contemporary poetry has given up on abstraction in favor of the image. Theology tends to forget the light.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Losing their Religion

By Marcia Z. Nelson | Jan 18, 2013
Publishers Weekly

Call them “nones”; call them “unaffiliated.” The “young and the secular” fits well, too. The terminology is perhaps imprecise, but the reality is measurable, big, and growing. This group has been in the public and media eye recently, following the release in October of a report by the Pew Research Center, which put the number of people in the U.S. population with no religious affiliation at 20%. The unaffiliated include a smaller group that describes itself as atheist or agnostic, and a larger portion that describes itself as “nothing in particular.” When the unaffiliated are broken into age groups, their numbers rise sharply among the young. A third of adults under 30 say they have no religious affiliation, whereas only one in10 people 65 and older fit into that category.
But a lack of religious affiliation does not necessarily indicate the absence of religious behavior or practices. When researchers asked about beliefs and practices, they found that more than two-thirds of the unaffiliated believe in God or a universal spirit, and more than 40% of them pray. In addition, more than half either described themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” This phenomenon is, of course, especially significant for religion and spirituality publishers. Does the growth of the unaffiliated shrink their markets? Are they worried? A number of publishers weighed in on this question, with thoughts about how they see the nones, how they see their publishing programs in relation to the religiously unaffiliated, and whether it keeps them up at night wondering about their futures.
Among the Evangelicals
It would seem this trend might be especially worrisome for evangelical Christian publishers like Howard Books (located in Nashville, Tenn., but owned by Simon & Schuster). But no worries—publisher Jonathan Merkh and editor-in-chief Becky Nesbitt understand the nones to be people who object to institutional religion and hierarchy. “People feel like religions are too caught up with money or power,” says Merkh, who says he is Anglican and is comfortable with a describing himself as spiritual but not religious, a term that came into common usage back in the ’90s. Howard has published titles that resonate with this group. “We are hearing from them in response to books like Kisses from Katie” by Katie Davis, Nesbitt says. That kind of book shows “people making a difference but not being overtly Christian or beating you over the head” with proselytizing, Merkh adds. The elements of “making a difference” and having an authentic voice and commitment are particularly appealing to unaffiliated readers, who are also an educated audience. “Their tastes can be very broad and not constrained,” Merkh says. “I think the nones are just as likely to read Fifty Shades of Grey as [they are to read] Karen Kingsbury. They don’t have a voice in their head telling them it’s wrong.” Hitting that market is a challenge, but offers Howard the promise of new audiences. “We’re not publishing away from the evangelical market,” says Merkh. “We’re just casting a broader net.”
Chad Allen, editorial director at Baker Books, an evangelical house in Grand Rapids, Mich., is intrigued by just how much faith he sees apart from organized religion. Baker published You Lost Me by David Kinnaman in 2011; the book analyzes why young evangelical Christians are losing the faith they were raised in. For Allen, the problem is that many see the Christian church as irrelevant. “The old approaches won’t do, at least not in their traditional forms,” he says. Last year, Baker sent a survey to 15,000 of its readers; 13% of respondents selected the category “other” when asked to describe their faith tradition. Allen is struck by how nontraditional that choice is in the evangelical subculture, as is the spiritual-but-not-religious choice of 3%. This convinces Allen that religious forms are changing, “not the substance necessarily,” he says. So he wants to publish books that will help the Christian church see what it needs to look like, sometimes literally—Emergence Christianity by Phyllis Tickle (2012) includes a photo essay of new congregations and religious objects—in order to help people live faithfully. “What we’re very interested in pursuing is, how do we live as faithfully orthodox Christians in these intensely, deeply changing times?” Allen says. “It’s not just about adding a coffee shop to your church.”
Changing times lead to changing publishing programs. Jericho Books is a new Nashville-based imprint from Hachette, whose 11-year-old FaithWords imprint has an evangelical audience. Launched in fall 2102 and led by publisher Wendy Grisham, Jericho is gathering an audience that defies and resists religious labels. “You’ve got everything from nondispensational-premillennial-Anglican-follower-of-Jesus to it-takes-you-two-lines-to-tell-what-your-faith-is,” Grisham says. “A lot of people have rejected ‘Christian.’ ” Jericho’s launch list includes Brian McLaren, known for his work on emergent Christianity (a kind of postmodern version of Christianity that has come into vogue over the past several years), and Justin Lee, a gay author who wouldn’t be welcome in the most conservative Christian churches, or with most evangelical publishers. “One of the things I hope for when people look at the Jericho Books list is authenticity,” Grisham says. “Some of the 20- and 30-year-olds are just sick of going to church. People are not necessarily leaving their faith, but their religion.” Grisham has given a lot of thought to the important question of how to reach an audience that doesn’t hang out in churches. “So much of this community is online,” she said. Author Shane Hipps, for example, did a Google Hangout that included giveaways and attracted more than 200 people. Grisham says Jericho has invested in its Web site and social media and is working with a company to maximize online outreach and opportunities.
Another new imprint is gestating at Random House’s evangelical unit, WaterBrook/Multnomah, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Convergent Books will debut in fall 2013, publishing to a more progressive Christian audience. Steve Cobb, president and publisher, says the new imprint might appeal to some of the nones, though that’s not part of the publishing strategy and house identity, which he describes as unapologetically Christian. “We will still be Christian in our foundations within Convergent,” Cobb says. “We can extend our audience further into Christendom, and likely we’re going to touch people in this new imprint who may not be affiliated in a conventional sense.” Cobb says the new imprint will emphasize social justice and faith in action, and he hopes it will appeal to those under 30, where lack of affiliation is highest. “Publishing to that younger demographic, whether we would admit it or not, has been more challenging,” he says.
Spiritual and Wellness Imprints
For other kinds of publishers, creating books for the religiously unaffiliated is nothing new. White Cloud Press’s eclectic line of spirituality and wellness books comprises titles on Islam, including its attention-getting I Speak for Myself series of essay collections by young American Muslims, as well as poetry and nature books. Sales are up for the Ashland, Ore.–based house. “I come from this region that has been at the forefront of saying that institutional religion is not something that attracts people,” says publisher Steve Scholl. For Scholl, both publishing and personal history suggest that organized religion is playing itself out, and the rise of the nones is part of a trajectory of gradual change. “It will be a long-term process of people abandoning religion but not the spiritual quest,” Scholl says. “We’re meaning-seeking creatures.” Scholl is especially emphatic that spirituality is not an evasion of the discipline that proponents of organized religion say is lacking among the spiritual-but-not-religious cohort. “I see unaffiliated people every day who are very serious about their spiritual lives,” he says.
It’s also life as usual at Shambhala Publications, which specializes in books about Buddhism and other Eastern wisdom traditions that have taken hold in America over the past half-century. “We have always been publishing to people who are seeking,” says publisher Julie Saidenberg. “I think in general our books are not about affiliation; they’re about a practice you do on your own.” Shambhala knows the turf, but faces the challenge of renewing an older audience, since interest in Western Buddhism is primarily a baby boomer phenomenon. The Buddha Walks into a Bar by Lodro Rinzler (2012) has worked well for the publisher to reach a younger generation that shies away from religious belonging. The book’s message doesn’t urge the reader to sign up for anything; “You don’t have to say, ‘OK, I’m a Buddhist,’ ” Saidenberg notes. Another challenge for Shambhala has been finding the watering holes where seekers and the unaffiliated gather. The house sells books direct and does a lot of direct mail outreach to customers. “We haven’t been so great at finding out where the Buddhists are hanging out online,” Saidenberg says. “It’s frustrating.”
The 30-year-old Beyond Words imprint is happy to see the rest of the culture catch up with its readers. The house, which began as a small indie but is now in partnership with Atria Books, made its mark with The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006), which has sold more than 21 million copies. “The nones have, in essence, always been around, but now this group has been given a name with certain distinct characteristics,” says Cynthia Black, president and editor-in-chief. Those characteristics include a willingness to see connections among science, spirituality, religion, and health. “We have found that the readers in this movement look for tools and practices to follow their own personal spiritual quest, whether affiliated with a religious group or not,” Black says.
Call it secularization, personalized faith, meaning seeking, or “none” of the above. Publishers of religion and spirituality books probably need not worry—if fewer people look to institutional religions for guidance and inspiration, might not more of them seek it in books?