Yesterday was my day at the Boston Book Festival in downtown Boston at Copley Square. The Exhibitor displays were set up on the commons in front of the Boston Public Library on one side and Trinity Church on the other side. Trinity is the church pastored by Philip Brooks (d.1893), some of whose books I read in seminary. A great preacher of his day and the pastor who led the congregation in the building of one of the finest church buildings in America. It is a treasure, architecturally speaking. It is no longer standing in the orthodox Christian Tradition. But if I went to church anywhere for the beauty of its building, it would be Trinity.
Going to the Book Festival is sort of a religious commitment to me. Multiple thousands of the Boston citizenry show up for the world of ideas. When I go to a particular presentation by an author, there are hundreds of people there who like the same book I liked!! It is often the case that a book I have thoroughly enjoyed is a singular experience for me. People in my circles have not read it, nor I the books that they have enjoyed. But when I go to a presentation such as at the BBF, there is an instant community of like minded people. There is already a lot in common with similar concerns and questions. That experience is worth something to me.
The schedule is such that there is no time for eating. It is wise to put some food in your backpack and munch along the way. The lines for the presentations are huge and you can’t afford to be eating lunch and missing the queue. There is hardly enough time to visit the vendors. You just sort of pass by them on your way to another venue. If you want to spend serious time roaming around the exhibitors, you have to miss a presentation. No dice!!!
I attended four presentations. All the information about the BBF is at http://www.bostonbookfest.org
This is the 75th year of the publication of The Hobbit and soon the movie is to come out. Believe me when I say there is a Hobbit culture, almost like a science fiction convention. They can’t get enough. Corey Olsen was featured, aka the Tolkien Professor, who has just written Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Olsen is a professor at Washington College. Also presenting were Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull who showed the original artwork drawn by Tolkien himself. They coauthored The Art of the Hobbit.
2. Fiction: Heaven Knows
This presentation featured three novelists who explored how novelists approach religion, belief, and the mysteries of the unseen. Presenters were Tom Perrotta, Alan Lightman and Ben Marcus. None of these authors professed some kind of Christian the best I could tell. I was particularly interested in Lightman’s work, Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation. In this work he looks at creation from god’s perspective with an attempt at making him a “small g” god – human, a bit clumsy, in an attempt to make him a bit more interesting. Lightman insisted that this was not a statement on his part but he did observe that the kind of god he was interested in creating for the reader would have to be personal god, for religious institutions “couldn’t afford” to have a god like this. I did find intriguing his quip that the big and perfect God of religion seems to create a God no one is drawn to at a personal level. I find some truth in that. Looking at something that is perfect all the time, never wrong, never making a mistake, never doing something embarrassing, never being what we are all the time being can flat line the mind and the emotions. It might be true, but uninteresting. He is onto something. But I don’t think it is an either/or kind of thing. Certainly Trinitarianism does the “God transcendent” thing and the “God immanent” thing. God is too big to peer at for too long. But God has become “small” to be near us. Christianity recognizes that experience we humans have – God must remain God to satisfy us and our need to have something big “out there” that is the ultimate explanation for all things; but God must be “God among us” to know, to have a relationship with. You don’t have to have a “small g” God. But the concept is interesting. I think I will read it.
3. The Brain: Thinking About Knowing
This has always been a fascinating subject to me – how we know what we know. What is knowing anyway? How far can the mind take us in knowing? Do we have another way of knowing? If so, what is it? Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner in 2000, explores how the mind perceives art in The Spirit of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. A most moving presentation. His assertion was that science and art are not opposites, but that there is a science of art. He sought a scientific explanation for the aesthetic. He made ample use of Freud. His familial relationships connected with Freud and his family. He is 85 today, appearing vital, energeti and intellectually alive. Amazing presentation. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was also the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia. The next presenter was Ray Kurzwell, author of How to Create a Mind. His thesis was that our increasing ability to reverse engineer the brain will lead to ever more intelligent machines. He spoke of nano computers that will be put in the human body, enabling us to access information on The Cloud. He predicted in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions. This all was a fascinating discussion. The venue was Trinity Church, a very large church that was packed without a seat left. I guess a lot of people knew who these two men were.
4. Future of Reading
This was a panel of “experts” on both the science of reading and the world of reading. At issue was whether or not the digital world would diminish “deep reading.” The reality is that no matter what we should or should not do with paper books, the world is going digital. Now what to do? Of course, one of the things that happens in digital publishing is that people have more access to authors. It used to be that an author published a book and could walk away. But now readers are much more involved in the world of books because of the democratization of reading due to digital access. Authors are now immersed in the world of readers’ responses. Some authors are taking advantage of this by including the reading public in their process through any number of means – video, share sites, blogs, etc. Authors are now able to include a much wider swath of people through electronic media. I walked away thinking that the book as we have known it will no longer be. One statistic stood out: in the next 5 years there will be over one billion new readers. The reality is that paper books will not be able to reach them. It will be digital materials that grant access to education. The panelists were Baratunde Thurston, Nicholas Negroponte, Robert Darnton, Maryanne Wolf, Cheryl Cramer and Sep Kamvar.
Choosing between presentations is always such a difficult thing. So much good stuff going on. Just seeing what is offered is a wake up call to what people are interest in and writing about. Reading is a way of going into the world of culture formation without having to have a ticket – the right school, the right neighborhood, the right socio-economic status, the right whatever. You just start reading, and you are there.