Me: A couple of weeks ago, when the Summer Reading extravaganza of the New York Times Book Review appeared, you went through the issue to see how “religion” figured in it. What prompted that, and what did you find?
Myself: First, I think it was the satisfying bulk of the issue, so many books reviewed. And then something else—an attraction I’ve felt lately for “investigations.” How, for instance, do children appear in contemporary fiction? Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a bunch of novels and stories and see what you found? In any case, the idea just popped into my head, and as soon as it did, I wanted to follow through. I sat down with the Summer Reading issue, pen in hand, and read through it.
Me: And . . . ?
Myself: I don’t claim to have made any startling discoveries, but it was interesting nonetheless. “Religion” is largely missing as a subject. Now you might ask, what has Summer Reading to do with Jerusalem? But the range of books covered is enormous. There would have been plenty of room alongside reviews of thrillers and cookbooks and much more, somewhere between Dancing with Merce Cunningham and Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way.
When “religion” is mentioned, it’s usually Bad. For instance, Tre Johnson, reviewing Nnamdi Ehirim’s first novel, gives us the lowdown: “But time and again, Prince of Monkeys reminds us that differences of religion are arbitrary tools given by the white man to Nigerians for sowing deep divides among themselves, divides that are used to justify abandonments.” (I’d love to hear Mr. Ehirim or Mr. Johnson explain that to some learned and passionate Nigerian Christians, or to their Muslim counterparts.)
Then there are instances in which the subject at hand would seem to demand some attention to religion, but none is given. An encouraging counter-instance is Irina Dumitrescu’s review of Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library, which at least takes note of Columbus’s “medieval” Christianity.
It’s funny, too, to see on a single page a locution such as “soul-destroying” and (in the subtitle) In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. Soul?
Me: Overall, though, a pretty bleak reckoning.
Myself: You know, I didn’t find it bleak. It seemed funny. For some reason, I saw in my mind’s eye Basil Fawlty: “Don’t mention the war!” And I haven’t acknowledged the interview with George F. Will in the “By the Book” feature. In response to the routine question about an imaginary dinner party with three writers, living or dead, he names as one of his guests Peter De Vries, “the only American novelist wittier than Mark Twain,” but also—though Will doesn’t mention this—a graduate of Calvin College whose Christian Reformed upbringing informed everything he wrote, however far he wandered.
Nor, back on the negative side, have I mentioned Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Reading List,” which recommends twelve books, each under a different heading (“Biology,” “Ethnicity,” “Culture,” “Class,” and so on), with no acknowledgment of the profound place of religion in the lives of African Americans. Oh, dear.
But I don’t want to end on that note, so I’ll conclude by thanking the novelist Lyndsay Faye, whose review of W. M. Akers’s novel Westside begins by recalling Philip K. Dick’s wonderful coinage “kipple,” which Dick defined thus:
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers. It always gets more and more. No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot.
Faye describes this as “essentially a reimagining of the second law of thermodynamics,” but I think kipple is better understood, as most of Dick’s ideas are, as an instance of homemade theology, deliberately tacky. Religion. It’s hard to get rid of it; it just keeps popping up.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.