A prefatory note to readers under forty (or should it be under fifty?): In 1968 (quite a year, that; among other things, the year in which Wendy and I, at the age of twenty, were married), the University of California Press published a book by Carlos Casteneda titled The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, purportedly to be shelved under “Anthropology.” It became one of the signature books of that strange time, selling a vast number of copies. Meanwhile, as the years passed, questions accumulated about the authenticity of its scholarship. In 1992, a Donald Barthelme anthology appeared, edited by Kim Herzinger and with a wonderful Thomas Pynchon introduction: The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays. My title for this column is an homage to the Barthelme volume that also mocks the original.
Relativity is relative.
The Scripture reading this past Sunday at our church, Faith Covenant in Wheaton, Illinois, was Acts 17:16–34, with Paul’s famous sermon at the Areopagus. The reader was witty, which requires a certain boldness (reverence for the Word can be inhibiting). The familiar text came alive:
“What is this babbler trying to say?”
“He seems to be proclaiming some sort of foreign divinity.”
This was a splendid way to allow us to hear with fresh ears. And we were outside, like the crowd in Athens 2,000 years ago, under a bright blue sky. At the end of the service, we celebrated Communion with those wretched little pre-packaged elements. But perhaps their incongruous form merely emphasizes the astonishing nature of this meal.
One of the most resonant book titles I’ve seen this year is People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present, by Dara Horn. If, like me, you know Horn as a novelist, you probably won’t need my urging to read this book, a collection of essays just out from W. W. Norton. But if you haven’t tried her, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Some sample chapter titles: “Frozen Jews”; “Dead American Jews, Part One”; “Dead Jews of the Desert”; “Blockbuster Dead Jews.” “This book,” Horn writes at the end of her introduction, “explores the many strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment. I hope you will find it as disturbing as I do.”
“Neurodiversity.” I have often spoken of my brother, Rick, two and half years younger than I am. Even as a toddler he was interested in how things worked, how to make things, how to fix things. Our grandmother, who was similarly inclined (and who raised us, along with my mother, the breadwinner), made a little toolbelt for him with a small hammer, pliers, and so on, and he followed her around as she built and repaired and created small marvels: miniature tents, for instance, to serve our treasured “little men” (as we called them), small plastic figures that took on individuality in our eyes. I, on the other hand, was likely to be reading a book or a magazine. I am a lifelong non-driver; Rick started driving before he had even reached the legal age, and has a knowledge of cars that’s off the charts. He and I were obviously “wired” quite differently, as they say, and yet we have always been very close—and we share many interests; he is a reader too. Even in a single family (ours, for instance; Wendy and I have four grown children), the range of “neurodiversity” is often immense.
My grandmother, my mother, and my brother were all very “musical” as generally defined; I was conspicuously not. My Uncle Ed, immensely musical (and a wonderful man in many ways), was convinced that I was perversely refusing to understand (!) when he was trying to teach me to sing. And yet, for all my ineptitude, I love music, in my own fashion. “Neurodiversity” once again.
The weather here in Wheaton is almost uncannily beautiful today.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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