An Interesting Thought

With the exception of some members of the “vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language” in the book of Revelation, there are no people in the Bible who a white supremacist would recognize as white.

Book of Numbers Chapter 12-3 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media)

Unless you count Miriam (the sister of Moses and Aaron), who was struck white with leprosy for criticizing Moses’ choice of a dark-skinned wife. It’s like God said “you think being light-skinned is so great? Try being white as a dead fish belly and see how superior you feel then.”

Racism: God’s Against It.

On Swearing

Swearing is complicated, even when it’s simple. Start with the fact that people use the word swearing to mean two completely different things. There’s the swearing one does when one takes an oath – swearing in a Member of Parliament, or a jury, or a President – and the swearing one does for rather less official reasons. Same word. Confusing.

NIXONinaugurationday
Quaker: thou art doing it wrong

For extra confusion, the tradition of swearing on a Bible – frequently required for legal purposes in various countries with a Christianized past – is actually forbidden in the Bible itself, in two places (Matthew 5: 33-37 and James 5:12).

The idea behind swearing on scriptures is that the swearer will not lie in case their god gets them for tarnishing his, her or its reputation. It’s hard to see how this is supposed to work with Christians, since the swearing itself would be disobedient regardless of whether one subsequently told the truth or not. Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no – it’s much simpler.

Swear Bear

The other kind of swearing seems less complicated. Until you realize there are all these unspoken rules about swearing – who, when, where, what… The Romans had a very codified structure of who could say what, in the presence of whom. There were some swear-words women could use; some they couldn’t use – but men could use in their presence; and some that women weren’t even supposed to know about, because only men used them, only in male company. Allegedly.

English swear-words are mostly the Early English words for various bodily functions (which makes it rather unfair to follow them up with “excuse my French”). Those that aren’t earthy are mostly blasphemous, and for some reason swearing has not caught up with religious pluralism. Or atheism.

Civilian Conservation Corps - NARA - 195836As Terry Pratchett wrote, “It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, ‘Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!’ or ‘Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!’.”

While English has a small enough pool of Really Rude Words that they can be identified simply by their initial letters, it has a wealth of minced oaths; what Bill Bryson calls “euphemistic expletives – darn, durn, goldurn, goshdad, goshdang, goshawful, blast, consarn, confound, by Jove, by jingo, great guns, by the great horn spoon… jo-fired, jumping Jehoshaphat, and others almost without number.”

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Jehoshaphat jumping

I have an aunt who says “Flaming Norah” when the occasion seems to require it (though Norah has yet to catch fire); and I myself say “blast,” “dangnabit,” and other such phrases. One of my favourites comes from A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, in which an old woman lambasts her grandson as a nikiranibobo for seeking offshore employment. “‘I dare not translate this word, sir,’ stammered the interpreter when he recovered himself; ‘it is a very old and clever word, but it is not official.'”

At the risk of sounding prim, let me say that I don’t use blasphemy: it’s either disrespectful and offensive to Someone I love dearly, or (if one embraces pluralism) offensive to people who hold other beliefs. I don’t use language of the fouler sort either. After all, if I wouldn’t want to step in it, I definitely don’t want it in my mouth.

Read It Again!

Thus goes up the cry from many a small child, with their insatiable desire for the same bedtime story to be told, over and over (and over) again.

Felix Schlesinger Die Gute-Nacht-Geschichte

But it’s not just little kiddies who do it. Scratch a reader and you will find a re-reader – but what is it we’re re-reading? And why?

The winner of the gold medal, blue ribbon and all-around first prize for re-reading (re-readiness?) is the Scriptures; unsurprising given the emphasis so many traditions put on reading, re-reading, memorizing and internalizing the words of God. As Jesus said, these are “foundational words, words to build a life on.” But, leaving the Scriptures aside, as the best-seller lists do (since the same book invariably tops the list), what are the most popular re-reads?

The comments on this post reminded me of the widespread passion for re-reading The Lord of the Rings – and not just re-reading it, but re-reading it again every year. That’s dedication, especially if you aren’t a fast reader.

Some people re-read other classic novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, although I have yet to hear of anyone who repeatedly reads War and Peace – apart from Countess Tolstoy, who apparently recopied and edited it seven times. That’s going above and beyond the call of duty, it seems to me. Bearing thirteen children is one thing; reading War and Peace seven times is quite another.

woman writing at desk

Many people obsessively re-read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as children, and some continue the habit. I myself, as a child, re-read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, as I was a voracious reader with limited (re)sources. I even read our children’s encyclopaedia by the volume (Vol. 1, Article 1: Abbey, which may be connected to my subsequent interest in all things monastic).

More recently, I have noticed a pattern to my re-reading. When I am tired and want to relax, I read either an old favourite – Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Ellis Peters – or a book by an author with whom I am sufficiently familiar to be sure I will enjoy the book. And yes, this means that when I want to relax I almost without exception curl up with a mystery (although I did curl up with The Curse of Chalion the other day).

When I am not in need of book-induced relaxation – when I have more mental energy – I tend more toward the reading of non-fiction. Books about writing, books about whatever I have an interest in at the moment, books which happened to show up in an old box from someone’s grandmother. Reading entirely unfamiliar fiction doesn’t happen as often, unless the book is very compelling when I glance into it, because it doesn’t fit into either of my two settings: Relax or Absorb Information.

Simon Glücklich Hausaufgabe

But once I’ve read a non-fiction book, I seldom feel the inclination to re-read it, and I think this reveals something about why people re-read – or at least why I re-read. I re-read books because there is something in them which I cannot fully obtain from one reading. If it’s non-fiction, it’s because I didn’t absorb enough of the information it contained the first time round.

With fiction, that doesn’t apply. I mean, look at the enormous popularity of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Read one, you’ve got a pretty good idea of them all, but that doesn’t stop people reading the rest and then re-reading them. Because the essence of the book isn’t in the facts of it, it’s in something altogether more evanescent. The style of the book, or perhaps its soul. You can’t break that down to its component parts to analyze why it works. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life, you could say.

Or, to steal a structure from Maya Angelou, people will forget what the book said, they’ll forget what the characters did, but they will never forget how the book made them feel. And that, I am convinced, is the secret of all re-reading. Reading the book produced in us a feeling – and with great books it’s a feeling no other book creates – and re-reading the book is the only way to feel that again. This is how reading prescriptions work; and also why we have fan-fiction.

What do you think? What books do you re-read, and why?