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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Reading Essays

Some days, I want to read essays rather than make them. I yearn to linger in the words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of other essayists. To lean in close and let their words wash over me. To listen carefully for the patterns of their language, their idiosyncrasies, flourishes, and routines, rather than the familiar sound of my own. To step into the worlds their essays create for a little while. To feel what they want me to feel. To learn something I didn’t quite know. To see how they build a narrative or resist one. To hear how they tell a particular story in a particular moment on a particular page. To experience the conjuring of a world rather than being responsible for it.

Reading essays allows me to stop thinking about mine. I ride along the currents of their essays for hundreds or thousands of words. I savor the beginning and the end of the ride. I start and finish another essay and another. I’m seeking knowledge of our shared craft of essay-making. I’m looking for secrets or possibly hidden wisdom. I’m reading their collections and searching for community. For a few minutes, I feel like I belong.

I’m an essayist too, I want to say to the printed pages. I write essays too. I know that it can be a solitary existence that consumes waking and sleeping hours. Being an essayist means always looking for essays and often finding them. The day starts with essays percolating in my head. The day ends that way too. I rifle through topics picking some and discarding others. While walking the dog, I can hear the opening line. I repeat it again and again to remember it, to remember that this can be an essay. I write essays in my head and sometimes, they make it to the page.

Being an essayist colors my existence. Daily events appear to me as essays. I test out their resonance on me before I test them out on other people. Parts of my life offered up as fodder for my craft while other parts remain protected from my writing. I interiorize the world to recreate it on the page. I seek a narrative, a story arc, the meaning or lack thereof to guide the essay. Mostly, I resist the urge for familiar narratives because I want to see how a story unfolds rather than direct it. (more…)

Reading Roundup for RiAH

Here’s what I posted today at the Religion in American History blog:

Wednesday Round Up: Must Read Edition

While Paul is away, the blog will go on (and on) with a new series on religion and masculinity (see Charity’s first post here) and the long overdue return of the Gender and the American Religious Historian series. We have to keep all you readers busy, so y’all breathe a deep sigh of relief when Paul returns. Anyone, contributor or guest poster, who would like to submit posts to either the masculinity or the gender series, please send it along to kellyjbaker (at) gmail (dot) com. The more the merrier!

Happy Wednesday everybody! Here are some must-reads for the middle of the week.

First, the Center for the Study of Religion & American culture posted the proceedings from the second biennial conference. The proceedings from the 2009 meeting are also available. RiAH bloggers provided our thoughts on the conference (Elesha’s here and here, Janine’s here, Paul’s here and mine), and now, the excellent papers are available to all of you who missed the lively conference.

Second, check out our own John Fea‘s “Can the Study of History Heal the Culture Wars?” at Patheos. Here’s a snippet:
…I could not help but wonder if the thing that ails us most is not our failure to engage in activism, but our failure to understand and empathize with those with whom we might disagree. Perhaps our failure to bringing reconciliation and healing to our divided culture is, at its core, a failure of liberal learning, particularly as it relates to the study of history. Christians and secularists can team up in social justice projects, and Barack Obama can give stirring speeches about ending the Red State-Blue State divide, but until the American people develop the discipline of listening to one another, we will remain stalled in our attempts at reconciliation.

Third, Craig Martin interviews Manuel A. Vásquez about his More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford 2010), which I will be reviewing a bit later for the blog. Martin describes Vásquez’s project in these terms:

More than Belief is very much a “theory” book, as it provides a comprehensive introduction to modern and postmodern theories (feminist, anthropological, sociological, philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific, etc.) relevant to the study of that thing we call “religion.” Along the way Vásquez criticizes each theory considered, selects the best elements of each that he finds worth saving, and synthesizes the useful remainders into his own general theory of religion. What was astonishing to me about the book was the scope: Vásquez moves from the mind/body problem in Plato and Descartes to the rejection of dualism by Spinoza and Nietzsche, to the origins of phenomenology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to social constructionism in Foucault and Butler, to Deleuze and Haraway, to cognitive science of religion, and so forth (this list includes highlights from only the first half of the book—I wasn’t joking when I said “comprehensive”!). Vásquez ends up arriving at a naturalist but non-reductive materialist theory that emphasizes embodiment, practice, and global social networks.

And here’s Vásquez on the role of theory in the study of religion:

Today, I am far more skeptical that theory can solve all social problems. Although some of my Jesuit teachers were killed by the military during the Salvadoran civil war precisely because of their ideas, I am keenly aware that there is always a painful gap between theory and practice (even when theorizing is a form of practice). Moreover, I do not see the theorist as some sort of Sartrean emancipatory hero, always choosing freedom over bad faith. As Bourdieu tells us, being an authoritative theorist requires a habitus, a habitus that is formed by one’s privileged trajectory in the fields of knowledge production. Still, I do theory as a critical engagement with particular problems or impasses. I agree with Foucault that theory should be driven by a “limit-attitude,” a situated “permanent critique of ourselves.” It should grow out of “our impatience for liberty.” As such, theory should be a passionate endeavor “oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” This normative stance, which implies that theory should be useful not just in academia, but, to the extent possible, to our being-in-the-world, is a corollary of a materialist epistemology that stresses immanent becoming.

For more the rest of Martin and Vásquez’s conversation, parts one and two are available.