Today I got a book in the mail that I've had on order at Amazon for weeks. It's How To Read The Bible: A Guide To Scripture, Then And Now by James Kugel. This massive volume attempts to tell two simultaneous stories: the discovery by modern scholarship of the Bible's composition, authorship, and historical background; and the formation of standard interpretations of the Bible in the centuries around the beginning of the common era, by scholars under intense pressure to find relevance in these ancient texts that would make sense of their turbulent times.
I wish I could start my sophomore class over and install this book as the central text. We're using Kugel's The Bible As It Was, a book I've admired and consulted for years. It compiles scores of interpretive strands from the ancient literature, showing how they tried to make sense of texts they found cryptic yet absolutely crucial. But Kugel's new book not only shows how the interpreted-Bible, the one that all of us grew up with as the "plain meaning" of the text, came to be, but it also juxtaposes that familiar (yet utterly odd) book with the unfamiliar (yet distinctly human) mosaic revealed by scientific investigations of various kinds. It's the synthesis I've been groping toward in my class, and here it is in one magisterial package. I gulped down the introduction and part of chapter one before dinner, and I just want to take the rest of the semester off and savor it.
Next semester I'm reprising my class on pop culture criticism. I've learned a little bit about the balance between reading and writing assignments, and about how to manage in-class experiences with pop culture. I'm happy with two of my central texts -- Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Understanding Comics. But I feel like I need a book on the special properties of electronic media, so we can see how it matters that pop culture is mass culture. (Maybe those are two separate topics.) Last time I used a book called Digital McLuhan by Paul Levinson, and it was okay -- a little academic, a little theoretical. So I'm taking suggestions for another book that will help my students get some distance on this all-consuming deluge of media, maybe let them see how it developed, let them poke at the gears to see how it works. Any ideas?
I know for sure that I want to start the class with the title essay from George Saunders' new collection, The Braindead Megaphone. As he describes the overwhelming and despair-inducing power of poorly-thought-out ideas, soundbites, talking points, short attention span theater, simplistic propaganda, and meaningless tabloid sleaze in our culture, he calls for small acts of resistance. Every sentence revised, he says, is a blow against the massing hordes. Every paragraph carefully crafted is a light kindled against the rising dark. Amen, brother George.