Saturday, September 25, 2010

Under the golden bough

These days I spend my time with my laptop in a comfy chair in a quiet corner of the college library. It's my idea of heaven, I suppose: a pension, a comfy chair, and two-hundred-and-fifty thousand books.

Like most libraries, our two floors of stacks consist of three-foot-wide shelving units arranged in long rows. If I had to reduce the collection to just one of those units, which would it be?

I would have to think of the students the library is meant to serve. My own personal choice might be something in the QHs or PSs, natural history or American literature. But thinking back on my own intellectual adventure, I'll nominate that unit of shelves that begins with Bob Park's rollicking, thumb-in-your-eye Superstition: Belief in an Age of Science (BL240.3.p37) and ends with Karen Armstrong's foundational work on the history of religion The Great Transformation (BL430.A76).

There's some neat stuff among these 163 books. Nineteenth-century classics like Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology and Sir James Fraser's The Golden Bough. Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God and The Hero With A Thousand Faces.. Claude Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. Mircea Eliade's Myth and Reality. Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill. Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers. A. N. Wilson's God's Funeral.

Which is to say: It doesn't make much sense thinking about where we are unless we know how we got here. Just as you and I are products of the cultural milieu in which we were raised and came to maturity, so that cultural milieu has a history. How many American Christians, say, who are convinced they have the truth ever stop to consider what religion they would espouse with equal ardor had they been born in Qom or Delhi? My own default agnosticism was no doubt nourished by some of the books listed above, which I fell into more or less by accident as a young man. Not a bad thing, I think. Why not start with the roots of things and bushwhack a self-made path to the present?