90 Years of Spiritual Merchandising

1968If you’ve heard of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a small white poetry book with a drawing of a man staring intensely out from the cover, you probably associate it with the 1960s. That’s when the so-called counterculture Bible began to be read at weddings (“Love one another, but make not a bond of love”), was set to music (“Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself”) and referenced by Elvis, JFK and the Beatles. But the book’s real origins may surprise you. The Prophet turned 90 years old in 2013; it was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in September 1923.

Despite the Aquarius generation’s sincere belief that they had discovered the book, The Prophet had actually sold surprisingly well since its publication — especially as a gift. Christmas-themed ads ran in the New York Times</em> in the late 1920s, announcing “For your spiritually-minded friends: The Prophet Holiday Edition, hand set, beautifully printed and bound, is now ready in an attractive gift box.”

The book’s 26 broadly themed sections seemed applicable to everyone on your list: love, children, money, education, freedom, religion and death. By 1925, sales had begun to double year over year. By 1938, Publishers Weekly already found the book’s “fifteen years of mounting sales” worthy of note. (Numbers apparently “fell off slightly” during “the worst years of the Depression,” then came back stronger.) The Prophet was competitively selected for inclusion in the Armed Services Edition program, and distributed to thousands of World War II GIs.

Likewise, the author, Kahlil Gibran, is not the mysterious Indian guru I assumed him to be when I saw the book on my hippie parents’ bookshelf: He was a New Yorker. A Lebanese-American poet and artist who lived in a studio on West 10th Street in the village, he perfected each of The Prophet‘s Blake-accented free verses with his unheralded editor and patron, Boston educator Mary Haskell. Crafted for maximum accessibility, they were immediately appreciated by readers.

Gibran himself only got to bask in its success for eight years before he died in 1931. But for Knopf, The Prophet was truly the gift that kept on giving. For decades, Knopf published translations of Gibran’s older books; biographies; and collections of correspondence. (They weren’t the only ones keeping Gibran’s legacy going. No less than three separate authors claimed to have “channeled” sequels to The Prophet: in 1933, 1973, and 2007.)

By 1961, seven years before John Lennon quoted Gibran on The White Album, Alfred Knopf was saying publicly that The Prophet was his company’s best-selling book. He also liked to give the impression that it had sold itself all those years: “we never really advertised it.” This isn’t strictly true. But The Prophet’s astonishing sales record is indeed due more to savvy merchandising as a gift than to direct ad campaigns.

The book itself did not exactly endorse buying and selling, warning readers to “suffer not the barren-handed…who would sell their words for your labor.” But the titular prophet was a big fan of giving: “All you have shall some day be given; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.” And give customers did.

Boxed sets continued to come out at the holiday season, heavily promoted in bookstores. By the 1970s, the book was also a popular gift for weddings, after funerals, and at rites of passage for young people like graduations and yes, bar mitzvahs. By the late 80s, when my mother owned a bookstore in Maine, The Prophet was available for purchase in a tiny, Post-It sized hardcover edition complete with a loop of ribbon to hang from your Christmas tree.

But what message are you sending when you give the gift of The Prophet? Judging by the forlorn, inscribed copies for re-sale on eBay, the givers sincerely felt that this book spoke directly to them, and therefore, would speak directly to the recipient. “We hope this book will become as important to you and Russell in its special way as it has to Ted and to me.” The contemplative nature of the poetry seemed to lend itself to transitional moments: “As you enter this new phase in your life, may God bless you and open to your understanding the many mysteries of life.”

And though The Prophet remains identified with the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s, this usage, as balm for people in pain, jives with its earlier history. People bought copies as soon as they could afford it after the Depression. Soldiers passed it around to their friends in the trenches. Is it so different really from the holidays, a time when perhaps more of us than we’d like to admit could use a little comfort? “I thought it would be cool to pass it on to you to read, maybe we could share it together. I love you always. Hope it’s not too corny. Merry Christmas.” And happy 90th birthday, ultimate gift book.

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Seven Storytelling Sins

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because it saves me from my overpunctuated sentences, but in a nice way, without making me feel bad.

I was immediately intrigued by the recent This American Life episode  “Seven Things You’re Not Supposed To Talk About.” A producer’s mother had ironclad rules about topics that should never be talked about in social settings, because they are, invariably, boring: “nobody cares.” The list includes: your minor health problems, how you slept, your dreams, that you got your period, your diet, and the worst offender, “route talk,” or, how you got to wherever you’ve just arrived at. (In case you’re wondering, yes, money is also one of the seven, but not because it’s boring, because it’s just rude.) The episode was framed as a challenge to the mother: could This American Life journalists go out in the world and find stories about these topics that would convince her to relax her rules?

But it soon became clear that the mother was absolutely right. And I think I know why. Because your aches and pains, how you had to go buy a tampon, why you’re not eating gluten—these are not in and of themselves stories at all. These are what writer Vivian Gornick would call “situations.” They are events that happen, and that’s it. In her 2001 book The Situation And The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (read an excerpt here) she sets the two s-words in interesting opposition. “The story … is the large sense that the writer is making of his own participation in the situation [emphasis mine].” The situation is the event or predicament, the story is what’s at stake for the writer in that event. Situation: the writer has a migraine. Story: her eventual realization that she comes to rely on the pain of said migraine as a reminder of what’s good in her life. Situation: my father recently bought a used Jaguar. Story: At age 70, he’s gotten over the pathological cheapness that led him to drive Geo Metros for the past 20 years. Situation: man eats a delicious madeleine; story, well, it takes all of Remembrance of Things Past.

In the one case where the producer’s mother did grudgingly admit to being interested in one of the stories, she still felt cheated, because This American Life had had the resources to talk to an astronaut about how she slept in space, and of course their sleep story is going to be slightly more interesting than her average dinner-party guest. I feel her pain: this is the frustration of a simple situation surrounded by a hastily built fence of story. But I also understand why it’s tempting to try to make compelling stories out of these routinely-talked-about situations like eating, sleeping, and getting sick. I especially understand being tempted by “route talk.” Getting from Point A to Point B sure feels like a story; it’s got an inevitable beginning, middle, and end. There are lots of these forms of pre-made narratives lurking about: travelogues, competitions, trials. I have a special weakness for courtroom drama: there’s your exposition (Exhibit A), your conflict (prosecution vs. defense), your resolution (verdict). But often, what happens in the courtroom is far from the complete story, as any episode of The Good Wife will show you.

Still, I came away from this week’s situation-and-story conundrum optimistic. When TAL producer and mother divulge to the dream-interpretation group they are visiting their intentions to try to prove that dreams could make for good conversation, one of the participants, an analyst, disagrees: “Only sex and sports are intrinsically interesting.” By which I think he means that those are the only situations that we humans have an inherent, physical stake in, and thus will automatically surround with our own sturdy story fences.

To that shortlist of “things you should always talk about,” I’d like to add another s-word, “Space.” In a recent creative nonfiction course I taught online for The Writer’s Center, I assigned part of Gornick’s book in the last week (in retrospect, it should probably go first).  For at least one conscientious student, the reading seemed to cause him to rethink his whole final essay: astutely he realized that what he had been working so hard on was in fact a  situation, the stakes or story of which were not quite apparent.

However, that situation was extremely rich, well-told, and intrinsically fascinating: his essay was a first-person account of what a NASA software engineer has to do when the team loses contact with the probe it sent to orbit Mercury, the MESSENGER.  Despite his concerns, it only took Chris Krupiarz adding a few choice sentences of context and framing to move from “situation” to “story.” Most of his work had already been done, in documenting the nail-biting “situation” itself. And the resulting story, “Blinded by the Light”, was published on The Magazine. Read it online  here. And revel in the fact that, like the TAL producer’s mom with the astronaut sleep story, and like the millions who watched Gravity on the big screen, there are still a few story frontiers out there that will never fail to grab our attention.

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How (Not) To Conduct An Interview

It’s a reasonable assumption that I must have gotten to talk to lots of interesting people for my book on people seeking the Garden of Eden, just like it’s a reasonable assumption that I got to visit lots of beautiful places (Ohio and Missouri are nice, but hardly paradise). And I always feel a little sheepish when I confess that yes, the few people I did interview for the book were fascinating, but most of the characters, and the information about those characters, came from archival rather than human sources. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with archival research, but because my book(s) are narratives about people, I know that those pieces of character and information that I get from talking to actual people are worth their weight in gold.

The problem is, I’m scared of interviews. Always have been. I put them off, cut them short, find workarounds. It’s not that I’m terrible at interviewing people. My husband, who has overheard more than one phone interview, says it was one of his favorite parts of reading Paradise Lust to see just how much story I could squeeze out of these brief interactions. The subject of the only chapter of Paradise Lust that relied mostly on interviews has become a friend who sought me out for coffee when he visited New York on a family vacation.  I’ve never had a combative subject, a boring conversation, or anyone quibble with the interview text after publication.

But still I lack confidence. For my new project, which takes place entirely in the 20th century and has a much larger pool of living subjects, I knew I would have to conduct many more interviews than I did for Paradise Lust. I already conducted a few, just for the proposal. But my list of un-conducted interviews is much, much longer. Approaching, scheduling, conducting, and transcribing interviews is a process I stretch out even beyond its intrinsic logistical problems for reasons of anxiety. Take my most recent interview, which took seven months.

I knew I needed to talk to someone from Sweet Honey in the Rock, the African-American consciousness-raising a cappella powerhouse, because they performed a song based on an excerpt of “The Prophet” which popularized the book widely during my childhood. Last march, at the AWP conference, I spoke to my friend Alicia Oltuski, who is such a fearless interviewer that she is conducting a series of them without an overall writing project to put them in, just because she wants to interview. Inspired, some weeks later I contacted her to ask her advice about contacting famous people out of the blue. Would she recommend messaging, say, a Grammy-winning  a cappella legend, on her Facebook page? She answered diplomatically: it’s not ideal, but sometimes your only option.

So I hesitated some more: was it my only option? I ended up finding an email address for the speakers’ agency that represents Bernice Johnson Reagon, which I hoped was close enough. I wrote them a very polite request and hoped for the best. (I find that after sending out an interview request, I relax, because that’s the hard part for me; whether the interview comes through or not, I’ve tried.) The next day, a swift and polite rejection arrived. This was  a first for me–like I said, usually I interview people who I know people in common with, or who would have a vested interest in talking to me. So, shut out, I waited a couple more months to pursue the interview I still needed. Then there was the small matter of planning and having my wedding in July which I guess is a pretty good excuse for not following up sooner.

Then in the late summer, as I started to ramp up the proposal writing process before starting up my  day job in the fall, I got my courage up again. I looked online for the name of the Sweet Honey in the Rock singer who had actually written the music for the song in question. She of course had a website, with a personal contact address. So I emailled her. And waited. And this time got a very nice reply, I would be interested in speaking with you, call this number. I think I waited  a while to do that, too, since even though I presumed the interview would take place by phone, I still hate calling people. When I finally did, I reached a tired-sounding woman who said, very nicely, that no this was not a good time to talk, would I try her on Sunday afternoon? So I did, and got her voicemail. If you’ve ever heard Sweet Honey in the Rock’s music, the person I was trying to interview provided the baritone voice for thirty years, she conducts choral workshops all over the world, and her voice message is like hearing from a more resplendent James Earl Jones. It is glorious. “If I am driving when I receive your call, I will call you back when I reach my destination. I suggest you do the same. Be well.” I left a gracious message. Then didn’t hear back.

This is the point at which I usually cave. I don’t want to bother this lovely lady; I rationalize; it’s not such a big deal that I talk to her anyway, etc. It took me another couple months to re-boost my courage, by reminding myself that the interview itself really couldn’t go wrong: it didn’t matter what her story about “The Prophet” song was, it was just crucial to include her as a piece of the puzzle of how the book from 1923 had made its way so widely in the world.  I didn’t need to know her whole life story, I only had two questions for her: how did you come to write the song? And what did it mean to you? And then, just when I swear I was about to try again, I got an email from her:

I’m still interested in talking to you, I apologize for the long delay and hope you haven’t given up on me, I retired from Sweet Honey in the Rock in May and have been extremely busy with my own projects that I’ve been putting aside while on tour for 30 years…I’ll be in New Jersey doing vocal workshops at a school in New Jersey next week and should have time between 4 and 7pm: give me a call.

Hallelujah! Reader, I must confess that even though I was in the enviably rare situation of having a complete stranger kindly contacting me to be interviewed, I was still terrified of making that call. But I determined to work through the anxiety, and called her near 7pm on Monday. Left a message. Got home on Tuesday in time to call but sat there, terrified, until the window of time had passed. On Wednesday, emailled her to see if we could instead set a time to talk on Friday. Nothing. Had to work until 7pm on Thursday. At work, got an email from her saying we could set up a time to talk Friday. I looked at the clock: my student that hour had finished their tutoring session early, it was 4:30 and I had half an hour until my next student. I should email her now, asking if I could call her now. So I emailled her. And then without waiting for a reply, I stepped out into the stairwell at work, the only quiet place for a phone call, and tried her again. By some miracle, she answered.  We had a perfectly lovely conversation for about fifteen minutes, with me scribbling notes in my work notepad, highly caffeinated and in semi-disbelief that I was finally getting to fill in a piece of the puzzle of the book I’d been researching for nearly a year by then.

Then there’s the post-interview euphoria, the sweet relief that happens while you’re typing up your notes, watching them magically transform from scribbles going all over one page because I didn’t want to risk missing something when turning the page, into five pages of long quotes, interspersed with references and other things to check. The section about the songwriter and her role in the legacy of “The Prophet” might end up taking up just a page or two in the book when it’s finally done. But it took eight months to achieve.  I think about this when I read other narrative nonfiction books containing interviews: I hope that other writers don’t have the same crushing anxiety I do about pursuing a subject, but I know there are also many other reasons why getting an interview would take as long as it did for me. And I have nothing but respect and sympathy for the troubles they go through, just to get those little precious nuggets of story for you, the reader.


Modern Mythographer

Nonfiction November

Hey, it’s November, you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month, adorably shortened as NaNoWriMo. This is not like Excema Awareness or Secretary Appreciation Month, this is a Month that actually comes with its own friendly competition, and cozy writing community. Write every day for 30 days, end up with a 50,000 word novel, submit it for possible reward.

As a nonfiction writer, I admit to being a little jealous. The idea of community write-a-thons has always appealed to me. You’re not alone, you have a sense of structure and deadline that we all need. (My execution has always lagged behind my idealism: I tried one sponsored by Book Country over the summer, and soon dropped off the Facebook feed.) But narrative nonfiction just takes more time than that. The research and writing process don’t always overlap, the process is full of tangents and highly dependent on facts. Sometimes, as this lovely article from a Harvard art historian demonstrates, it takes just staring at your story for a long, long time, until the necessary details emerge.

So what is a NaNoWriMo wannabe to do?  Luckily, here again, I’m not alone. This helpful Writer’s Digest article outlines “What a Nonfiction Writer is Supposed to Do in November.” They validate my view that narrative nonfiction is virtually impossible on this timeline, although there are other forms of nonfiction that are available to the marathon writer: “prescriptive nonfiction,” self-help, tips, quotes, day-to-day blog guides.  If that’s not your scene, they recommend some practical alternatives: write a blog post a day, jump start a journal, or write a pitch a day. That last one is the one I plan to take up.

I may not actually pitch all these pitches, but if there’s one thing the many talented narrative nonfiction writers I know do NOT spend enough time doing it’s getting their work in front of an audience. For a lot of us, that’s the hard part. So I’d like to invite you to my pitching marathon. Think of it as the writerly equivalent of throwing a baseball against the wall and catching it. Which, come to think of it, is how (the songwriter) Paul Simon thinks up his lyrics, according to an old episode of 60 Minutes that I’ve always remembered. He takes Ed Bradley to a fence behind his house and demonstrates the action and says something like “..and the lyrics just come.” There’s something comforting about that, the beautiful lines of his songs can come from something as simple and determined as an action of the wrist, a repeated attempt, a comforting rhythm.  Besides, with 30 pitches to choose from, I ought to be able to move at least a couple ahead to the publication stage. Join me!





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When Does Research End And Writing Begin?

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because as a professional copy editor, I have learned that everyone makes mistakes. Everyone, including me.

Recently I’ve encountered the question “when does research end and writing begin?” popping up all over the place. My fellow writers struggle with it while working on book manuscripts, and get a variety of professional advice. One friend, working on the downfall of a 1970s commune in Vermont went to get her editor’s blessing to stop doing interviews and start writing. She got it, but she ignored it and kept researching. Another is working with an agent on a book proposal—that is, the thing you have to write in order to sell publishers on your idea and thereby get the money and time to actually research and write it—and her agent keeps sending her back into the field to revise that sample chapter one more time.

I am also teaching a creative nonfiction class online for adult students, most of whom are successful professionals who’ve never had a creative writing outlet before. One woman was working on a memoir of an incident that happened to her father, an African-American doctor, in the 1940s. She had piles and piles of his writing to go through, and lots to learn about medicine in the time period, but she was stuck on the writing part. I was happy to hear that an assignment I gave her for the class, to use dialogue in a real-life scene, got her writing about her long-deceased father in a new way: by talking to his still-surviving sister.

All my City University of New York students struggle mightily with the parallel timelines of writing and research. I often have to reassure those writing the traditional 5-paragraph essay that it is perfectly acceptable, in fact wise, to write the introduction last. After you’ve worked your way through researching the body paragraphs and conclusion, you’ve figured out what should go at the beginning. But it’s hard to give the same advice to the honors thesis writers who are staring down the barrel of their first 30-page paper. How do you know what you’re going to have to say about your topic until you’ve read everything there is to read? But how are you going to have time to read everything there is to read before your thesis is due next May?

Generally speaking, I’m in favor of starting the writing part sooner rather than later. I find it helps me process whatever I’m reading in a more efficient way than just scrawling notes in the margins. I also find that both myself and my students often know more than we think we know about the topic before we begin.  We know enough, anyway, to know what we think about the text, or topic, or thesis. It just takes a certain amount of guts to write an outline or an introduction without citing any sources.  Doing this does, however, give you a to-do list for your reading, a plan. Since you can’t ever read everything there is to read anyway, at a certain point you have to focus on reading that will be directly useful to the story you want to tell. Not that this is easy.

The wonderful author Rebecca Skloot, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks filmed a short video where she shows you all the research materials she had to go through simply to be able to recreate the one all-important line of dialogue in the first paragraph of the first chapter. She verified what kind of car was driven to the hospital, what the hospital looked like, who would have greeted the African-American Henrietta Lacks, and cross-referenced what Henrietta said to her relatives about her condition before she died…all for one paragraph.

But you have to do it. Once the book finally comes out, you will be subject to any number of critics, fact-checkers, nit-pickers, and just plain opinionated readers, and you need to be able to recreate your paper (or, more likely, digital data) trail. New information will inevitably come to light after your book is out in the world. A magazine that published an after-release excerpt of my book was able to find a whole cache of photographs of the Florida lawyer who claimed Eden was in the Panhandle, photos which hadn’t yet been available when I was researching that chapter. And when my book came out in paper, I got the chance to make discreet changes and updates.

For some writers, the research process goes on even longer than that. Consider the blockbuster nonfictioner Jon Krakauer, whose classic Into the Wild was first published in 1996, and made into a movie in 2007. All this time, as Krakauer recently revealed on The New Yorker’s blog, he has been testing hypotheses for how the book’s main character, Chris McCandless, actually died, a subject crucial to how people feel about him. Was he a naïve city kid who didn’t respect the wilderness enough? Or was he, as he seemed to hint in his last journal entry, felled by an obscure poison berry that wasn’t in any of the guidebooks? After years of searching, Krakauer finally found scientific proof that McCandless had indeed died of poison. It’s a marvelous example of writerly dedication, and loyalty. So the answer to when does research end and writing begin? Never, and always, again and again.

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Rules of Three, Leave Them Be

I use Grammarly for english proofreading because I just had to tell my writing student that she shouldn’t suggest “razing the kids” in her essay.

Generally speaking, I’m not a believer in all those “rules for writing” that you read about.  From “don’t start a sentence with ‘and’,” to “write what you know,” most of them are made to be broken. But I confess there’s one type of rule that I’ve come to rely on both in my own writing and my teaching: the rule of three. We know three is a powerful number: three wishes, three kings, three bears. But I’m continually surprised at how helpful such a simple little number can be for writers.

I distinctly remember learning my first rule of three from my grad-school mentor while I was in the middle of writing my first nonfiction book. One of my characters had earned a knighthood for rebuilding South Africa after the Boer War, long before his role in my story. But it might still be important. How much did I need to know about the Boer War? While I was on the phone, pacing back and forth in my kitchen, my mentor, herself a presidential biographer, handed down what seemed to be a secret from heaven. She said that for this kind of “background” topic, she tries to find at least three sources, of substantial length, ideally from different perspectives: left, right, and center;  ancient, recent, and modern; popular, journalistic, academic. Then scan through them to get the general idea of what you’re talking about.

In my role as a writing tutor with City University of New York undergrads, I am able to return the favor of comfort and structure that my mentor provided me. When I see students struggling to write your basic five-paragraph analytical essay, I tell them, “As a rule of thumb, I like to think of the rule of three: Your thesis statement should have three parts, because that gives you three body paragraphs.” Usually I say this to them when they already have two ideas and think they are done. But one is not enough, two is a debate, a duel, and three is just right.

Thinking about this topic, I despaired because I thought I only had two rules of three to discuss, and that would completely defeat my point about the comforting proportions and legitimating structure of the number three. Then I realized that the most basic “rule” of storytelling is also a rule of three. Your story has to have a beginning, middle, and end. My junior-high English teacher told us this, and I remember thinking it was the stupidest rule ever: how could anything NOT have a beginning, middle, and end? But I’ve since come to see this rule as an elegant distillation of narrative.

A beginning is different from a middle, which is different from the end. That means something has to change, twice, for a story to be complete. And change over time is what distinguishes what Vivian Gornick calls a “situation” from a “story.” If you just have “this happened,” you just have an event, a beginning, and not a story. If you just have “I learned this,” you just have an end, a pronouncement, not a story. Frequently we have middles by themselves, “I was conflicted.” But it takes “This happened; I was conflicted; I learned this” to make a story. One, two, three.

Prescriptive thinking doesn’t always make for the best writing. I’ve found, however, that the rule of three is flexible enough to allow the creativity that’s necessary in all good writing, but structured enough to assuage the all too common anxiety of writers and storytellers who want to do it all, know it all, and tell it all. You don’t need everything, just three things.

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Tse Tsan Tai gets his due, 98 years later…

Detail from Tse’s map, showing his candidates for the Bible’s Four Rivers of Paradise in central Asia.

So my recent post was a round-up of all the different excerpts of Paradise Lust that you can find online. Happily, I spoke too soon to give a full accounting. Frank Jacobs, cartographic wizard of Strange Maps fame, a blog featured on the Big Think network, featured the hand-drawn maps by my favorite Eden-seeker, Tse Tsan Tai, who on October 25, 1914, declared that the Garden of Eden must have been in Outer Mongolia. He received this revelation “like a bolt of lightning,” and then set about proving it via Chinese mythology, new paleontology, and idiosyncratic Bible interpretation.

Soon after, the blog io9 (motto: “we come from the future”) reposted Frank’s story, generating 29 comments all of which gave a well-cited possible alternate location of Eden! An occupational hazard for Eden-seekers…

Tse wasn’t bothered by detractors, and I imagine he’d be proud that his theory was garnering so much inquisitive attention.

To be a Chinese Christian was a rare thing in World War I, when Christian missionaries were being massacred and foreign parties looked to be taking over Chinese territory. Tse was a patriot, and believed if he could prove via Chinese folklore and unique Biblical interpretation, that the origin of Christianity was in China, those parties would be forced to reconcile. Who could begrudge him this strange but lovely dream?



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All Togather Now!

I love it when new media start-ups put their energy into reinforcing the special-ness of somewhat old-fashioned events. And I also just love events. From book-club chats to radio call-ins to panel discussions to church basement teach-ins, I love to talk to people about the Garden of Eden and all that it calls up for us. Which is why I’m really excited to be partnering with the new web platform Togather this fall. They’re applying a sort of Kickstarter method of generating excitement and funding for new projects to the much-maligned “book tour.” They call it “fansourcing,” putting together authors with their readers for mutual joy and benefit. Here’s a nifty article about Togather in Digital Book World. And the link above will take you to my profile page where you can host or request an event. Help save the endangered book tour!

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Paradise Lust Continues World Domination

First the hardcover, then the Italian edition, then the e-book, then the paperback. And then last week I received an e-mail letting me know that Paradise Lust now exists in yet another form: a special audio edition created by the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Anne Hancock knew, because she narrated the recording. And she wrote:

“I know that you didn’t write your book to be read aloud but I’ve found over the years that the best written books are the easiest to narrate.  (Your book is my 264th title.)  Yours was a pure pleasure to narrate, which for me is a sure sign of a very talented writer.”

I’m very proud that Paradise Lust is now available to this new readership. And I’m especially touched by Anne’s kind words as for the past few months I have been asking my students at the Baruch College Writing Center, my awesome new “day job,” to either read aloud or have me read aloud their essays in progress. Many of them find hearing their own words out loud to be empowering and helps them look at their writing in a new way.

Now I know exactly how they feel.

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A Guided Tour of Edens

To celebrate the release of Paradise Lust in paperback, I wanted to give you guys a guided tour of the story by way of the articles and excerpts I’ve been fortunate to write online in the past year since the hardcover publication. Here goes!

In the beginning, of Paradise Lust that is, there was William Fairfield Warren, first president of Boston University, who made it safe for serious 19th and 20th century thinkers to continue the medieval search for the Garden of Eden by telling the world that the Garden of Eden had been….wait for it…at the North Pole! To find out how he pulled that theory off, read my reconsideration of his 1881 book Paradise Found at The Public Domain Review. Warren was not impressed by his contemporary Eden seekers, like German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch, who did not view the Bible as the word of God, but as a text possibly inherited from Sumerian and Babylonian mythology.

Science didn’t sit well with Reverend Landon West either. He ran a small church in Ohio near the giant Native American earthwork known as Serpent Mound, and he insisted in 1901 that the soil snake marked the exact spot of the Garden of Eden. Find out what I saw there today on the blog of The Common magazine. Meanwhile, back in Iraq, political intrigue between the Ottoman and British Empires sparked a whole lot of Biblical justifications for everything, including the building of dams across what irrigation engineer Sir William Willcocks said were the two…yes, two…sites of the Garden of Eden there. Exquisite Corpse can tell you more about that. Meanwhile, in a tiny town at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates–mentioned in the Bible as two of the four Rivers of Paradise–there’s a forlorn tree that’s said to be the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the one that Eve ate from. See pictures from its storied, century-long history at Triple Canopy.

The story of the search for Eden tends to see-saw between the Middle East, where all the actual Biblical stories lead back to archaeologically speaking, to America, which has always had the feeling that it was special, destiny manifested and all.  One of my American seekers is Elvy Edison Callaway, a feisty Southern libertarian of the postwar era, who in the 1950s founded a Garden of Eden Park in the Florida Panhandle, based on a numerological reading of the numbers of needles in a particular type of tree. It’s a crazy story, which you can read about at the new journal Religion and Politics. And see great pictures of the park–not in the book!–here. Another Garden of Eden you can see in your Chevrolet is Adam-ondi-Ahman, Missouri, the spot where Joseph Smith, founding prophet of Mormonism, declared that Adam and Eve found shelter after being kicked out of Eden. I went there, and wrote about just how surprisingly normal the place is for The Huffington Post. I also revealed why the apple just may be the best option for the Forbidden Fruit after all, at Huffington Post; and why the story of Eden may be less a story than a cycle, for Killing the Buddha. There’s much, much more inside the (newly paperback!) covers of Paradise Lust, and I hope you’ll check it out!

Paradise Lust