Holiday Books, no religion please
For the umpteenth straight year, the New York Times‘s massive “Holiday Books” edition of the Sunday Book Review gives no attention to books about religion. This makes perfect sense. Isn’t the “Holiday Books” edition a very commercial effort oriented toward gift-giving? And doesn’t everyone know that the traditional holiday for giving people books is January 1, New Year’s Day?
Furthermore, given the lack of interest in religion in the United States, who could imagine that anyone might want to give a religious book as a present?
Actually the Book Review this Sunday (December 4) contains quite a few excellent reviews by writers I admire. It also features overviews of the past year’s outstanding books in various fields. These include gift-giving naturals like Cooking and Travel and Gardening and art books and children’s books and of course Crime. Also somewhat more specialized tastes like Album Covers, Antarctica, and Hip-Hop. But Religion? Sorry, never heard of it.
The Book Review’s editors list their “100 Notable Books of 2011.” Among the 55 notable works of non-fiction, there are many fine books with religious sub-themes. Same for the 45 books of poetry and fiction.
I spot only two in the non-fiction list that could be identified as primarily addressing religion, however, one of them being Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. Absolutely nothing approaching, dare it be mentioned, theology. Or, for that matter, philosophy or ethics.
Why is this? Can the question be raised without bringing out the thunder and lightning bolts of Bill Donohue and his acolytes? Or the corresponding circling of wagons by liberal Catholics who feel obligated to defend whatever conservative religious and political figures attack?
Yes, most of the editors of the Book Review are probably not regulars at church, synagogue, or mosque. But even secular intellectuals, including an editor of the Book Review who usually drops in at the Steinfels New Year’s Day open house, have been known to be interested in religion (and philosophy). So secularism is only part of the answer.
Commercialism is another part. Of the 55 notable non-fiction books, only one — repeat, one! — was published by a university press, the source for most serious philosophy and, along with religious publishers, for most serious theology. This is not a matter of excluding dry-as-dust scholarship: Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, and so on publish many highly accessible books of wide interest in religion. The Times list includes many good books, but they are essentially the best of the trade publishers, whose ads sustain the Book Review and whose editors, minor and major, are very much part of the Book Review’s New York world.
Secularism and circularity converge at this point. What have the Book Review editors been reading throughout the year if not (a) the reviews in the Book Review and (b) the reviews in literary journals and general interest magazines, which likewise exclude or marginalize religion, rather than those in religiously linked publications.
There is an exception to everything I’ve written so far. I think it is an exception that proves the rule. The Book Review devotes two full pages to books about religion — books for children about Hanukkah (NYT spelling) and Christmas. But when you an adult, I guess, you put away these childish things.
I do not write this simply to bemoan. Let’s be constructive. What 2011 books in religion, especially theology, or in philosophy, especially with broad ethical import, would you put on the list? I mean books that might have a greater claim to being notable than, say, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend and Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef or even Inside Scientology?