A Conversation with Lauren Winner, Part 2

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
Continued from yesterday.

This post originally appeared as a web-exclusive feature accompanying Image issue 84.

Each chapter of Lauren F. Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay. I asked Winner about her new book, her love of history, her punctuation, and the politics of writing about the Bible.

Mary Kenagy Mitchell for Image: Could you talk about what you think makes a good history book, the kind you like to read?

Lauren Winner: I’m interested in histories of daily life, of ordinary people, and less in the history of ideas. Though even as I say that, I see a false dichotomy.

I have just read an amazing study of women in nineteenth-century southern households, Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage. There, the history of daily life is absolutely inseparable from politics, from ideas about (as well as practices of) slavery, freedom, and power. As Glymph puts it, to talk about freedom in the postbellum south is to talk about wages and political participation, but it is also to talk about:

Virginia Newman’s idea of freedom: “a blue guinea with yaler spots.” This was Newman’s first “bought dress,” and it represented, for her, control over her “whole life” and, concomitantly, the diminished control white people had over it.

There you have it: state power, consumerism, ideas, and what I’ve unhelpfully glossed “daily life” all rolled into one—and rolled into one in such a way as to diagnose the political work that my own depoliticizing language of “daily life” actually does. I am interested in books that draw, or expose, connections between the daily and the political, the kitchen and the state, the object and the idea. [Read more…]

A Book Without a Spine

The picture you see to the left is of a bookshelf in a local Starbucks. This is no regular Starbucks, but the fancy kind you find in big cities, where they have long bars at which people can sit upon artisan-crafted stools and have artisan-made coffee served to them in pottery out of Bunsen and beaker-type contraptions, likely forged by artisans.

When did that word become such a big thing anyway? “Artisan”? It seems meant as one of those virtue-signaling terms that implies that the maker and the purchaser enjoy better quality stuff than the everyday Styrofoam slob who doesn’t care about free-ranging and fair-trading. Even McDonald’s now makes sandwiches on “artisan” bread—and they’re pretty darn good sandwiches too (McDonald’s doesn’t really look like itself anymore, which has thrown me for a loop, I’m here to tell you. But I’ll leave that for another day).

Just in case it’s not clear, all the books on this shelf are facing backwards. The spines have been turned to the wall as though the volumes were a bunch of bad children that had to be punished. It’s not possible to go up and pull one of them down to see if it’s a real book or not, as I want to do. The shelves are against a wall lined with artisan-wrought tables at which people sit, drinking their artisanal drinks, their own faces made up in the backlight of one type of screen or another as they telecommute and Snapchat. [Read more…]

Love Nailed to the Doorpost

black and white image of a mezuzah on the door post of a house. The commandment to love is nailed to my doorpost. Ritualistically written on a little piece of parchment, rolled up, tucked inside a beautifully painted ceramic case, and nailed aslant to the doorpost.

I almost never notice it. Not when I’m rushing out of the house in the morning, book bag and gym bag slung over my shoulder, head down, rushing to the car, desperate to get to campus before the last available parking spot is taken in the lot at my building. It’s not love, I’m thinking about at that moment. It’s convenience.

Not when I’ve been working at home—on a weekday or Saturday (I know, Saturday, Shabbat, I shouldn’t be working!)—and want to walk up the driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. It’s not love I’m thinking about then. It’s hope. Hope for some surprise, though few surprises arrive in the mail anymore. Mostly junk mail and pleas to contribute to a cause, many of them causes that, in my heart.

Not when, with Laurie, I’m heading out for a Saturday night movie. I like love stories. Romantic comedies. Not that we limit ourselves to them. Most recent film: Paterson. Loved it. Definitely a love story: a love of poetry, a tender love story of a bus driver poet and his partner, a cupcake artist, a whimsical designer. Love stirs when I’m watching a good love story on the screen. Are movies my mezuzah? [Read more…]

Reading (in) Walden

607px-walden_thoreauWhat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.… To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise…. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Yes, it’s Thoreau. I’m re-reading Walden. Why? Because it’s on my bookshelf, and I’m in the process of interrogating each book there. The choice: either read it or get rid of it. I hadn’t read Walden in decades, so I pulled it from the shelf.

Though I admire Thoreau’s radical simplicity—if something isn’t a necessity, get rid of it! and my shelf-purging seems to be in Thoreau’s spirit—the book’s opening hundred pages lay it on too thickly for my taste; too much finger-wagging at people who are attached to even minimal property.

But this short chapter called “Reading”: this one is a treasure. [Read more…]

Beauty Will Save the Seventh Grade

By Callie R. Feyen

The_wednesday_warsThe school administrator wants to know when my students will experience beauty in my classroom. He asks this question while going over our teaching contracts. A copy of what I signed back in April is magnified on a screen in Covenant Hall, a giant room that serves as a cafeteria and also a chapel.

Last year, I took my eighth graders here to practice reading Romeo and Juliet. We took turns standing on a stage, reading about two houses divided while inhaling the scent of bologna sandwiches and orange peels.

His question pulls me out of the back-to-school funk I’ve been in. I don’t like teacher meetings and in-services. They make me sad. I’m shaking my right foot and twiddling my pen frantically when he asks about beauty.

I don’t hear anything else he says.

Less than a week later, I’m standing in front of my seventh graders with a copy of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars in my hand. Holling Hoodhood, the main character, has to stay with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, on Wednesday afternoons because he is not Catholic or Jewish. He is Presbyterian and has no religious classes to attend on Wednesdays. [Read more…]