I realized recently that, while fiction is what I write and what I plan to make a career out of, I simply need more nonfiction in my literary diet. On top of that, I kind of missed the philosophy textbooks I worked with while I was completing my minor in undergrad: nothing made my brain work quite as hard as it did when I was reading philosophy, and I loved the way it used language and ideas, which were my reasons for studying it. There aren’t many occasions to read language like that if you’re not in academia, and while fiction can deconstruct the issues that philosophy raises (and often do it very well), there’s something about the way that philosophy needs to be written and read that fiction just can’t replicate.
This is what led me to pick up Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between, a collection of essays edited by Jeremy Stolow and published by Fordham University Press. Broadly, it’s a cross-disciplinary look (everything from anthropology to philosophy is represented) at where and why technology, scientific advances, and religion overlap. For instance, at the point where I am in the collection, we’ve been discussing how the division of time into units and the invention of clocks and calendars impacted holidays and worship. Other essays in the collection promise to talk about topics like the intersection of medicine and prayer, how media and religion collide and connect, and “updating” religion and rituals for a more digital age, with sort of an overall theme that maybe technology is its own kind of religion.
It might sound a little dry if you’re more of a fiction reader and not a philosopher. And honestly, being a compilation of nonfiction essays with a niche audience in mind, it kind of is: being a few years removed from my philosophy minor, I had forgotten how much work truly went into giving these ideas the thought they deserved, the kind of mindset you need to be in to read them, and how out of shape my brain is. Thankfully, though, “interesting” and “exciting” don’t always have to go together, and what the book lacks in the latter it makes up for in the former. It feels like I’m in school again, and I think that’s a good thing: there’s a lot to learn, and even in the couple of essays that I’ve read so far I’ve come away with something new that I’ve had to work for. It’s kind of refreshing. It’s not exactly a book you can breeze through or skim, so I’ve only been reading one essay a day when I do pick it up, and that’s plenty for one sitting.
Out of curiosity, I went online to see what other people have said about the book. My go-to places for learning more about books that I’m currently reading or am interested in are Amazon and Goodreads, so I checked out both sites. Deus in Machina was published in 2012 and I picked it up this year, so I figured that in almost four years it would have picked up some ratings along the way. I was surprised to learn that, at the time of writing, it only has one review on Amazon and four ratings on Goodreads (where 20 people, myself included, have it on at least one of their digital shelves).
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. No one exactly rushes out to buy philosophy books if they’re not taking or teaching a class on them. I picked it up because it was heavily discounted at a book sale a few years ago (and yes, I’ve been sitting on it for years, trying to find a good time to read it) and was still in the throes of my education at the time, so it was fresh on my mind: otherwise, I don’t think I would have given it anything other than a passing glance and a “Huh, neat” before putting it down again. Unfortunately, it would seem that the reviewers weren’t interested, either: as I opened this book to read it, I found a slip of paper inside thanking the reader for their interest and requesting that two copies of the review get forwarded to the publisher. My guess is that, if this was indeed a reviewer’s copy that found its way into a book sale (which it might not be, because it doesn’t look like an advanced reader’s copy and has no notations to that effect), that it had never been opened, because the paper was inside the front cover and would likely have been removed by someone that had noticed it.
It still seemed a little unusual that very few people had read the book, though. While my informal look at a couple of books on Amazon and Goodreads is far from conclusive of anything, it looks like this is not uncommon for philosophy textbooks published anywhere near the 2000s. I think that a lot of this can be chalked up to the fact that the audience for books like these is predominantly students that just want to get their work done as fast as possible: they’re not going to take the time to write an Amazon or Goodreads review for something that they didn’t necessarily choose to buy or want to read or think about outside of school. This doesn’t explain the professors that might have read the book and want to share their thoughts with other educators, but perhaps they have a different channel for doing so that I cannot access. Either way, it’s a shame, but I feel as though this is a fact of life for books that have a destiny in the classroom.
But what about books that don’t share that fate? Comparing a textbook to a fiction book (or even a mainstream nonfiction book) probably isn’t fair just because the audience and purpose for publication is so different. But as someone who writes, it still seems kind of sad that there are books out there that just don’t get enough love. I have yet to publish a book, but I feel as though the frustration and elation, among other emotions, experienced at every step of the manuscript-writing process are familiar ones to all writers, regardless of your audience or experience level. And when I do publish, however I do it, I’ll probably do some celebrating before the real work begins: this will probably mean a low-key but fancy dinner with my husband at one of the “if we have a special occasion” kind of restaurants near us. Maybe a more material present to commemorate the occasion.
For Stolow and his fellow contributors, there probably wasn’t much fanfare with the publication of this book. They’re all academics that have more likely than not been around the publishing block before. Glad to have another book out, sure, but probably not taking to Twitter cheering about it and buying themselves treats. They’re academics and need to get back to writing the next paper and teaching the next class. And maybe it’s like that for the seasoned veterans in writing and publishing, too. But for those writers out there just getting started, we still have hopes, dreams, and expectations about our manuscripts. While we enjoy the craft, we still want people to read our words, be touched by them, and share them with their friends and families. Every book that’s in a bookstore, even if it’s not a debut, is from a writer whose career had to start somewhere, and it might even have been kicked off by uncorking the good bottle of wine and eating a nice steak. Even if it’s not your thing, someone had to love the book enough to see it through to publication, and there were a lot of people that celebrated it getting where it is. They don’t call projects like this “labors of love” for nothing.
I can’t promise a particularly good or nuanced review of Deus in Machina—I haven’t written an academic paper in years, let alone a review of a textbook. But what I can promise is that I’m reading it and enjoying the time I have with it. I’ll probably end up recommending it to friends that would be interested in it or former professors of mine that are better equipped to appreciate it and even teach it. It’s the least I, in my capacity as a reader, can do.