A decade or more ago, I developed some idle curiosity about a bit of early American colonial history and I took myself down to the local library to do some casual reading that only barely would qualify for the word “research.” I looked up in the electronic catalogue some titles on the subject and, as I had done since high school, jotted down the call numbers and went to the appropriate stacks. I’ve never like closed stack libraries because accident has been as important as intent in the self-administered portion of my education. I don’t look for a specific book so much as I look for a region. The books I once looked up in card catalogues, and now look up in electronic records, are used more as lodestones to guide me in a general direction than of ends in themselves. Armed with a call number, I guided myself to the region where a certain category of information can be found and I examine many books in that locale, not simply the ones whose addresses I know.

Thus it was that I picked up a general book of American history off the shelf of a small public library in a small town, the sort of place no less remarkable for its commonness. The blue cloth binding, faded in places, the size, the shape, the gilt lettering, all gave the immediate impression of an older book. However, the sharpness of the corners and the whiteness of the pages indicated that it had rarely been read. I sat down in a carrel with it. I turned to the title page to look for a date. The copyright was accompanied by a date in the early years of this century. It was published, like most American books of that era, like most American books I have ever read, in New York.

I read the introduction. In the sonorous, authoritative tones that history no longer uses, the introduction gave a general outline of the past. It spoke of Progress with an antiquated admiration and archaic confidence. It did not so much as explained to the reader as inform him of how civilization had risen up from “oriental despotism” to the enlightened world we have today.

Incongruously, I was put in mind of the first page of Harvey Kurtzman’s The Jungle Book, which mocks exactly this ideal of progress. “Up from the apes – and right back down again.” In the copy I own, which is a reprint published by Kitchen Sink Press in the eighties or nineties, there is an introduction by Art Spiegleman. In it, he quotes a conservative observer of society whom he saw interviewed and whose name I forget. The conservative spoke of how everything had gone wrong with society starting in the sixties because kids had been taught to make fun of society. The interviewer asked if he mean things like Mad magazine, co-founded by Kurtzman. The conservative responded, “That’s exactly what I mean.”

However it was clear in the introduction that the author of the history book, a man with faith in progress, was no conservative. Neither, one would guess, was Kurtzman. Yet they held nearly diametrically opposed views. There are days that I wonder what opinions we hold with confidence today will seem naive and outmoded tomorrow.


A church in Paris with a Greek temple front.The other day at lunch, my mother was sitting with several other women with whom she works. My mother asked if anyone would be going to a musical concert that was being held at a nearby church. Although it was taking place in the church, it was not an explicitly religious event.

“Do you belong to that church?” one woman, known by my mother to be religious, asked.

“No,” my mother answered simply, hoping that a short answer would discourage further questions.

“What church do you belong to?” the woman persisted.

My mother said, a little bit concerned because she knew where this was going, “None.”

“Well, what religion are you?”

“No religion.” At this point my mother paused in her story explained why she didn’t just say that she was an atheist. If you haven’t had the experience of watching a roomful of people tighten their lips and exchange significantly glances, you might not understand why. I find myself also responding evasively sometimes, saying “I’m not religious.”

Another woman at the table, whom my mother described as a zealot, said, “That’s okay. It’s really about relationships.”

“Relationships?” my mother asked. “With whom.”

“With Him.”

With that my mother decided to put an end to the conversation that was getting more and more uncomfortable. She said, “You don’t understand. I’m an atheist.”

My mother reported that jaws fell open and eyes bugged out and there was an uncomfortable silence until my mother said, “Excuse me. I need to get back to work.”

Later at home she told me, “I don’t think they’ll be inviting me to eat lunch with them again.”