Archive for the ‘All-Out Nerdiness’ Category

Three Publishers, Three Books, One Cover


John Calvin Is 500 Years Old Today

Like many people, I used to assume Calvin was as dusty, dry, and doctrinaire as he was made out to be by his detractors and supporters alike. That is until, you know, I actually read him. I was instead delighted to find his mind afire with the love of God, his prose lively, his theology dynamic and stimulating, and his spirituality marvelously devotional. (Indeed he never would have separated the latter two.) After Karl Barth read John Calvin, he described him this way:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

A demonic power. In a good way.

A lot of people lay much of the responsibility for the Enlightenment at the feet of the Reformers, especially Calvin and Luther (and this is not a compliment). I think, rather, that there is a better case to be made for them as the last medievals (and that is a compliment). Happy five hundredth, Old Master.


I like this portrait of Calvin because it displays his humanity better than many of the other portraits out there, which instead portray a dark arch-predestinarian looking sternly but glumly out on the world. IVP recently published a pretty decent, and extremely readable, biography of Calvin that attempts to depict him not as the fiery, despotic Genevan theocrat handing down death sentences from on high but as a human being, fiery and controversial, yes, but also thoughtful, vulnerable, and sometimes even fragile, an exile in almost constant forced peregrination, a pilgrim in complete submission to God’s will, and I think it largely succeeds. Check it out.

And check out this clever Wattersonian drawing of Calvin and Hobbes’s actual namesakes (John and Thomas, respectively) that I found here. I love it!


Dear Scholars

As a proofreader/editor of academic books, I feel compelled to inform you of a few things that you should know, but clearly some of you do not.

First, Your job is to inform, elucidate, clarify. So ending lists with “etc.” and “and so on” generally does not help your readers, whom you are to inform, rather than assume they already know what you would say if you deigned to tell them. While we’re at it, when citing multiple Bible verses, it is not helpful to the reader to write, for example, Rom 8:1ff.  Oh, of course, I know you always use it to mean the following two verses, so that it means the same thing whenever you use it. But your colleague down the hall didn’t get that memo, did he? Because he’s using it to mean Romans 8:1-9:4 or really whatever he wants, but I wouldn’t know the difference, would I? Because instead of doing the work of a real scholar and looking up the reference, you just assumed we would do that work for you, didn’t you? So let’s be done with the obfuscations and actually be a little more careful, shall we? I’m glad we understand one another.

Second, and this is more serious, when you publish a book, you are selling those particular ideas in the form of those words to the publisher. You don’t own them anymore, so you cannot reuse them. Of course, you may need to summarize the same ideas or even say the same things throughout the course of your career, but this is different from cutting and pasting words from one document to another. And let’s face it, despite what I’ve heard a lot of you say, the editors working at the publishing house you sold your manuscript to (remember?) aren’t morons, and even if they were, this is the twenty-first century, old man (or old woman, let’s be fair). There’s a thing called the Internet. And they have this fancy new thing called Google Books. And your book is probably on there. And all somebody has to do is type in a few of the words from your book and the book you plagiarized will be on there too. Do you have students? Don’t you tell them that plagiarizing is wrong? You do, because I was a student too, and your syllabuses all threaten to fail and even possibly expel your lazy excuses for students for doing it. Oh, you’ve got tenure? Well have you ever heard the word lawsuit?

And third, for goodness sakes do not ask your editors whether or not you should include a footnote! Did you come up with the idea? Did it originate in your mind or someone else’s? If you didn’t think of it first then cite it! I don’t care if it’s not a direct quote. And this next thing should be obvious but the fact that I feel the need to write it clearly demonstrates that it is not. Provide page numbers. Do I have your personal library in my office? Can I read your mind? Again, much of this information can be found on the almighty Google Books, but let me remind you one last time. This is your job. Why do I feel like I’m addressing Comp 101 students? You are a scholar. Do the work of a scholar.

Now I feel a little better.

My Scale Model of the Sears Tower (With Pictures!)


Ever since I went up the Sears Tower two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by the architectural design of the thing. It’s built with what is called a bundled-tube structure, and consequently it usually appears asymmetrical when you look at it from the side. But it’s built in a series of phases that are all perfectly symmetrical, except for the very top and narrowest phase (which, I learned on the Wikipedia page, causes it to lean 10 cm from vertical).

So ever since we got Charlie some Duplo Lego blocks for his birthday, I’ve often tried to hurriedly make a model of the Sears Tower before he can knock it over or start adding blocks that made it look like abstract art. But it never looked quite right, and I wasn’t sure why. It bothered me more and more; I would even think about it lying in bed at night. How did all those bundled tubes fit together? How many were there? Which ones went how high? Finally I’d had enough and resolved one afternoon to do it right. A quick Google search quickly turned up this extremely helpful schematic.


As you can see from the A-A, B-B, C-C, and D-D grids down the left-hand side, it turns out to be somewhat simple to build with Duplo Lego building blocks, each of the nine squares being composed of one two-by-two Duplo block. But then I was sure we wouldn’t have enough blocks to finish a three-dimensional scale model, so after supper Jess and I took Charlie for a surprise visit to Toys R Us to buy “him” some new Legos. Then we got home and put Charlie to bed so I could commence playing with his toys for the rest of the evening.

I decided to build each phase with a different color, which solved the problem of not having enough of one color to make it look uniform, and it highlighted the four phases, making it easier to see how the tower is actually built. So what follows is a stage-by-stage pictorial, with my comments along the way.

Phase 1 (A-A in the schematic above):


Not very exciting, I know, but there you go. Even with the extra Legos, I didn’t have enough regular greens. All the middle pieces (not visible) are orange and black, and as you can see there are some blocks mixed in that we call “puke green.” (Charlie has picked up on this, calling them “poo gee”).

Phases 1 & 2 (A-A + B-B):img_0014 Phases two and three (B-B and C-C) are actually a little more complicated to build than it looks, but I’m not going to bother explaining why.

Phases 1, 2, & 3 (A-A + B-B + C-C):


Then it’s just a matter of plunking on four blue bricks, and voila! Sears Tower.

Phases 1, 2, 3, & 4 (A-A + B-B + C-C + D-D):


The colors in the final product are a little misleading in terms of design, because each of the nine squares is built as a single tube that goes all the way to the ground, but this at least highlights the various shapes that emerge out of the whole and makes clear why its shape is somewhat disorienting when looked at from the ground. The proportions of each stage (i.e., the “number of floors”) are also a little off because of block shortages and the fact that Duplo blocks are so large. But hey, Sears Tower.

It lasted three days before Charlie destroyed it.

My Year in Books

About a week ago I did something unprecedented in my life. I instituted for myself a one-year book-buying moratorium.

I told myself I would never do this.

But for several reasons it seemed like the best thing to do. For one, I’ve bought many books in the past year that were both very expensive and that I want very much to read. And even with my extremely limited book-buying budget, I can still buy much faster than I can read them. For two, every time I passed the section of my bookshelves that housed all my recently purchased to-read books, I wanted to read them all at once. But as the year wore on, the larger that section of the shelf got. (This of course is the perennial problem for any book lover and one that I myself have actually refused to acknowledge as a problem in the past, but read on, dear friends, read on!) The tipping point came this Christmas when I glutted myself at Eighth Day Books, as I often do when I visit my home in Kansas. Now the section of my shelf that I wanted to get to immediately was simply overwhelming; the very top, the burning edge, of my to-read list kept getting larger and larger. The books I had bought over a year ago and simply just meant to get to some time I would never get to at the rate I was going. I had reached a sort of critical mass, if you will. (Actually, that is exactly what I had reached: a critical mass. That is the perfect term for it.) I needed a plan.

Hence the book-buying moratorium. Not only did I now have in my possession every book that I really wanted to read, I felt I also needed to prove to myself that I did indeed want to read books more than I wanted to buy them. And for me that meant hunkering down for at least a year and tucking in.

So a week or so ago I pulled off all the books on my bookshelves that I had bought and not read in the past five or so years, piled them in front of the couch, and opened an Excel spreadsheet.

By far the three categories that I read the most are: fiction, historical or patristic theology, and dogmatic or culturally oriented theology. (There are others, but these form the backbone.) So throughout 2009 I will generally be cycling through three books per month, one from each category. This is soothing to me, as writing down lists of overwhelming things often is. The void has been circumscribed, the unnecessary cordoned into oblivion. (I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy lately.) I typically just read whatever suits my whimsy at the time, but as I’ve pointed out, that was resulting in a lot of bucks spent at the bookstore and a lot of unread books. So now when my recently purchased books call out to me from the shelf, I say to them, “Don’t worry! You are scheduled for March. Not too long!”

Not that whimsy is all bad, mind you. Whimsy got me through all the major works of Dostoevsky in 2008, so I’m not complaining. But this is what the moment calls for. So in the fiction deparment this year I’ll be reading a lot of Michael Chabon, among others. And in the theology department I’ll be spending most of my time in the fourth century with Nicene theologians, a good bit with the Byzantines in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, and then on to some Thomists near the end of the year.

Of course none of it will work out like this, but it feels good at least to have a plan.

I Never Told You the Answer!

I almost completely forgot! The answer to my little guessing game  last week about my tagline—although I assume the people who would know it knew it right away and the people who didn’t know it but cared to know it googled it (verbed!) and the people who still don’t know probably don’t particularly care to know at all—is Calvin and Hobbes. Here’s the context:

Calvin: I like to verb words.
Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when “access” was a thing? Now it’s something we do. It got verbed.

Calvin (next frame): Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

Just Split the Infinitive, Alright?

Several times recently I’ve come across prose that is worded awkwardly in order to avoid splitting an infinitive. And I’ve had it. The phrase that tipped me over the edge and sent me running for my computer just now was,  “. . . appropriately to engage . . .” And what initially spurred this monomania a few weeks ago was a professor’s remark to a student, in one of only four “errors” in his student’s entire fifty-page thesis, was that a split infinitive should be fixed. Several episodes in the intervening time set me to foaming at the mouth and spinning into fits of apoplectic rage with increasing intensity. Back to the example at hand: “appropriately to engage.” Nobody speaks like this. It sounds weird, archaic, and stilted. But thankfully it’s not just my own soapbox. While searching out an answer to another tricky grammar rule, I was leafing through Patricia T. O’Connor’s helpful little book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, when I came across a section of “dead rules,” each of which had a tombstone in place of a bullet point. Lo and behold, one of the first dead rules was that of avoiding split infinitives. She explained, first, that the to in an infinitive (e.g., to go) is not technically a part of the infinitive to begin with but is a preposition to let you know that an infinitive is coming. (N.B. In most languages, the infinitive form is built into the word itself, and you don’t need anything to tell you it’s coming.) Second, she explained that most of the zeal for fusing the to and the infinitive stemmed directly from Victorian grammarians who wanted the English language to closely resemble Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive. In fact the rule doesn’t even show up until 1866 in a book titled A Plea for the Queen’s English.

So let’s be reasonable, people. Is it generally good to  avoid splitting infinitives? Yes, of course. But when splitting an infinitive produces crappy prose, I ask, Is the tail not in fact wagging the dog? The rules of grammar are our guides, which enable clarity and facilitate communication. If they blind us to the good, they have stopped serving their purpose; they have become our masters, we their slaves. Therefore let us split our infinitives with alacrity! And let not any of the poopypants who assume that taking grammar seriously means memorizing a set of rules tell us otherwise!

What My Job Is Like

I make books for a living, but the sheer number of books I need to do my job is an industry in itself.

Today I have consulted the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek), and the Greek New Testament. At one point I simultaneously had seven English Bible translations open on my desk — the NIV, RSV, NRSV, NJB, KJV, NKJV, and the ESV (and I had to look up, unsuccessfully, the “PBV” online) — at the same time as having three translations of the Septuagint up on my computer screen. I have cracked both my Hebrew and Greek lexicons (as I type my Hebrew Bible and lexicon lie open in front of me), as well as my Hebrew grammar (not to mention multiple consultations of the giant oversized version of my American Heritage Dictionary — always open — taking up one full side of my desk). I have also had regular recourse to The Chicago Manual of Style, The SBL Handbook of Style, and our very own little “InterVarsity Press Style Guide” (millennium edition, to be revised later this month). And to top it all off this afternoon, I had to pull down off of a very high shelf the dusty two-volume edition of The Oxford English Dictionary (the one with the print shrunk down so small that it comes with a magnifying glass — but still massive) to look up the Armenian etymology of the Old English word for “heathen.”

Choose Your Weird

Check out this blog entry by my coworker Lisa. It provides a glimpse into the thrilling, unpredictable, and yes even in its own little way weird world of the InterVarsity Press Editorial Task Force (i.e., the minions, the dungeon-dwellers, the obsessive, hand-wringing gollums of the editorial world, the sad creatures flinching in the hallways, emerging for yet another cup of coffee or an extra blue pen only to shake their fists at the sunlight and scurry back to their tiny caves muttering about em dashes or running heads).

An Embarrassing Incident

I’m going to take a break from the nerdiness for a bit, if only to descend into the realm of sheer stupidity.

A couple weeks ago, I was riding my bike to work. Charlie had kept Jess and me up from about 5 a.m to 6 a.m., so I was a little groggy, and traffic was especially heavy that morning. There had been construction on my route throughout most of the autumn, so I’d been contending with things like cones, construction workers, and backhoes every day. Well that particular morning, traffic had forced me to ride on the sidewalk on the left side of the street rather than on the road. When the traffic finally cleared enough for me to cross the street, I was on top of a little embankment, which I rode down into the street in order to cross to the regular side. There was not a car in sight. There was a line of cones in the middle of the street blocking off one of the lanes, but no matter, there had been cones there for months. Well, as soon as I rode down the embankment and onto the pavement, I heard a construction worker yell and whistle at me. I was picking up speed pretty quickly and had no time to even acknowledge the worker’s gesticulations before I rode straight into wet cement.

Now understand that this has all taken place in the matter of a few seconds, but the flash of a thought that crossed my mind was that I was going too fast to stop, so I hoped I might kind of skim over it. As this idea was still even in the first brief moment of formulating itself, I was sailing over my handlebars, as the cement I had ridden into was about 2.5 feet deep, and my front tire had instantly sunk into it, the momentum carrying the back end of my bike up and propelling my body forward into the air.

I landed with my feet and legs in the cement and my upper body on the pavement. I realized that I was not injured and then realized that I had probably incurred a large fine for breaking some kind of law and costing the construction company loads of money. Then I looked behind me and saw the handlebars of my otherwise submerged bike. Then I saw three or four Hispanic construction workers running towards me and all yelling in Spanish. I got up and said, “I am so sorry!” One of them asked me if I was all right and told me to get out of the street (I guess some cars wanted to use it). Once he was assured I was not injured, he pulled my bike out of the cement swamp and posed for his fellow construction workers, who were taking pictures of him and the (now cement-gray) bike with their cell phones. I fretted over my impending financial doom and mourned the loss of my ruined bike, much, though shortly, loved. And I was very embarrassed.

Three construction workers then raked the cement smooth and all the damage I had done was instantly undone. The worker with my bike told me to follow him and walked it down the block to the cement truck. I was in a stupor, the kind you always feel after a wreck. As he walked my bike down the middle lane where construction was going on, he turned around and told me to get out of the road. I looked behind me to see a long line of cars in the single lane (due to the construction) waiting for me to get out of their way. I walked up onto the sidewalk and about twenty paces later realized I had wandered back into the gutter and was stalling traffic again, cars slowly but cautiously easing their way around me.

When we got to the cement truck, another worker asked, “did somebody fall in?” I realized then that I was not the first person to make this mistake. The worker hosed down my bike, which then looked good as new. I also asked him to hose me down. He was hesitant, because it was cold, but I insisted. I rode the rest of the way to work, recovering and now aware of my stupor and riding extra carefully, and changed into my work clothes. I had a few scrapes on my hands and a slightly painful bruise on my elbow. I told everyone I saw, because it is a good, funny story, and I love telling good, funny stories.