In these days of CD/ROMs, Internet and data-retrieval systems, it's easy to forget that a book is a book, something to hold in your hands, keep preciously on your shelf and treat with some reverence. Artful covers, imagistic bookmarks, creative typography, textured paper, cloth binding, impressive spines and colorful endpapers all make a book a thing of beauty, and, along with other simple tools of reading--wooden bookshelves, reading glasses and soft lighting--help sustain important old values in a time of lightning-fast information processing. The serifs, swirls and florid patterns that animate the books under consideration here pleasure the heart and imagination, even if the mind would settle pragmatically for a clear page and plain type.
The subject matter of these books also marks a major turn in public concern, toward an intelligent, tolerant, earnest search for the sacred. In the current world of publishing, angels, death, chant and soul reflect what may be the identifying characteristic of the '90s--a new interest in spirituality.
What I like about these books is that they are not abstract, moralistic or excessively interpretive. They give us plenty of images and tell in full-bodied language the popular traditions, poetry and stories of religions around the world. This is exactly what we need today. We have enough people telling us what we should believe and how we should act. These books offer an enticing invitation to the rich images of the religious life, encouraging us to find our own imaginative ways to deepen our lives and tend the spirit.
Saints: A Visual Almanac of the Virtuous, Pure, Praiseworthy, and Good by Tom Morgan is an owner's manual for those who want to live once again in the daily presence of saints. Its pages are alive with rich design, color and illustration; its content gives us all we need to get started on a saint-conscious life: a glossary of terms once much in vogue and now fossilized, a calendar of saints, lists noting areas of patronage (Funeral Directors, look up Joseph of Arimathea) and brief, wonderfully told biographies.
The book has the look and feel of a maker who is sensitive to the materials of this world and to the texture of words. He paints the saints he knows in vivid, luscious language and pictures. St. Peter Celestine, listed as patron of bookbinders, clearly had a hand in this one.
Saints: The Chosen Few by Manuela Duun-Mascetti is also filled with brilliantly presented illustrations and also provides a Who's Who of saints, as well as descriptions of rituals, pilgrimages, miracles and offerings. This book considers saints in a broad context--in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism--and suggests to me that we could each make our own catalogue of saints, whether from a religious tradition or from our own acquaintances, family or national life.
Conversations With God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans gives us extraordinary examples of how language often finds blood and character as it serves holy rather than merely utilitarian purposes. Consider these lines from a 1980 sermon by James Brown:
\o7 We are nothing but a chaff before the wind
Before the wind
We get raindrop in the morning just as
Bloom of the lily.
By noon we cut off wilt and die
Have mercy, if thou only so please
When our spirituality has soul, it's alive with color, deep feeling, image and song. For too long we've lived a split in religion of intellect and emotion, and its resolution is not to be found in an intellectual balancing act, but in a different direction altogether, where the emphasis is on image, language and texture. We seem to be rediscovering finally what African-American spirituality has long cherished: beauty and expressiveness as a path to divinity.
Among the choirs of angel books rushing into print, we have two. Cherubs: Angels of Love is a grand valentine to the \o7 putti\f7 that have added sentimental grace to hundreds of paintings and greeting cards. I like to see sentimentality contained by the beauty of these images and the special papers and textures of the book, rather than bleeding into our politics and our image of ourselves as a nation. This book is for those who love, as I do, the excessive sensuality of Venus and Cupid.
Angels: The Mysterious Messengers is the companion volume to the NBC television series of the same name. It's a gathering of many voices and several points of view, for the most part in interview format, discussing the theology and science of angels, as well as personal interpretations and experiences. This is not a panel report by serious "angelologists," but it does cover just about every question anyone might ask about angels, and it contains a few genuine insights.