On his Facebook page theologian Ben Myers quoted a publisher’s howler from a book’s back cover: “This volume offers reflections on the theme of death and dying from scholars and practitioners.” Ben’s online friends came to the feast.
“Does that mean there is a ghost writer involved?” “Dr Death?” “Be sure to read this book to reap its rewards.” “Dying to be published ...” “Publish or perish.” “I wouldn't be caught dead doing research like that.” “Interesting subject. Is it part of a larger corpus?” “There was only a bare bones of an argument.” “The hardest thing about writing is meeting the deadline.”
Ben’s own remarks, “They had to work like hell on their research.,” inspired responses like “People are literally dying to read it.” His efforts to slow the avalanche of one-liners with statements like “Seriously though, it's an interesting read. The editors did a killer job putting a book like this together,” only increased his theological friends’ keyboard amusement: “Apparently they couldn't find anyone to peer review the chapter on resurrection.” Or got a response to his “It was after their burial that they did their most ground-breaking work,” with “So have you bought it?” and “I think this thread should now rest in peace.”
Thus do we spend tea-time in the age of social media. Presumably Samuel Johnson would have blogged “"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." For indeed, there is nothing that quite concentrates the mind of a scholar, or anyone else really, like the prospect of death. Writing achieves new directness and applicability. Ben’s catena of witticisms attests to the fact because, as it happens, we are all practitioners of death and dying. It comes naturally. Libraries contain all the required evidence.
When we sit amidst the hundreds of practitioners in the Library, their words working against time and the dreaded (need I say it again) deadline and their own ambitions, it is as though we are ourselves witnesses in one place to all that went before. The shelves groan with practitioners, as Charles Dickens might have said. And indeed, we continue these courageous efforts of practice ourselves, ever careful to distinguish the noun ‘practice’ from the verb ‘practise’, as if something will strike us down if we do not. Even Americans are not immune.
When we catalogue a monograph or DVD or other item, all in a day’s work, should we abandon the confusing array of entry terms like Author, Editor, Contributor, Illustrator, Producer, and simply use the term Practitioner? As the daily round of visitors line up with their materials at the circulation counter, a sign like ‘Practitioners are advised to have their volumes ready for zapping’ could helpfully be placed in clear sight. The theme is familiar and the experience lifelong.
Unlike a registry or a dead letter office or a census file, a library contains the very essence of what a practitioner intended us to find. We imagine John Donne having a field day on the theme of death and dying, in fact expect nothing less. When we have done, we have not done, for there is more. Our very attraction to libraries reveals a hidden desire to know and understand world’s best practice. We find ourselves with time to spare, leafing through the list of contributors, down there with EndNote in the footnotes of a shared experience. Our fingertips pull open that ancient reference work as if it’s the last thing we’ll ever do.