Friday, April 1, 2011

Thank you Borders for closing your crappy stores   

When overpriced book stores go out of business

Today I picked a copy of Jacob Neusner's translation of the Mishnah at a Borders that is going out of business in Commack. It was 50% off of "way too much".

3 interesting things going on here:

1) Borders: all chain book stores suck but Borders PARTICULARLY sucks. No one should have to pay the SRP on books period and while Borders and Barnes & Noble have ripoff discount cards, Borders is worse because they haven't seemed to care about their book selection in about 5 years. When I worked for the Corporate Music Store (i.e. Coconut's/FYE), the basic stock of every store in America seemed to be guided mostly Soundscan (which gauges the most popular releases in the country), assuring that there was no real variety from one store to the other. The result was a homogenized shopping experience that was indifferent to variety among stores (even within stores that were in close proximity to each other) and indifferent to regional interests. Even Walmart will stock different stuff in different communities.

Most of the books I'm interested in are in the field of religion and history, which would be great if that meant I wanted historical fiction that related specifically go the faith of regular folks in the American frontier (they have that) or mostly insipid "inspirational" books (which are mostly saccharine with triple spaced gaps in text), but is pretty sour if you consider religion a serious field of study.

So I'm mostly glad they are closing. I'm sad to see any store that stocks leisure items close, even if it's a chain. A chain record store still carries Black Sabbath albums and even a chain book store carries David Copperfield. But Borders had it coming.

2) The Mishnah: I've been hoping to get an English translation of the Mishnah for a long time, which was a fairly cost prohibitive hope. The Mishnah, FYI, was compiled by around 200 AD and after the Bible is the first major text of rabbinic Judaism. By the year 200 AD, Judaism went through a crisis in it's self-understanding in the wake of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. The center of Jewish worship was the sacrificial system in the Temple. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in response to a failed uprising, the sacrificial system ceased. To give perspective, a substantial portion of the Torah is devoted to the sacrificial system. Jewish people would travel to Jerusalem at least 2-3 times a year to worship at the Temple (where God dwelt on earth and where it was understood that heaven and earth met) and make sacrifices. Long before the Muslims began to pray towards Mecca, the Jews would pray towards Jerusalem and its Temple. In fact, initially Muhammad required his disciples to pray towards Jerusalem, so central was Jerusalem to the religious landscape.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism had to regroup. In a very real way, Judaism persevered as Jewish worship and practice moved its center towards the Synagogue rather than the Temple. The Temple was one building in one location but a synagogue could exist wherever a Jewish community existed. The central role of the priest dissipated and the formal role of the rabbi grew in prominence.

Tradition was very important to the Jewish communities and the Mishnah gathered the memories and traditions of the Jewish people that included commentaries on the right practice of the Law, the Temple and its sacrifices, and the practicalities of the life of the community. It's a fascinating snapshot into the communal remembrances of the Jewish people and a helpful tool to reconstructing where Jewish faith and practice were at in the centuries prior. It's a text worthy of respect.

3) Jacob Neusner: Jacob Neusner's is a name I've been familiar with for a long time but never really explored. That changed as I noticed that he was frequently cited by "historical Jesus" scholar John P Meier in his 4 book series "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus" and Pope Benedict XVI in his "Jesus of Nazareth".

Neusner is an expert in the emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Judaism in the 1st century context (among many other things). I've only begun to appreciate his work more. His translation of the Mishnah was carried in many Borders bookstores throughout the years (usually shrink-wrapped to keep it is published by Yale) but not so much in recent years. I was glad that a failed Borders still had one in stock, even after a series of successive markdowns. Some people have issues with the translation due to the exclusion of certain parts of the text but for my purposes a possibly problematic version of the Mishnah translated by a guy I respect is better than no Mishnah at all. I'm grateful to finally have a copy.

So goodbye Borders. You did it to yourself but I'll kinda miss you. As video rental stores close due to Netflix and chain book stores close due to Amazon and its Kindle (chain music stores, as we all know, have been a dinosaur for a while now), I do feel like something important is being lost even if it cost too much to begin with.

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