It’s not surprising that Anthony Elia is an avid learner and voracious reader, given that he’s director of the Bridwell Library. Still, many might be amazed by the extraordinary range of his interests.
Elia is conversant in at least seven languages and has a working knowledge of about a dozen. He’s a composer whose works-in-progress include a choral cycle of Latin liturgical-style pieces and a cowbell concerto. And those are just a few of his side interests – on top of his career.
“Sometimes I ask myself—do I have too many interests?” he said. “I think that’s why I became a librarian after all!”
Elia has spent the last six months researching two distinct areas that are fairly new to him: Environmental and Ecological Histories; and the Social and Political Histories of Museums. He just completed a book chapter, soon to be published, on special collections and rare books, specifically related to the history of Bridwell’s collections and within the broader scope of theological special collections in North America.
“Bridwell has many fascinating stories—countless, in fact,” he said. “Many of them are hidden away in hundreds of boxes in its archives. Part of this book chapter essay explores why and how the first Bridwell director, Decherd Turner, was so holistic a collector and how his vision crafted and drove the library into what it is today. It’s astonishing.”Elia is also working on another article exploring the responsibilities of a theological library.
“Bridwell is built upon a nearly three-quarter-century history of oil and gas monies, which has afforded the expansive reach and resources it has today,” he said. “Yet, as we look to the future, it’s going to be necessary to consider not just how the library itself can be more efficient in its environmental impact, but also how we as a community can be the best stewards of a world impacted by environmental change.”
Many of his ideas about the environment stem from a 6,200-mile road trip Elia took this past summer through the west—and which he recounted recently in the latest edition of The Bridwell Quill.
“Nature is an amazing and fortuitous thing, and one we often take for granted, but it is so much a part of who we are,” he said.
Central Asia is another area of research and interest. Elia had planned to visit Russia last March to present and lecture, having co-edited a book of Tatar Literature, translated by a colleague in Russia. The trip would’ve also included working with the composers’ union in Tartarstan; Elia had written some cello music in honor of the traditional Tatar cultural heritage. However, the pandemic cancelled the event just before his flight to Kazan (in Tatarstan) and it remains indefinitely postponed.
“That part of the world, Central Asia, is an understudied and undervalued place and idea—one which has so much to offer but is little known in the United States,” he said. “I’ve sought to examine how religions like Christianity have interfaced with the multiplicity of cultures there. My most recent project in this area was to trace the translation of a 19th century American novel through Swedish into a local Turkic language translation, made in the 1930s, and find out why it was undertaken.”
Language is another area of deep interest and ongoing study for Elia. He started his career studying German, then Greek. He estimates he’s studied around 20 languages and is comfortably conversantly in seven or eight languages, depending on the context. He has a working knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as Italian, German, modern Hebrew, some Arabic, Chinese and various Central Asian Turkic languages like Tatar. One of his favorite languages is Armenian.
“I once met the patriarch of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem,” he said. “We had Sprite and discussed Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Ha!”
Elia is also an active composer. Two years ago, he wrote an unusual work for quartet—tenor, oboe, cello and violin—in which the tenor part sings the words of an ancient Buddhist chant in the Mongolian. He has often written choral works in Latin (or Italian, Portuguese, or German) – he enjoys experimenting with the sound of languages with music.
During COVID-19, he went back to working on a choral cycle of Latin liturgical-style pieces that venerated the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Tradition—tentatively a 12-piece set of choral works titled The Marian Cycle for a cappella choruses. He started that project in 2013 and is about halfway through. He’s hoping to have one portion, the 56-page Stabat Mater, performed this year. He also wrote some viola and violin sonatas—Orpheus in Cyberspace for Viola and The Metamorphoses of COVID for solo violin. His latest is an anomalous work “in the year of COVID”—both serious and comical: The Cowbell Christmas Concerto: for Cowbell, Organ, Bible, and Operatic Cow—An Udderly Festive Work.
“A composer has to have a sense of humor,” he said. “And even though Christmas is now past, that too is being rehearsed for performance.”
Currently, the library is undergoing renovation, so Elia has worked outside of the building, but his job as librarian has never kept him confined to the stacks. Last year, the staff discovered a homeless person had been living in the library secretly. The spurred Elia to join the January term Homeless Immersion in Waco led by Hugo Magallanes.
“I wanted to see how to be more engaged, empathic and understanding of the homeless and homelessness,” he said. “There are serious problems in our country and world and getting a sense of what the issues are is just the first step. It was a great experience to participate in the Waco seminar, and it’s helping me to reflect and better articulate considerations about what can be done here on campus and in the libraries.”
Intellectual Histories; Christian Cabala; Near Eastern Studies; Islamic Central Asian History, Literature, and Art; Histories of Education, Technology, and Cybersecurity; Environmental Histories; Origins of the Modern Nation-State; and the Social History of Museums.
Favorite Bible verse:
Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” Says Elia: “I’m sure there are better verses, but let’s just say I try not to repeat mistakes that I have made!” Another favorite: 1 Corinthians 16:14: “Do everything in love.”
Book on his nightstand:
Make that “books.” Elia counts 36 books on his nightstand, plus there’s a pile next to his bed. His reading interests include historical works and fiction. Most recently he’s been reading works on the history of nationalisms: Edward Crankshaw’s biography of Otto von Bismark (1981); Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities; Denton’s Modern Chinese Literary Thought; Tisdall and Bozzolla’s history of Futurism in Italy; and Louis Fischer’s The Life of Lenin.
“I can’t put books down,” he said. “I just can’t. If I want to know something, I will plow through it, sleep, and get up at 4 a.m. and read for several hours until it’s time to go to work. Maybe I’ll take a break, exercise, drink coffee. But books—yeah, they often take over!”
Fantasy Dinner Party:
Elia would love to serve tortellini, arugula and beet salad, and steaks to Napoleon, Malcolm X (in his non-vegetarian days), Abe Lincoln, Zhou Enlai, Susan Sontag and Maya Angelou. He would ask them: “Does food matter to how we govern the church or state?”
Elia has “two parents, two siblings and two wonderful, brilliant and beautiful daughters” and lots of extended family.
A tomato plant named Cicco that produces no fruit, drinks too much and spawns gnats.
“I’ve thought of taking him out one of these days,” Elia said.
Favorite travel destination:
Very tall mountains and very clear oceans.
Something about him most people don’t know:
Elia climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji in Japan in the summer of 1997 and froze in nearly 35F temps at the top. In 2013, he wrote a 21-movement ballet for orchestra about the Syrian Civil War titled Damascus at Night, which he hopes to produce one day.
Elia makes a killer Sicilian style pizza. “My kids love it,” he said. “I love it. My stomach loves it. That’s the problem.”
What question would you ask at the Pearly Gates?
“Do you serve Chicken parm here? If not, I’m going to the other place!”
Hiking, walking, playing the piano, singing in choral clubs, and exploring everywhere possible by car, foot or wing. Walks, especially solitary walks, clear his mind. “I love going into nature—in the woods, walking and thinking about stuff,” he said. “There’s lots to think about!”