the bookdragon tales.
(part of brett's logjam.)
29 February 2008
Which, all things considered, is both a good thing to do, and pretty damn fun, too.
27 May 2007
When Merrystar and I lived in Alexandria, we devoted most of the bottom floor of our townhouse to our library. We had more than 150 linear feet of shelving (mostly Billy from Ikea) but we never, ever had enough.
The bookroom started out as a disaster, which turned into a bookroom, which turned into a library. We enjoyed it as such for the month that the house was on the market and the few weeks that it took to close on the house. That was really it.
Then, there was a moving related purge, and our books were packed into 32 boxes and moved into our new garage. And there they sat.
Bit by bit, Merrystar and I have worked through half of those boxes, but there’s been a dozen or so sitting in the garage for the last five or six months. Sitting. Taunting me. Waiting for something to prompt me to move them.
Like, er, mouse poop. All over the recently-cleaned garage.
So after much cleaning with masks, the remaining dozen boxes were unpacked last night. And the inevitable bibliophilaic crisis ensued. As both Merrystar and I rested, we asked the exact same question:
Why do we need all these books?
There are dozens of books that I want to keep. But there are hundreds that I honestly can’t answer why I have kept them, other than… what, exactly? Sentimentality? Utility? To impress others? (And who would that be, specifically?)
I don’t know if this is a universal crisis that all book collectors go through. Maybe it is, and only the serious ones get through it.
As for us?
I took a half-trunk load of books to the local bookstore today. (Store credit for those they can use, the rest to charity.)
And we’re just getting started.
27 April 2007
Yesterday, Merrystar surprised me with a copy of The Children of Húrin.
And you know what? I take it back.
Well, some of it, anyway.
I read it from cover to cover last night and was neither depressed nor disappointed. The story of Túrin Turambar improves with the clear presentation within The Children of Húrin; by presenting the story by itself, without either the flow of The Silmarillion or (helpful) editorial interjections to interfere, the tale assumes a stature that it lacked in previous editions. It’s this stature that I think is why Tolkien (the senior) returned to the story again and again, and why it was a logical choice for his son to attempt to complete first.
If anything, it makes me wonder if The Silmarillion was a mistake in presentation, as each chapter jumps in both focus and detail and no one story stands out. Images are lost in the welter. I have a few strong images burned in my memory from that book, but none of them were of Túrin. Which, ultimately, is a shame.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still love the grand scope of the Quenta Silmarillion, the ability to move through the entire First Age and watch the threads weave in and out (and in). And ultimately, how can you assemble parts without having the whole?
But following a few threads from start to finish is rewarding, too. I think that’s why The Children of Húrin works. It starts with Húrin and ends with him, and our focus is kept upon the deeds of this unhappy family.
(Though, I must ask: why could we not hear of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin in the same fashion? Alas.)
I still, ultimately, don’t like Túrin very much. But now I can pity him, which I couldn’t before.
2 April 2007
J.R.R. Tolkien worked on the story of Túrin Turambar for most of his life; started in 1918, it was one of the great labors of his mythology. It is also one of the most solidly depressing, unhappy tales I have ever had the pleasure to read.
Merrystar hates it. She endured all of the prose and verse versions that appeared throughout the History Of Middle-Earth and found none with redeeming value. I don’t hate it quite as passionately, but (oh, the truth is hard) I haven’t read all of them. I slogged through the Unfinished Tales version instead, which was as ‘final’ a version as we could come to expect.
Until now, of course. Christopher Tolkien, he who has shouldered so many of his father’s burdens, completed the Narn i Chîn Húrin. It will be released soon as The Children of Húrin.
I always considered it a small tragedy that Tolkien spent so much time polishing this story while leaving The Fall of Gondolin essentially untouched. The promise seen in Of Tuor and His Coming To Gondolin will never been realized like that of Of Túrin Turambar; the story would have to be spun from whole cloth, something that Christopher has (wisely?) chosen not to do.
(Among the other Tolkienean tragedies I mourn:
- the third (and last) version of Galadriel’s journey to Middle-Earth and subsequent ban never making it into the rewritten mythology,
- the dearth of narrative near the end of the Silmarillion (especially about Dior and Elwing’s brothers),
- the omission of the events of Fëanor’s Shibboleth,
- Glorfindel’s return from the Halls of Mandos.
I leave Celeborn’s parentage as an unsatisfying mystery, but hardly a tragedy.)
I will, of course, purchase this book in numerous editions and read it as soon as it comes out. It’s been 11 years since Christopher Tolkien published the last book of the History of Middle Earth, and you better believe I’m ready for more.
But I reserve the right to be depressed after reading it.
1 August 2006
I read Murder on the Orient Express on a trip to Montreal a few years ago.
I quite enjoyed it.
I did not figure out who did it until Mr. Poirot explained it all to me.
31 July 2006
I picked this book up this weekend at my favorite used bookstore in Williamsburg. I was looking for some light reading to counterbalance some of the history books I’d gotten, and I’ve not yet gone wrong with Agatha Christie. (Of course, I’ve only read Murder on the Orient Express… But still!)
I swear that I’ve read this one before.
But I can’t for the life of me remember doing it.
Usually, I forget the contents of a book, but remember the fact of reading it. This sometimes leads to awkward conversations with fans of those forgotten books as they try to tell me all about some specific element that I haven’t thought about in years.
So it was very strange to announce, midway through the book, that I knew precisely who did it. And that not that, I knew who was the German spy, and who was the red herring. Merrystar asked me why I thought this, and the best I could say is that he wasn’t on the list of suspects. My answer satisfied no one.
I didn’t know the how, but I was absolutely convinced of the who. I have to assume that I’ve either read it or watched it before, because to believe otherwise means that I simply figured it out. By page 50. So I assume that I’ve read it before and blocked it out.
Isn’t that interesting?
22 July 2006
I had never heard of The Truth About Everything when my wife gave it to me for my birthday in 1997. She was not yet my wife, but she already knew what kind of book I liked.
Moreover, she knew that I didn’t know about this book, which made it the perfect gift. Merrystar has done that to me a few times over the years, but this book and my atlas remain the two best examples of her insight into my reading preferences. They remind me how lucky I really am.
The book’s premise is simple enough: philosophy is a form of mysticism, the search for the mystic truth underlying all existence. It doesn’t matter that philosophy couches its search in terms of rationality and logic: ultimately, the goal remains mystical. It’s an intruiging premise, engagingly written, and more interesting than a philosophy book has a right to be.
Of course, it also speaks to the strong anti-intellectual intellectual streak in me. But it remains one of the most surprisingly wonderful books my wife has ever given me, and for that it’s got a permanent place in my collection.
The Truth About Everything appears to be out of print, but if you can find a copy, I recommend picking it up.
30 June 2006
Unfinished Tales is one of the pivotal books in my collection, and I have more than one tale about it. Hence, this is “Part I” of the tale, not part I of the Unfinished Tales.
All clear? Good.
I discovered Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales in a bookstore near Westminster in 1984. It was a black-bordered wonder, with Roger Garland’s picture of Glaurung the Dragon leering from the front. This was the 1983 paperback printing by Allen and Unwin, ISBN 0-04-823208-4, third edition.
I, a recent Tolkien convert, was thunderstruck. I was 10 years old on my first trip outside of my own country. I had already read everything I could get my hands on in the States, and here was something new, something wonderful.
I remember very clearly that sense of amazed joy when I discovered the book, followed closely by a sense of panic that my parents wouldn’t get it for me. I remember those two emotions very clearly, intermixed with a vision of green velvet and dark brown wood (which I can only take to be a garbled impression of the interior of the shop and shelves, unless I was in some sort of snooker hall.)
And then I remember walking in the shadow of Westminster, clutching my treasure, having already read the introduction, savoring the anticipation of more undiscovered Tolkien. I needn’t had worried; I don’t think I got much more past “Ijustfoundthistolkienbookanditsnotavailablebackhomeandlookatthetableofcontents” before my Mom understood the situation and reassured me that we wouldn’t have to leave my new best friend behind.
I remember the worry, though, as sharp as the joy. Odd. Memories from that long ago are difficult to sort out.
This oversized paperback assured me instant geek credibility for years to come. There was nothing like showing up to a Dungeons and Dragons session with it tucked into my bag to let everyone know who the real Tolkien expert was. At the very first English 318 (Tolkien) class held at Rice in 1994, there was only one UK edition of Unfinished Tales. And it was mine.
Unfortunately, there were 10 other Tolkien experts in that class with me, and the few extra years I’d had with my beloved black book with the funny dragon on the cover didn’t matter in the end, because, you know, it was never actually a competition.
Twenty years after I first found Unfinished Tales, I can safely say it’s not a good idea to base your self-esteem on which books you own. Or how many books you own, for that matter.
I’ve also learned that there is very little to compare with the unexpected joy of discovering a new book by a favorite. There are maybe, at the most, a half-dozen books in my entire collection that I was actually surprised to find.
None of them rival that day in England.
20 June 2006
Here’s the thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; I should have, by all rights and all Amazon reviews, loved this book.
Instead, I trudged to page 156 and stopped. I checked, just to be sure, and I’ve been waiting to pick up again at Chapter 17 — for over a year now.
I have the hardback book with the plain black front with white letters, not pictured above, unfortunately. (This is an editorial quandry; do I use the available picture from booksellers, or should I photograph the individual specimens from my library? I suspect I should do the former in all cases, and the latter when it is relevant, but I digress.)
This book is not a small book, and my wife thoughtfully inscribed a note celebrating this on the front cover:
To my beloved,
who likes big books.
This is true. I like big books. I love the feel of them, the weight of them, and because I often read like a madman in a hurry, big books are the only way I can stretch out the pleasure of a new book over several nights. However, I don’t like big books per se; I like what I like, and I like it when it lasts a long time.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, unfortunately, is just a big book that has been on my nightstand for a year and a half that just never hooked me.
I, like many readers, have a hundred-page rule. It’s a rule observed in passing instead of as an imperative; if I am not hooked within the first 100 pages, I will not finish the book. If I get past the first 100 pages, I’ll finish — and usually like it, with some exceptions (cough, A Game of Thrones, cough.)
(I think, coincidentally enough, that David Eddings was the first author who I heard talk about this rule. I have since heard many other people observe the same behavior.)
This rule is flexible, of course. Sometimes I’ll stall out by page 200, sometimes I throw the book across the room on page 5. But the hundred-page rule is pretty accurate, as these things go.
This book was praised on Amazon, it had many elements that I should have enjoyed (Victoriana, magic, strong writing), and I barely made it past 150 pages. Since this is a big book, I’ve barely scratched the surface. This book may be as fantastic as the reviews say, but I wouldn’t know.
Perhaps — if it escapes one of our periodic purges and doesn’t get sent to a used bookstore for a more appreciative owner — I will give Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell another try in a few years. Some books just have to come into your life at the right place and time; this may be one of them.
Then again, this may be a book that I just can’t get into, and that’s all there is to say about it.
While I make up my mind on the matter, I will leave the book jacket folded in between pages 156 and 157, just to remind me that the hundred-page rule was invoked.
11 June 2006
Guardians of the West is the first book of Eddings’ five-volume “The Mallorean”, the sequel to the five-volume “The Belgariad.” I read the Belgariad at some point in 1987 when I was first introduced to Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and I wanted more.
I don’t think I found out about Guardians right away - this was pre-internet, and I wasn’t exactly attending the book circuit - but I remember being very excited about it when I stumbled upon it. It must have been 1989, so I was what, 15? It was a tough time for me, what with the being 15 and all, and my parents were FORCING ME TO MOVE. I was going to have to move to the hinterlands of Missouri and leave civilization… and truth be told, girls, whom I had finally started to notice. (And who noticed me noticing.) I was fairly sure there weren’t any girls in Missouri. My life was LITERALLY OVER.
(Give me a break, okay? I’m sure there are stories about you at that age you’d rather not tell. This was fifteen years ago, and I’m happy to report that there were girls in Missouri. And other places, too. So much for teenage angst.)
In the middle of all that teenage drama, I remember finding that David Eddings, bless him, had written a sequel to my second-favorite fantasy series of all time.
I got Guardians in mass-market paperback, like most books I got in those days. This would prove to be a major mistake on my part, as “The Mallorean” was the first series I ever bought/received as it was being published in hardback. As soon as I read Guardians I made sure that The King of the Murgos was on my Christmas list, and I remember lugging that hardback around in the car when we drove from NYC to St. Louis in a freezing-cold December.
Anyhow, the mistake was that by getting the paperback I had driven a wedge between Guardians and the rest of the series just by virtue of the format. Hardbacks and paperbacks do not mingle on my shelves, especially not on my Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves. This irritated me for years before I finally found a nice paperback copy of the rest of the series somewhere — maybe Michael’s Books in Bellingham? — and sold off the hardbacks. That would have been in 2002 or thereabouts, so I endured a dozen years of moving those damn hardbacks.
The Guardians of the West is a little bit of an odd book. It has a tough job to do (restart a series that had been brought to a satisfying final conclusion) and does it adeqeuately well, but I remember being overwhelmed by the new plot elements. It was only years later, after many rereadings, that I could feel the same sense of easy familiarity with Guardians as I did with Pawn of Prophecy, the first book of “The Belgariad.”
There’s a lot I like about this book. I enjoy watching the grown-up Garion playing superhero in the Kingdoms of the West and grumbling about how when there’s something no rational person would even attempt, they send for him. There’s a lot of the familliar ease between the main characters which made the first series so successful, and that’s one of the reasons I love this book. The weak points will actually come to a head in the next book; the party gets larger and larger until finally I want to stop and take attendance, the plot grows more complex (with no hope of resolution until later books, a pet peeve of mine) and the gyrations the plot goes through to explain why we’re doing all this again are excessive. The first series could handle it by having 7000 years of backstory leading up to the novels; this series has less than 10 years, and has to contradict elements from the first series to even have a chance. So there’s a pretty big disconnect there, and one that I wasn’t ready to deal with as a teenager.
However, as an adult, I can unabashedly not care about that. I don’t read this book for the plot; I read it for the characters, for the old familliar banter between Silk and Belgarath, for Aunt Pol and Durnik and all the rest. As long as that characterization remains strong, I ultimately will enjoy the story and recapture the excitement I felt when I found out we got to do it all over again.