Selection: Some Thoughts on Deciding What to Read

I get asked about what I read fairly often and usually by people who encounter my reading habits in the context of higher education. This is unsurprising given that my reading strategy very intentionally is designed to give me an edge in a classroom, but I always have mixed feelings about suggesting that others read the way I do. That isn’t to say I don’t think people should read, its more so that I read with very particular goals in mind and for people with different goals or resources my way of organizing my reading would not be the best use of their time. I spend a great deal of my free time reading with the primary goal being breadth of knowledge. I want to know as much as I can across a wide range of subjects which pays off for me in an academic setting. I can walk into most arts and humanities classes and be able to discuss ideas intelligently not only by drawing on facts from things I have read but by making connections across diverse subjects. This is the motivation behind how I read, and I find it very rewarding, but this is a successful strategy because of the environment I inhabit and the amount of time I spend reading. All of this to say that I don’t think everyone should read like this, but for those with similar goals, I think my reading strategy is effective (also I’m pretty sure some people like to hear about it because they think it’s a little bit nuts).Read More »

Manifesting Destiny: The Reinvention and Resurgence of the Western Genre

In many ways society has moved beyond the traditional Western stories, largely because most people have a much more rounded view of history that does not allow for straight forward narratives about heroic cowboys on some empty American frontier. An understanding of the colonial process and the long term impacts of how the United States formed makes purely celebratory westerns seem somewhat naïve if not disrespectful to the experiences of indigenous peoples so these kinds of stories do not enjoy the same kind of wide spread popularity they used to enjoy. However, in recent years there have been several successful novels that return to the western genre with new goals. Books like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (interestingly both written by Canadians) lean heavily on exploring the flaws in the traditional western albeit in very different ways. The Sisters Brothers is dark comedy bordering on satire which plays up the archetypes of the western to make their absurdity obvious to the reader. In contrast, the heroes of McGrath’s fantasy western fit more closely to the cowboy hero but undermines traditional westerns by taking place in a world that includes the suffering and oppression that was erased in older westerns. These new westerns reflect new understandings of history and show how beloved genres can be brought into the current day.Read More »

This Close to History: An Examination of Guy Gavriel Kay

An element of the past is often central to fantasy texts, they are set in worlds where characters fight with swords rather than guns and cell phones are more impossible than magic, but the degree of history that slips in shifts a great deal with the author. Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay is praised for his fantasy novels and one of the unique elements of these books are the degree to which they are steeped in the history of our world. This is a world building choice that gives Kay’s novels a distinctly different feel to the more traditional fantasy works of Lewis, Tolkien, or Martin. This difference sets Kay’s work apart from much of the contemporary fantasy scene but it is an incredibly effective way to address history in a way that is appealing and accessible to a different kind of reader.

Despite being categorized as a fantasy book, those who are familiar with European history will immediately recognize the setting of Kay’s most recent work – A Brightness Long Ago – as being set in Renaissance Italy. Perhaps most obvious is Seressa whose canal’s and business economy match almost exactly with the vision of Venice that most readers would come to the text with. Even the major event which the book revolves around, the fall of Sarantium, is clearly the Kay’s parallel to the fall of Constantinople. Kay isn’t trying to hide the historical basis for what he is writing about, he leans into the style that he has been using since the publication of A Song for Arbonne in 1992 and even includes what amounts to a works cited at the end of the book. A Brightness Long Ago, like the novels that proceeded it, draw in a reader who already loves history with the joys of trying to match figures and families in the book to their historical equivalents while Kay’s fantasy setting creates the kind of immersive veneer that makes the history compelling in a way that no textbook ever could.

Kay never claims to be writing an accurate history and it allows him to write characters who are entirely a part of their world rather than having the kind of distance that historical writing requires. Books that seek to be factual and educational are written with a kind of distance, they describe the beliefs of the Ancient Greeks without really believing in the Greek pantheon and come with the implication of misplaced faith that comes with describing what is now a long dead religion. Even historical fiction novels are written with a kind of awareness of the reader, the characters do really believe in the world their story takes place in, but the books often feel like the are turned towards a voyeuristic reader who wants to look back on history. By setting his novels in a fantasy world Kay removes that pressure, he writes about Christianity or Islam without really writing about those faiths and it makes the character’s faith feel more real because they simply run in parallel with the religion’s the reader knows. History is close enough to Kay’s fantasy that it is recognizable but not so close that it entirely breaks the immersion of the world, rather it makes the world feel deeper and more complex with what the reader brings to the story.

The immersive fantasy experience actually brings the reader closer to what they are reading than a pure history would. There are many people who would never pick up a book about the minor conflicts of city states in the Italian Renaissance but will find the Folco vs Monticola conflict in A Brightness Long Ago compelling. Kay’s fantasy captures the best aspects of history, the intrigues and the power and the devastating power of a single event like the fall of Constantinople without getting caught up in the details of dates, geographies and armies that people often find off putting about history. However, it is a not a patronizing oversimplification that simply assumes people are too stupid to understand history, Kay’s world is masterfully constructed around the historical fact so that history buffs are also caught up in the push towards the climatic fall of Sarantium that their history knowledge told them was inevitable from the beginning of the novel. It is hard for a modern reader to feel the shock waves that the fall of Constantinople sent through Europe but A Brightness Long Ago places them in a world that hasn’t felt that shock wave yet and then lets them feel it happen. This is a kind of closeness that isn’t possible with history but seems inescapable when reading Kay’s work.

A Brightness Long Ago is the most recent of Kay’s novel’s and is perhaps the ideal book to use for this analysis because it is set in a fantasy of Europe with its own version of Christianity, but Kay’s other works carry the same historical weight. The (unfortunately) less recognizable histories of the Near and Far East are present in his earlier novels and immerse the reader in a kind of history they may not be nearly as familiar with. The historical parallels are just as close in these books, but it is certainly a different kind of immersive atmosphere is certainly different and might offer an even more valuable experience than reading the easily identifiable history of Europe. A Brightness Long Ago is a gateway into history, but it will hopefully also be a gateway into Kay’s previous books for new readers to expand their historical horizons beyond what a single story can contain.

Meanwhile and Elsewhere: Parallel Narratives in the Ender Series and Kingkiller Chronicles

When TV shows do a spin off series it often feels like a money grab, but when an author publishes a parallel novel to one of their existing works many readers are simply thrilled to access the narrative from another angle. This is a type of writing that is found most often in the speculative fiction genres and it in many ways ties into the unique reading experiences that speculative fiction offers. Sci-fi and fantasy allow the reader to explore a world that is vastly, or not so vastly, different from our own and parallel narratives are expansion on those worlds. By presenting events and mechanics from a different perspective there is an opportunity to understand the fictional world in a way that simply isn’t possible as part of the mainline narrative. There are numerous but examples of these kinds of stories but Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow and Patrick Rothfuss’ Slow Regard of Silent things show two separate but related routes that parallel narratives can take while exploring the world of the large narrative.

Ender’s Shadow follows Bean, who is being kept as the fall back for if Ender fails to live up  to the expectations of those in charge. But Ender himself is the epitome of naievety for much of the series and fails to understand how he is being manipulated. Bean’s narrative in Ender’s Shadow offers a view of Ender that isn’t so constrained. Bean has no delusions about their place in the larger system and his observations of Ender offer a different view of the main series protagonist. This is a side of Ender that is not visible in the main narrative, as much as Ender is often depressed or worried throughout his story he does view himself as in control of himself and his own success. Bean’s narrative undermines this and shows a version of Ender that is obstructed by the third person limited point of view that is used in Ender’s Game.

Auri, the narrator of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, doesn’t have the kind of direct interaction with the main series of Kingkiller books that happens in Ender’s Shadow so what she reveals about Kvothe is more tied to his place in the larger system rather than a statement on his character directly. Where Bean observes and critics Ender throughout the Shadow series Auri simply goes about her life and through that exposes the way magic functions outside of the system that Kvothe exists in. That system is so central to Kvothe’s character, he has been educated in it and seeks success within the paradigm it sets out. Auri does none of those things and through her the reader is able to see how closely tied to the mainstream system Kvothe is even though in his narrative he is viewed as something of a rebel.

Including these kinds of conflict or complexity in the main narrative would undermine the strengths and characterizations of these stories. But the complication of the main narrative is what makes the  is what makes parallel novels strong additions to the main series. Ender’s personality doesn’t allow him to see how he is being manipulated by those around him, and Kvothe’s drive stops him from truly considering the ways power might manifest outside of the academic system. It is not that these main series hero characters are weak, they are far more powerful than the protagonists of the parallel narratives, it is simply that the come from a different place within the constructed world and can show the reader parts of the world that are just not visible through the main narrative perspective.

By exposing the reader to a different perspective on the world of the main series the authors of parallel narratives also offer a second perspective that the reader may find more relatable. For some people Ender’s continuing naivety might be grating to read, or Kvothe’s relentless ambition might make him seem too distant; but the parallel narratives can create a perspective that might be much more relatable. Narrators don’t necessarily have to be relatable to make a book enjoyable but when the speculative fiction reading experience is so heavily based in creating an immersive experience having a relatable narrator can improve the impressive experience. The world of the Ender’s Game feels more real to me when accessed through the kind of critical narrator that the Shadow Series provides while I find Kvothe’s experience of his world to be much more compelling than the less structured experience of Auri. Personal preferences have a huge impact on how the reader interacts with the fictional world that an author creates, and this might be why parallel narratives are so much more common in the speculative fiction genres – these are just the genres that benefit the most from more diverse narrative perspectives.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things and Ender’s Shadow are a pair of texts that may not characterize the uses of every parallel narrative, but they do demonstrate some of the ways in which these kinds of stories can be used. Especially within the speculative fiction genre where world building and an immersive experience are particularly important parallel narratives develop the world and make it accessible to readers. Whether by providing an outside perspective on the main series hero who spends their books saving the world or by showing the small manifestations of magi outside of the substantial powers of a system these novels are allowing the reader to learn something new about the world the author has created. These are not the stories that introduce an audience to a new world, but they are sometimes the stories that make those worlds truly believable.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Joys of Book Ownership

Ray Bradbury’s work is most often discussed in the context of censorship and the restrictions in the flow of ideas. But it is also fundamentally a novel about book ownership, in fact this comes through just as clearly because of the physical nature of the book burnings that represent censorship in this text. Examining Bradbury’s novel in the context of book ownership perhaps says something slightly different about the nature of books and about the joys of owning them. As an avid collector of books, I am well on my way to being a book hoarder but I think Bradbury’s novel justifies that collection in the face of the inconvenience that collection provides to those I live with.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451 books did not become illegal all at once, they were condensed and moved into different formats until they didn’t exist at all and the vast majority of the population accepted their banning largely without complaint. Setting aside the censorship aspect this decline of the physical book is not hugely different from what is happening today. Some of the shift is valuable, making stories available to those who would not be able to access them in physical form, but in other ways it speaks to the same reduction of attention span that Bradbury is writing about. Bradbury indicates that by condensing and changing the nature of the texts the world of Fahrenheit 451 had also robbed them of their power. There is a lot of power in the books that I own, many of which are used and came to me through different owners. This is not exactly the same fundamental nature of the story that I think Bradbury is trying to talk about, but it is an added layer of meaning that is only available because I collect these texts in their physical form. Books can come from family members, or include marginalia that allude to the identity of strangers from the book’s history. The provenance of objects is important in the world of art collecting or museums, but it also often factors into the emotional ties a collector has to their books.

Possessing an object that has its own history is not the only value that Bradbury’s book hoarders place on their collections, having these collections protects the information inside them from destruction. Throughout the novel it is clear that this is a society that used to read but has lost that liberty, and while a tv show can be taken off the air each copy of a book must be tracked down and destroyed. There is a powerful control of information involved in book ownership, not just in the novel but in the real world as well. Personally possessing an encyclopedia set printed in the early sixties allows a look back into how far science and social issues have come since then, rather than relying on an internet page that can be easily edited. The book lovers of Fahrenheit 451 also memorize the books they own but it is merely a safety precautions for if the physical books are destroyed, the goal is always to create a new library of physical copies once it is safe to do so.

Aside from the fact that the book hoarders in the novel view themselves as doing important work for the survival of literature they are also clearly deeply attached to their books. From the beginning of the novel this is set up as something to be in awe of as Montag is deeply affected by the old woman’s choice to die with her books. This is not just an attachment to the stories; this is a love of the books themselves and appears as one of the striking images of the novel. In the modern setting dying with one’s books would be insane but as with many of the other extreme moments in the text it still reflects the emotional connection collectors in the real world often feel for their books. It isn’t a matter of loving the books enough to die for them, but rather it is looking around and see a well-loved project that built a collection from a few picture books into a whole library.

In the current political climate and for the sake of high school essays Fahrenheit 451 may be focused on the nature of censorship but with the rising tide of technology there is also something to be said for what the novel suggests about book ownership. Having a large personal library has already shifted from the status marker it used to be into something of an eccentricity but the benefits of having a collection of physical books still stand. There is a history of ownership in a physical copy of a book that is absent in other media and information can be preserved better when it can’t simply be deleted but just as in Bradbury’s dystopian world the collectors of books are emotionally attached to their books, not just the stories inside of them. As technology brings us closer to the ‘parlor walls’ of Bradbury’s world there is value to be gained from reading Fahrenheit 451 in the context of book ownership, if only to consider why those of us who keep large personal libraries choose to do so even when there are other more practical media available.