Mallory Ortberg of The Toast, whose Ayn Rand-inspired versions of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and You’ve Got Mail we told you about a few months ago, is back it at again. Now Rand (er, I mean, Ortberg) has her sights set on the dubiously libertarian children’s classic If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If we give you the article, you’ll probably ask us for an essay by Gary Percesepe about meeting Ayn Rand’s editor to go along with it.
A while back, I pointed readers to Ayn Rand’s version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, helpfully published by The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg. It satisfied those of you who never understood why Harry didn’t slough off his legions of parasitic friends. Now, The Toast brings us the conclusion to the series, in which Harry’s labors bring him the rewards he deserves. Sample quote: “I have earned the Elder Wand through my own achievements.”
Most Revelatory Second Pass
In January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal — usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read.
Best Serendipitous Literary Connection
There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment — one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother — one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy.
Best Read of the Year
I still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us.
I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake.
Cloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section — the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point — really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend — like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future.
Most Aggravating Historical Legend
President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best.
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Happy Hunger Games! To celebrate the release of Catching Fire, read Ben Blatt’s textual analysis of the most popular adverbs, adjectives, and sentences used by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games trilogy, Stephenie Meyer in Twilight, and J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Unsurprisingly, the most popular sentence in Twilight is, “I sighed.” We’re sighing, too. Pair with: Our essay on how teen fantasy heroines need to grow up.
When I was twelve, I read a lot. I read novels in the cafeteria over chicken patties while my friends traded folded-paper fortune tellers, and I read novels on the bus ride home while my friends relocated to seats with travelers who would talk to them. I read novels while I walked home from the bus stop, and for half hour stretches in the bathroom until my legs had fallen asleep. There never seemed a good point at which to put down the book, pull up my pants and relocate to a chair, so I stayed seated.
The books I read today can still inspire this total preoccupation, but more rarely. Often, I only have an allotted hour or so to read before I have to turn off my light and play slave to my impending alarm clock. My “real” life is never far from mind; reading is just a part of my day. But last night I lay in bed with Mockingjay, the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, not reading but devouring the book, transported not only to the fictional world of Panem, but to the years when I always read like this: flopping from back to stomach as the hours passed, jumping at every creak of the house, and finishing late, late at night, reluctant to release my hands from the book and a delicious disorientation that would be gone by morning.
My former self understands these feelings, and happily, so does my cousin’s son, Will. I know he reads like this because I’ve seen him, shooing his football-toting friends away at the beach because he can’t abandon Harry, Ron and Hermione at such a crucial moment. He’s got an English-teacher-turned-college-professor for a mom, and an older brother tossing worn copies of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson his way, so he’s been reading for a while now, and he’s got discriminating taste. He’s the recent recipient of Cedar Mountain Primary School’s Accelerated Reader Award, but the prize is incidental. Kid’s got a love of the game.
With Twilight and The Hunger Games securing a vast readership among the young and older, Will and I are not an anomaly as we sit and excitedly discuss Harry Potter, he ten and me twenty-three. As we’re working our way from The Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows with great attention to both cherished and forgotten detail, he’s the book-club I didn’t have as a twelve year old Madeline L’Engle addict. We started talking because I was hoping to glean a few book recommendations from him to write about, and so I’m taking notes. Exhibiting his careful attention to fellow readers and his strong loyalty to story, our conversation is punctuated by uncertain pauses preceding each recounting of a momentous plot twist. “I don’t know if you should write this in case anyone hasn’t read it yet,” Will warns me.
That is one of the great appeals of young adult literature: there is so much plot to spoil. Storytelling is paramount here, and the sheer imagination of the author is so awesome that enjoyment overpowers any hint of farfetchedness. And while, yes, the Harry Potter books are about wizards, our own Muggle concerns are reflected in the struggle of good against evil, and the difficulty we sometimes have distinguishing the two. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, the best young adult fiction today embraces universal themes and compelling moral ambiguity. These stories captivate our attention because they are adventures in the deeper dramas that inform human experience. They are life and death stripped of daily distraction.
As we sit over a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Will and I try to articulate what we love about this series and about The Hunger Games. It is difficult to express the emotionally charged relinquishing of reality and the fervor and flush that comes with truly inhabiting a fictional world. “Just the idea of the book,” he shrugs, stumped. “Just the story.”
With imaginative and driving plots that are both similar and alien to your everyday world, in the really good books, the characters are rich and complicated, but when they are not, it doesn’t really matter. They are doing, and you are reading as fast as you can.
Of course, one of the reasons you can read this fast is that the language doesn’t always delight your synapses or persuade you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. When I’m reading Collins’ writing, I’m not savoring a sentence like I do when I’m reading Michael Chabon. The plainspoken pulse of The Hunger Games doesn’t beg a reread like the poetry of The God of Small Things, or set you still like a scene of Cormac McCarthy’s. But I’m not reading Mockingjay for those reasons. I’m reading to find out whether the Capitol mutations bred deliberately to hunt Katniss are going to tear her to pieces before she manages to kill President Snow.
Books hinging on this level of intensity burn a haze that muddles your Muggle world and your Hogwarts world. As in a dream, you have no difficulty surrendering to the unrealities: the story holds you. Sometimes it holds you merely until an unwelcome interruption by your real life, but sometimes it lingers after the book is closed, unwilling to be relegated back to fiction. Young Will confesses to me that Harry Potter’s unlikely entrance into wizardry clung to him in this way. “I was really hoping that when I turned eleven I would be found to be a wizard. I felt that it was so real. I thought that maybe J.K. Rowling was a wizard… and I kept on feeling that. But then, after I read the next series that I really liked, I didn’t feel that anymore, and I knew that it was definitely, one hundred percent fake. But… it really seemed real. The whole way.”
The yearning in Will’s voice brings me back to my own youthful reading of the Harry Potter books, with a swift and sudden nostalgic ache. For Will isn’t yet eleven, and the force with which he instructs me on the odds against his dormant wizardry has the hardness of a person reprimanding himself for a foolishness. He isn’t waiting for his eleventh birthday. He knows better. But maybe this is why reading these YA books can be such a wholly captivating experience for adults. We have no choice but to surrender our reasons to the terrors and beauties of a make-believe world. And it really seems real.
I was reading about the recent second-quarter earnings report for Barnes & Noble as part of my day job and I realized how much insight the company’s quarterly conference call provides in terms of current trends in the book industry, as well as which books will be are most likely to be the headline-grabbing titles over the next few months. I may do this each quarter from now on, as I think it’s an interesting proxy for what’s going on in the book industry at a given point in time.The big trend so far this year is a lack of blockbuster titles as compared to years past. From Steve Riggio, Barnes & Noble CEO, on the Q2 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):We look back at the first half of this year as one of the softest periods in recent memory for the book industry in terms of hardcover new releases. There were simply very few new hardcover books that generated media buzz or sustained sales by word-of-mouth recommendations.The lack of blockbusters is thrown into particularly stark light when compared to a year ago, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out. Overall, sales were actually down from last year.Riggio called The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards “one of the fastest-selling trade paperbacks in our history.”Barnes & Noble also looked ahead to the books that they anticipate will be big in the third quarter of this year. In fiction, Frederick Forsyth, Anna Quinlan, Robert Harris, David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich, and Robert Parker have new books on the way. The company also singled out Mitch Albom’s For One More Day (Riggio said that Albom’s previous book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, “was the second-largest selling fiction book in our history”) and Charles Frazier’s 13 Moons, while The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld “are getting a lot of buzz.”In non-fiction, Barnes & Noble is anticipating big sales from Faith and Politics by Senator John Danforth, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich, Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice by John Ashcroft, The Confession by James McGreevey and Inside Bush’s White House, the Second Term by Bob Woodward “continuing his take on the Bush administration and the war.” Riggio also called John Grisham’s first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, “one of the most eagerly-awaited books we have seen in a very long time.”The company also highlighted several upcoming biographies and memoirs: Bob Newhart, Sandy Weil, Carly Fiorina, Ellen Burstyn and David Crosby. There’s also a “major new biography” on Andrew Carnegie and “the definitive book” on U2.Riggio said it “looks like a very strong season for cookbooks,” with the 75th edition of the Joy of Cooking, a new edition of The Bon Apetit Cookbook and new titles from Paula Dean, Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse and the Barefoot Contessa.