The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition

New Price: $15.99
Used Price: $4.85

Mentioned in:

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About C.S. Lewis

- | 1

C.S. Lewis gained acclaim as a children’s author for his classic series The Chronicles of Narnia. He also gained acclaim for his popular apologetics, including such works as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. What is more, he gained acclaim as a science fiction writer for his Ransom Trilogy. Furthermore, he gained acclaim for his scholarly work in Medieval and Renaissance literature with The Allegory of Love and A Preface to Paradise Lost. Many writers have their fleeting moment of fame before their books become yesterday’s child—all the rage and then has-been. Remarkably, Lewis’s books in all of these areas have remained in print for 70, 80, and 90 years. Over the years, the print runs have grown.

Even though several movies and stage plays have told the story of Lewis, along with a handful of biographies, many people who know of his work may be surprised by the Lewis they do not know.

1. Lewis was not English. He was Irish. Because of his long association with Oxford University, and later with Cambridge, many people assume he was English. When he first went to school in England as a boy, he had a strong Irish accent. Both the students and the headmaster made fun of young Lewis, and he hated the English in turn. It would be many years before he overcame his prejudice against the English.

2. Lewis could not play team sports. Perhaps it would be better to say that he could not succeed at team sports. One of the features of human anatomy that separates us from the lower primates is the two-jointed thumb, which helped us enormously in the development of technology and civilization. Lewis and his brother Warnie had only one joint in their thumbs which left them hopeless at throwing, catching, or hitting balls. As a result of his failure on the playing field, young Lewis was subjected to ridicule and abuse from the other students at school and made to feel unworthy to draw breath.

3. Lewis was a shy man. In spite of his great skill at debate and his mastery of the platform in holding an audience of hundreds in the palm of his hand, Lewis was shy in everyday encounters with other people he did not know. His enormous publishing success came in spite of his inability to put himself forward instead of from any effort on his part to market himself.

4. Lewis gave away the royalties from his books. Though he had only a modest salary as a tutor at Magdalen College, Lewis set up a charitable trust to give away whatever money he received from his books. Having given away his royalties when he first began this practice, he was startled to learn that the government still expected him to pay taxes on the money he had earned!

5. Lewis never expected to make any money from his books. He was sure they would all be out of print by the time he died. He advised one of his innumerable correspondents that a first edition of The Screwtape Letters would not be worth anything since it would be a used book. He advised not paying more than half the original price. They now sell for over $1200.

6. Lewis was instrumental in Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings. Soon after they became friends in the 1920s, J. R. R. Tolkien began showing Lewis snatches of a massive myth he was creating about Middle Earth. When he finally began writing his “new Hobbit” that became The Lord of the Rings, he suffered from bouts of writer’s block that could last for several years at a time. Lewis provided the encouragement and the prodding that Tolkien needed to get through these dry spells.

7. Lewis had a favorite kind of story. Lewis loved Norse mythology and science fiction, but his favorite kind of story was the journey to the world’s end on a great quest to gain that most valuable prize, the great unattainable thing. He found this story as a teenager in the medieval story of the quest for the Holy Grail. It is the plot of Spenser’s The Fairie Queene and of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It would be a plot he incorporated into The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Pilgrim’s Regress.

8. Lewis earned two degrees at Oxford. Lewis had planned to have a career as a philosopher, teaching at Oxford University. When he could not get a job upon graduation, he remained at Oxford an additional year and did a second degree in English literature. He could complete the degree in only one year because he had read the books in the English syllabus for his pleasure reading when he was a teenager. In the end, he taught English literature instead of philosophy.

9. Lewis’s first book was a collection of poetry he wrote as a teenager. Before he planned to be a philosopher, the teenage Lewis hoped to become a great poet. He wrote poetry with the hope of publishing his work and gaining fame. He returned to England after being injured in France during World War I and published his collection as Spirits in Bondage under the pen name of Clive Hamilton.

10. Lewis was very athletic. Even though he hated team sports throughout his life, Lewis was addicted to vigorous exercise. He loved to take 10-, 15-, and 20-mile rapid tromps across countryside, but especially over rugged hills and mountains. He loved to ride a bicycle all over Oxfordshire. He loved to swim in cold streams and ponds. He loved to row a boat. He kept up a vigorous regimen until World War II interrupted his life with all of the new duties and obligations he accepted to do his bit for the war effort.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

One Ring to Rule All Them Slots


“The parties are pleased that they have amicably resolved this matter and look forward to working together in the future.” The estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and Warner Bros. have settled an $80 million lawsuit over the digital merchandising of products from The Lord of the Rings series, reports The New York Times. Of particular offense to Tolkein’s estate: “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Online Slot Game.” Before any of that, though, there was The Story of Kullervo.

The Art of the Chapter

- | 7

You want to know how weird and deep my rabbit hole goes? I’ve developed what I’ll call an eccentricity about chapters. As in: there are certain choices that writers make when dividing up their narratives that quite simply drive me fucking crazy. Without an ounce of justification, I get a pound of pissed. And what this makes me realize is not so much that I’ve developed strange little idiosyncratic tics while I’m reading (that much is obvious) but more that my reading experience is personal and solitary and deeply entrenched in whole loads of bullshit that have nothing to do with the books, i.e., that the completely happenstantial list of books I’ve read over my life has somehow hoisted onto me certain expectations of literature and literary narrative technique that are built upon wholly dubious foundations that belong only to me and cannot be argued with any intellectual integrity. And even though I know this to be true I still in some way hold my complaint against the writer and more specifically whatever book I’m reading at the time and sometimes even go so far as to downright dislike the book (though of course I keep my reasoning to myself, mostly).

Because the thing about chapters is that they provide a lot of opportunities for the writer to communicate information about their book and can in fact orient the reader as to how to read the thing. A more crass version of the chapter’s utility can be plainly seen in, e.g., the novels of Dan Brown, in which the chapters are so short (and the pagination designed just so in order to create as many pages with only a few lines on them as possible) that a reader is goaded into thinking they’re moving through the book super-quick. This is not authorial assistance; it is a kind of manipulation that, given the meteoric popularity of Brown’s novels and others like them, most people are apparently pretty cool with.

What I’m talking about instead are the ways in which chapters are not merely components of a narrative’s foundational architecture but also part of its aesthetic, i.e., more like those imposing Ionic columns that both hold up the facade and immensely add to the overall quality of the building. To begin with an obvious example: think of how much the Fantasy genre has benefited from borrowing the chapter structure of histories. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings––as the archetypal built-world saga––divides itself up into Books and Parts and Chapters, these last of which each come with a title. Plus there’s also the Notes, Maps and Appendices––all of which add to the verisimilitude of legit history, preparing the reader for a similar treatment of a fictional place. These verisimilitudinous appropriations are so effective for Fantasy and Sci-fi genres that they’ve become a standard part of their aesthetic.

A person who picks up Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will know right away the scope of the novel. After a short but foreboding prologue, we enter the first part of the book. Chapter One, then, is titled, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World: 1974­­–1987.” How much information about the rest of the story can be gleaned from just this chapter heading? Well, for one we can tell that Oscar’s story will take place over a number of years, which connotes a sense of the epic on par with nonfiction histories. Moreover, “GhettoNerd” effectively characterizes both the citizens that people the story and the nomenclature they use. And the appended prepositional phrase, “at the End of the World” suggests grandness of a different kind: that of comic books and adventure stories, the very same kind gobbled up by the hopelessly uncool protagonist. Also, these emphatically grand names (later chapters are titled, e.g., “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992” and “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral: 1955-1962”) help absorb some of the momentum-shock of suddenly jumping from one time and place to another, and raise this thickly-accented contemporary tale to the status of History (a notion furthered by the book’s actual preoccupation with educating readers about the horrors of Trujillo). Tolkien borrowed from History to make his fantasy world Real; Díaz used it to make his story Significant.

But there are other ways of structuring a novel to reinforce its aims and intent. Ali Smith’s There but for the sections itself into the four words of the title, and each part not only begins with the titular word but also investigates it. The unfinished sentence, “there but for the,” becomes the connective tissue of the novel, each part working like a lengthy footnote to each word. The section, e.g., “but” features a poem on the conjunction/preposition that ends:

But but?

And and?

(So simple.)


And conjuctions?

(So simple.)

The way things connect.

Ali Smith incredibly makes her book seem like a narrative investigation of a single, incomplete sentence––the ending of which is of course known to all of us and factors into the story as well.

Chapter titles can sometimes become almost like characters, as in Office Girl by Joe Meno (a writer I unabashedly enjoy and who seems forever attached to his early success with Hairstyles of the Damned despite continuing to publish interesting works like The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and The Great Perhaps). The third-person-narrative novel has these short little chapters with titles like “But Ten Years Before” and “And That Night Goes to an Art Opening” and “Because This Is What He’s Been Doing.” These casual (and causal) names add a nice rhythm to the story and are actually quite necessary tactics for the reader to understand the ways the two protagonists feel about certain things in their life.

Books like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor use numerical ordering as techniques––Haddon’s protagonist, the autistic Christopher John Francis Boone, finds safety in math, especially prime numbers, so the chapters are headlined by those indivisible numbers; Palahniuk’s 1999 novel’s chapters are in reverse sequence––starting with Chapter 47 and ending with 1––as is the pagination, thereby “counting down” to the climax in the most literal way possible. These are simple and effective touches, connecting the disparate elements of the novels into single, cohesive units. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries uses the Zodiac to reinforce the written-in-the-stars nature of her tale. Twelve main characters mirror the twelve signs, and the book’s even got twelve chapters and those are made up of smaller sections named after the precise (as I’m sure Catton researched it thoroughly) locations of the corresponding sign, as in, e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius.” Taken altogether, Catton’s chapters work to add to the tone of the work (which is an uber-complex mystery featuring mediums and séances and ghosts (of a sort)) but are way too complex for someone like me who both doesn’t buy into astrology and knows next to nothing about it. In other words, from my point of view Catton succeeded in creating a forest even though I don’t understand the trees.

And then there is, of course, the shit that bothers me: for example, Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play in which the introduction of any character to a scene calls for a new one. What is this about? It makes for frustrating reading, akin to having someone announcing the entrance of every featured player in a sitcom. There’s Jerry! And look––Kramer! Just annoying. I know my aversion isn’t intellectually justifiable (after all, the scene numbers would be invisible if I ever actually saw a production of Tartuffe) but everyone has to admit that we’ve come to expect certain things from chapters, right? But here is a great problem: my arbitrary history with reading has not only given me these unfair proclivities but it’s also somehow convinced me that everyone else agrees with me.

Take, for instance, Charles Baxter’s otherwise fine novel The Feast of Love. In the opening of the book, Charlie Baxter embarks on a late-night walk after a night of restless sleep. This chapter, entitled “Preludes,” ends when Charlie’s friend Bradley comes upon him: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” Then, the section ends. The next chapter, “One,” begins like this: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” It’s the same setting, the same scene––hell, the same fucking moment––yet Baxter inserts a division here. Why? Well, I could see someone saying that Bradley’s entrance marks a shift in the story, since it is Bradley’s stories that comprise the novel. But then Baxter does this again. Chapter One ends with Bradley launching into his tales: “Okay,” he says. “Chapter One. Every relationship has at least one really good day…” and then Chapter Two begins, “Every relationship has at least one really good day.”

I don’t know why Baxter’s creative choices in The Feast of Love annoy me so much (and, to be fair, he doesn’t do this the entire book), but I think it might have to do with the physical properties of chapters. When a narrative stops and then continues on another page, I immediately assume some passage of time has elapsed or that maybe a change in perspective has occurred––there is just something psychically affecting about having to turn a page or having larger text interrupt prose. But when the scene merely continues, I am yanked out of the story and into the mind of the writer (or, more accurately, what I perceive to be the mind of the writer). So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function? Or do I simply use my weird shit as a helpful barometer for my taste? Should I, i.e., accept that certain books cannot and will not meet my stupid expectations and move along? There are already way too many books in this world for me to read, so maybe I should simple stop wasting my time with stuff that annoys me, even if my annoyance has zero legitimacy.

Okay, a little more time. It really pisses me off when books that have multiple parts still number the chapters as if the parts weren’t there. Díaz’s Oscar Wao does this, as do a number of bigger novels. This seems to ignore the entire purpose of Parts and Books, which to me create their own internal structure, much like the way each floor of a hotel begins numbering the rooms from 01. When writers ignore this, I tend to think of the Parts and Books to be arbitrary, an unnecessary intrusion to the larger rhythm.

But all of these weird little tics are mine and mine alone. I would never actually assume anyone else agrees or even thinks about this. I only know that when I read, these factors come into major play––justifiable or not––and help determine my assessment of a work. Even if I never mention it to others, in conversation or in a review, this stuff ends up mattering to me. Art (and art criticism) is full of unfair and unsubstantiated subjectivity like this but we love to pretend that we can approach things with cool empirical impartiality. Some can, I suppose, but I sure as hell can’t. I get stuck on chapters, on character names, on setting, on my perception of the author’s intention––because to me there isn’t any one aspect of fiction that stands above everything else. Every part of a novel or a story is a choice, made by a human being, and each part is as important as the next. And then there’s me––all-too-human, full of my own idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences and unable to stop them from taking over––responding to an author’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences. It’s like any relationship, I guess: the writer has their baggage, and I have mine. All I can do is hope that more often than not I stumble upon artists whose baggage is closest to mine. Because the other option would be for me to try to change these tics––which without going into too much detail I’ll just assure you is impossible.

Image credit: Unsplash/Will Tarpey.

Infuriating, Possibly Illuminating: On ‘The List of Books’

- | 2

Feeling overwhelmed by a profound sense of inadequacy brought on by the growing list of “Before You Die” lists, I recently hunted down a book that I suspect may have started it all – one that, at least, surely inspired the authors of books like A Lifetime Reading Plan and Book Lust.

The List of Books: A library of over 3,000 works was published in 1981 by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. It’s a slim volume with an unusual page configuration — more than twice as tall as it is wide. In a scant 159 pages, Raphael and McLeish list more than 3,000 titles grouped into 44 categories, mostly non-fiction, with allowances made for drama, poetry, and novels. The intent, in their own words, was to design “an imaginary library … in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and inspiration, art and amusement.”

Back in the 1980s, I borrowed this book from the library a lot. I always meant to buy it. For whatever reason, the book never saw a third printing, so it disappeared from brick and mortar bookstores (dozens are available on Amazon for a penny) and I forgot about it. It last rolled off the press in 1988 — so long ago that one could read the “newest” titles recommended by the authors and likely not find a single reference to the Internet.

What sets The List apart from its younger cousins are the thirteen Michelin Guide-type symbols (a magnifying glass, an American flag, an armchair, etc.) that Raphael and McLeish used to flag titles as (for example) a “major masterpiece,” a “seminal work that changed our thinking,” “a particular pleasure to read,” and so on. Some are “recommended for beginners on the subject” while more advanced volumes are deemed “difficult, worth preserving.”

These symbols of literary merit are liberally scattered throughout. Many titles have none; some boast as many as half a dozen — like Plato’s Phaedo, which is: 1) a particular pleasure to read, 2) a seminal book that changed our thinking, 3) a standard work on the subject, 4) recommended for beginners in the subject, 5) a major masterpiece that is 6) not to be missed.

As a teenager, the titles that most interested me were those flagged by a magnifying glass or an asterisk, with the former denoting “difficult; worth preserving” and the latter “infuriating; possibly illuminating.” This second category was particularly exciting. I figured an “infuriating” book demanded more of a reader than one that was merely “difficult.” A book so supremely difficult that it was … infuriating! Yet, with sufficient intellectual energy brought to bear, the serious reader might crack the code and bask in the glow of illumination. Honestly, these were not books I was likely to read, but they were books I wanted to know about.

Recently, I found The List of Books at the library — the same library, in fact, where I first encountered it a quarter of a century ago, raising the delightful possibility that it was the same copy that I held in my hands so long ago. Once again, I drifted toward “difficult” and “infuriating,” curious to know how decades had colored my perceptions and whether my original interpretation was correct.

Sixty-one titles, clustered mostly in history and politics, are ranked as “infuriating.” The subjectivity of the entire enterprise became clear, and I found myself slipping into the same indignant space late 20th century critics occupied when demanded to know why this or that title was excluded from a “Best Books of the 20th Century” list. I haven’t actually read Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society, for example, but I know enough about it (and that counts for something, doesn’t it?) to know that excluding it from the list is an abomination. Questions abound. How can Peter Brooks’s 1968 treatise on dramatic theory be termed a seminal work that is both difficult and recommended for beginners? Why in the world is Ulysses not flagged as difficult?

Initially, my first hunch seemed correct. Reviewing these 61 titles, one gets the impression that Raphael and McLeish were highlighting books they believed were extremely difficult to read. Studies in Ethnomethodology, after all, can’t be a book you fly through. And the reader comments section on for Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero includes a telling remark: Writing Degree Zero is one of those 100-page books you need a 500-page book to really understand,” writes Mark Nadja. “You know you’re in trouble when, like me, you find yourself having a problem fully comprehending even the `explanatory’ preface.”

So it makes sense that Marx’s Das Capital is in the club, because — his brilliance notwithstanding — the man’s prose was frequently impregnable. But the exception to that rule complicates matters: The Communist Manifesto, a slim volume that happens to be very readable (thanks largely to the fact, one suspects, that Engels was there from the get-go to help). The Book of Lists would have you believe that it, like Capital, is also infuriating. Why?

At this point, it’s helpful to recall that the root of “infuriate” is fury, which begs the question: Do the bourgeoisie authors consider Marx, regardless of the difficulty of his prose, infuriating because he enraged their mid-19th century cousins? How could anyone have been infuriated by Capital, when few people likely even understood what the hell he was talking about?

The implication here seems to be that “infuriating” means “controversial.” It makes sense, then, to include Richard Aldington’s scandalous biography, Lawrence of Arabia — one so hostile toward its subject that one Amazon reviewer has said reading it is “like standing under a waterfall of venom.” But if Aldington gets to be infuriating for throwing darts at T.E. Lawrence, why does Jerzy Kosinski get a pass for screwing around with the Holocaust? His controversial 1965 novel The Painted Bird appears in the list, but it didn’t make the “infuriating” cut. Curious, since many readers were infuriated to learn that Kosinski may not even have written it.

“Infuriating” clearly works both ways. I cannot believe, for example, that Robert Graves retelling of The Greek Myths is infuriating for any of the same reasons that Jean Paul-Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is. I haven’t read the latter, but I’ll bet it’s a sonofabitch to get through.

Consider William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (which doesn’t appear in the list), the book Allen Ginsberg famously predicted would “drive everybody mad.” An obvious reference to the fact that the novel is incomprehensible. Naked Lunch is a notoriously difficult text – one might say infuriatingly so. I actually have read it, but it didn’t make me angry. I can understand, however, why June and Ward Cleaver would have been appalled if they’d found a dog-eared copy and a flashlight stuffed under Beaver’s pillow.

It seems to me that if we’re considering a book’s capacity to illicit genuine fury, it cannot merely ruffle feathers within a community of specialists. Sigfried Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition is deemed “infuriating,” but who, other than architects, becomes infuriated by a 960-page book about architecture? This seems insufficient. In my lifetime, the publication of a book that infuriates the general population has been a rare event. The Satanic Verses comes to mind, although that presents a different problem: The vast majority of those angered by Salman Rushdie’s book never actually read it.

Isn’t that the case, really, with most “infuriating” books? How many people actually finished (or even started) American Psycho? I’m no different when it comes to judging books by the covers. While perusing the history shelf at a bookstore recently, I saw a book called Being George Washington, by Glenn Beck, and immediately felt a sensation that approximated fury. The history shelf! A low-grade fury, to be sure; it wasn’t what I’d feel if someone harmed my child. But having observed the Beck phenomenon closely over the years, I feel justified saying that the man has no more business writing authoritatively and insightfully about George Washington than I do writing a book called Space, Time and Architecture. And yet, I never picked it up; its very existence enrages me.

But I’m neglecting the rest of the phrase denoted by an asterisk: These books are not only infuriating, but “possibly illuminating.” What does that mean? Possibly illuminating? The author may sound like he’s on crack, but we concede he may be on to something! Or: If you’re not a complete imbecile, you may learn something by reading this book.

This is a minor matter, to be sure. One reader’s “infuriating” is another’s “exhilarating.” The bigger problem with The List of Books, of course, is that it’s horribly outdated. It has a science and technology section devoid of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayer, David Quammen, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould or even Carl Sagan. A current “paranormal and occult” section without Whitley Strieber’s Communion books is like a list of best fantasy novels that excludes The Lord of the Rings. Speaking of fantasy, a similar problem looms over in children’s literature: No Harry Potter. Also, since 1981, graphic novels have evolved light years beyond the cheap paper they were once printed on. Consequently, those relying on The List of Books to decide which titles to scrape together in anticipation of the Zombie Apocalypse would remain oblivious to the work of Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, and Craig Thompson. Not to mention The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Which might come in handy.

Three decades on, The List of Books highlights better than its many predecessors the ephemeral quality of all lists of books and other artistic works. It’s a simple – and perhaps even instinctive – matter to argue about or even dismiss a list of the “best” (although perhaps not “favorite”) books because of this or that inclusion/exclusion. What, after all, is wrong with debate? Ultimately, the lesson we ought to take from Raphael and McLeish is the importance of embracing our Amazon- and Goodreads- and Riffle-fed obsession with listography. The sheer number and availability of our book lists may be infuriating, but they are often a pleasure to read. And even possibly illuminating.

Just Another Mason


In general, we think of translators as people whose job, briefly summarized, is to create elegant texts out of works in foreign languages. But J.R.R. Tolkien, in his translation of Beowulf, set out to do something different. The Lord of the Rings author published a translation that he kept intentionally clunky. Why? In his telling, he did it to better imitate Old English.

Take Your Vitamins

- | 1

Did Gollum have a vitamin D deficiency? In the Medical Journal of Australia, Joseph A. Hopkinson and Nicholas S. Hopkinson posit that the Lord of the Rings saga could’ve been prevented had the inhabitants of Middle Earth just gotten a little more sunlight. “Systematic textual analysis of The Hobbit supports our initial hypothesis that the triumph of good over evil may be assisted to some extent by the poor diet and lack of sunlight experienced by the evil characters.”

Politics, Art, and the Practice of Writing: A Conversation with Orson Scott Card

- | 37

Who is Orson Scott Card? Until recently most people knew him as the author of Ender’s Game, a beloved modern science fiction classic. Prolific and highly decorated, Card has written in nearly every genre, from video game scripts to comic books to movie novelizations. Of late, however, Card’s opposition to gay marriage has led to widespread media excoriation and intense scrutiny of his politics, revisiting issues that have dogged him in the past.

In an effort to nuance current coverage of Card, I chose to ask him questions about writing and his identity as a writer. He provided detailed answers by e-mail — what follows is an edited version of his replies.

(My own discussion of the gay marriage controversy is here.)

1. The practice of writing

The Millions: What does your workspace look like?

Orson Scott Card: I’m in an attic room, with walls that quickly turn into slanting ceiling. Very little room for art on the walls, but books completely lining the walls up to where the ceiling starts. These are my research books — history, daily life, archeology, language, reference works. A few old things that I never use but haven’t had time to purge — old software disks that no machine could read now, outdated almanacs.

My desk is against the north gable. From my window I can see the top of the neighbor’s house, the tops of trees, the sky. Nothing too distracting. Doesn’t matter — the computers have plenty of distractions. Both the desktop in front of me and the laptop on a table behind me have constantly changing wallpaper that cycles through thousands of images I’ve collected over the years. My private art gallery.

All around me are stacked CDs I mean to rip one of these days, to join the thousands of MP3s already on my computer. (My first hard drive had ten megabytes — if MP3s had existed then, my computer would have held exactly two songs, plus the software to play them.) Art books and magazines I mean to scan. Old bits of hardware. Books I intend to review. And notes about things I need to do Right Now (some of them two or three years old). Chaos. But I can get to the keyboard, the mouse, the screen. I can work.

TM: What are the main problems with creative writing education today? How do you address those problems at your writing “boot camp”?

OSC: Such a long, long list. Pre-college creative writing seems to be a sort of group therapy — gush out your feelings and nobody can criticize them because you’re being “creative.” Nobody teaches you the bones of the language. Nobody teaches you forms. Imagine trying to learn to play violin if no one taught you pitch and fingering, if you never practiced. But that’s what we do to children.

Then they get to college, where the ones whose native language abilities survived the uselessness of primary and secondary education begin to think they might become writers. Then they become the captives of the elitists, who teach them to write in such a way that their work can only have meaning to those who do not so much read as decode. Their symbols are obvious because they’re the only thing going on. They “shock” their readers — but only if their readers are still living in 1915. They learn to be “experimental” in exactly the way the Modernists were experimental. They are all style, no substance; all code, no message. I hear them doing their readings and it makes me sad, because some of them really are talented, but if they ever get an audience, it will be because they did not follow what they were taught by their writing teachers.

Specifics? First person present tense — a convention that makes sense in French, which hates its preterite, but none in English, where our real present is present progressive: Not “I pick up the envelope from the table” but “I am picking up the envelope from the table.” Who could bear to read a story, let alone a novel, in the true present tense of natural spoken English? So we get stories written in this artificial, impossible voice. The voice we use for jokes and anecdotes — “A guy walks into a bar, see” — but not the voice we use for truth — “No, he really did.” As soon as we want to be believed, we move to the past tense. But our most pretentious fiction is in the language of jokes.

Regular readers generally know they’re being excluded when present tense is used for narrative. It’s a shibboleth for the overeducated, the true believers.

The sad thing is that because young readers don’t yet recognize the shibboleths, overtaught but underskilled writers of YA fiction often get away with first person present tense. It worked for Hunger Games because the story was so powerful; but the choice hampered the sequels. It’s simply not a natural narrative choice in English; most writers confess that they are faking it because they use pluperfect for the narrative past when the past of present-tense narrative is the simple preterite or present perfect.

TM: In your How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy you talk at length about the “wise reader.” In brief: What characterizes the wise reader and how can writers find one to critique their work?

OSC: I warn my writing students not to submit their work to English majors, who are likely to be true believers in the anti-communication school of literature, unless they plan to do the opposite of whatever such readers suggest. Nor should they keep showing their work to the same writing group — after a year, you’ve learned everything they have to teach you, and you have nothing of value left to offer them.

Most such critiquers are like doctors who walk into the patient’s room, and without asking a question, glance at the sufferer and prescribe something in Latin and then move on.

The wise reader, on the other hand, prescribes nothing — ever. The wise reader merely reports to the writer on the experience of reading, which boils down to three questions: So what? Oh yeah? Huh?

When the wise reader catches her mind wandering, thinking about something else, she puts a line in the margin at the point in the text where she noticed she was thinking of something else. It means she lost interest — so what?

When the wise reader finds herself doubting — oh, would he really do that? — then she puts another mark in the margin. It means she cannot suspend her disbelief at this point — oh yeah?

When the wise reader finds herself confused, having to read a paragraph again, or look back through the text to see how she missed some fact now taken for granted (when did that happen?), then there is a flaw in clarity of narrative. Huh?

These boil down to belief, concern, and clarity — or, to help readers of the Pauline epistles remember it, faith, hope, and clarity. And the greatest of these, as Paul said, is clarity.

The wise reader then points out these marginal marks to the writer and says, Here I didn’t believe; there I was confused; in this spot I found I was thinking of grocery shopping. It is the writer’s job to figure out what in the text caused these poor responses, and then to figure out how to fix the problems. Foolish writers argue with the wise reader, pointing out how it’s perfectly clear, or this really happened once so it’s definitely believable, or how can you not care! Such writers don’t deserve a wise reader. The good writer thanks the wise reader and then reinvents the story so belief and concern are not lost, and edits the language so that the narrative is perfectly clear and never, never, never confusing.

2. The meaning of your work

TM: Some readers have understood the Ender saga and the Homecoming saga as “feminist.” Would you agree with that characterization?

OSC: As the child of a working mother, I thought of myself as feminist until the word took on a narrow political meaning that bore no relation to the reality of the human species. I have no program of “feminism,” though I do treat my female and male characters as equally human and equally interesting.

TM: In Xenocide, the godspoken on Path are actually victims of government genetic modification meant to control them. When I was young, I read this as a powerful critique of the origins of religious belief. Was that your intention? Are doubt and self-reflective questioning an important part of faith?

OSC: No one has any answers until they’ve asked the questions. No one knows anything until they have taken into account their own needs and drives and hungers, and those of the culture around them. What people often miss in Xenocide is that the young heroine responds to the drives built into her genes in order to control her by becoming obsessively and perfectly obedient to them. Not everyone responds that way. Even when we are genetically modified (and we all are; it simply is nature rather than government that usually does the modifying), our self is distinguished by what we choose to do about our drives and impulses, our weaknesses and strengths.

There is no human being without religion. I am amused by those who consider themselves post-religious, who sneer at religions or religious people. All they are really saying is, “What you believe is ‘religion’; what I believe is truth.” This is the way all fanatics think. And see how they behave, trying to silence those who don’t share their unbelief! We live in an age of inquisitions and puritanism, and the inquisitors and puritans all believe themselves to be “above” religion even as they try to enforce their ignorant faith using the power of the state.

All knowledge that we believe so firmly that we act upon it is faith, and almost none of it is based on our personal experience. We believe what others have told us, and consider “sane” those who agree with the people we agree with. I have watched with amusement, then sadness, as “education” has become indoctrination; as students are taught that conformity to a set of received ideas is the same as being “smart,” and nonconformity is “stupidity.” Yet it is those who receive these “smart” ideas without question who are most stupid. This kind of stupidity is common in religious communities; it is equally common in universities. So many idiotic ideas are believed without question — and without evidence — while anyone who questions them is ridiculed, their arguments answered with character assassination.

So yes, Xenocide is a critique of unquestioning faith — but not of “religion” as it is normally spoken of. Since “religion” is an artifact of all human communities, and there are no human beings without it, I am no more anti-religious than I am anti-oxygen. I only suggest that perhaps we will do better if we earn our beliefs by rigorous examination of our beliefs and a constant process of holding our belief in abeyance, acting on that which we believe to be true, but always ready to change our minds when better information is available.

TM: You have written that “good artists do their best to sustain that which is good though their art, and call for the correction of that which is destructive of happiness.” Can you give examples of how your work tries to accomplish that mission?

OSC: I don’t consciously attempt to do any such thing. I’m not prescribing in that statement, I’m merely describing. Without any conscious thought at all, artists select the subject and the medium, the matter and the manner of their art. The very choices they make declare what they value and believe to be important. Artists are at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art (they’re always free to write essays to make their case); the conscious statements are as obvious and empty and ineffective as “Rosebud,” while the unconscious statements are powerful because they are rarely noticed by the audience even as they have their effects.

Every work of art is an attempt to create a community; any artist who claims to create only for himself is a liar, unless he never showed his work to another soul. Every work of art is mostly a reflection of the artist’s culture, unconsciously passed along because the artist has never thought the world could work any other way; yet every work of art, even the most conformist, is still different from any other’s work, and so it challenges the status quo to some degree, however minuscule.

I love to work in science fiction and fantasy because we deliberately rewrite the rules of reality. Sadly, of course, even in our field we tend to converge on consensus realities, as Bruce Sterling once pointed out before he himself joined a new consensus reality. So even we keep searching for new writers to re-envision the world around our characters. Yet even in the most relentlessly conformist of the just-like-every-other-post-modernist fiction, there are glimmers of individuality — even creative writing programs can’t stamp out every vestige of it, try as they might. Whether you are openly reinventing reality, you reinvent it; whether you are deliberately championing certain cultural values, you champion at least the ones you have not yet thought to question.

I have learned to trust my unconscious mind. In my many years at this trade, I have had a chance to see what many readers have found in all my stories, and I am sometimes astonished at the personal and cultural meanings they found in them. Yet I cannot, and would not wish to, challenge their readings as long as they conform to the text

3. Art and society

TM: Last year Christopher Tolkien decried the commercialization of his father’s work, saying that it has “reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” You are a fan (albeit with some misgivings) of Peter Jackson’s films. Do you think commercialization can have a negative impact on art? Do you fear it with your own work?

OSC: Commercialization does not erase one word of the original work. Lord of the Rings is still available in its entirety — and with wonderful commentaries by superb scholars like Tom Shippey. All adaptations and translations will leave out or overemphasize things in ways that others will resent or regret; this is true when you translate LOTR into German or Japanese, just as when you translate it into film. I once adapted LOTR (with permission) into a public reading script, three hours per volume, and performed it once at NorWesCon in Seattle and again at MythCon at Pepperdine University. Perforce I left out things that others loved; I left in things that Peter Jackson left out of the movie. I think all my choices were right and where he differed with me, he was wrong. But his movie got made and showed us many wonderful things, even though he also added several foolish things and left out what I think of as the heart of the movie. He obviously considers my view wrong.

So what? The book is still there. Let’s remember that most people don’t read books. So the commercialization brings a translation of the story to an audience that would otherwise never receive it. Some of them will go on to read the book, which they might not otherwise have done. Most will not. But in our culture, though film is the highest-prestige medium (“That story was so good they oughta make it a movie!”), the text of the novel has the highest authority. Where the two disagree, nobody will ever say that the film shows what really happened; that will only be said of the book.

All readings, all viewing, all hearings of art are edited by the listener anyway. No two members of the audience receive or remember the same work. Yet with repetition we converge on the most authoritative source, which should be, and usually is, the original. Christopher Tolkien has nothing to fear. Commercialization is a symptom of success; it does not harm anyone’s ability to receive the original.

For that matter, even the written text of LOTR is an inferior way to receive it, because readers almost invariably skim over the songs and poems which were so important to Tolkien and which show so much of his mastery of language and cultures. So for me, the supreme way of receiving LOTR is the audiobook. It gives you every word of every song and poem, right along; you cannot easily skip it. It is the most complete way to experience Tolkien’s original. Yet one might also think of the audiobook as part of the commercialization of LOTR.

Ender’s Game is an unfilmable book. Yet it is being filmed. All such translations are inadequate. But the film, if it is a good film, and regardless of its degree of faithfulness to the book, will bring new readers to the book; they will then discover the authoritative version of the story. Some will prefer the movie. So what? That group would never have read the book without having seen the movie, so Ender’s Game will have lost no part of its natural audience.

Decrying the commercialization of a successful work of art is like famous actors complaining about the annoyances of fame. The annoyances are real enough, but they are also a symptom of success. Which would you rather have? Less annoyance and less success? Or the greater success with the greater annoyance?

TM: You’ve long been interested in video games and have even written for some. Recently you expressed frustration with the unreflective and poorly researched blaming of violent video games for social ills. Is there any kind of art you do think is dangerous?

OSC: All art both affirms and critiques the artist’s culture and community, whether she intends either outcome or not. Art that negates the strengths of a good community is bad; but art that negates the strengths of a bad community would be good. It gets very complicated, and few people are able to agree on the goodness or badness of any long list of attributes of a culture, or their relative weight. We might say, yes, this that you attack is bad, but not as bad as that, which you do not mention. As if every artist should observe the same things, and share the same values!

Yet that is precisely what many people insist on. They are sure that art they do not like causes harm, while art they enjoy is harmless. They are always partly wrong and partly right. But which part, and to what degree?

We promote freedom of speech and expression precisely so that we can openly disagree about what our culture should be and should value. We vote by admitting certain works to our memory and insisting that our friends also read, listen to, or look at it. Works that are beloved by many have a proportionate effect on the culture; works that are loved by fewer, but with greater intensity, may have an equal or greater effect. It is impossible to measure.

A work may indeed be dangerous, but the counter is not often to censor it, it is to offer an alternative. Yet puritans of one stripe or another invariably insist on censorship. Just as the Puritans of Political Correctness ban any speech by their opponents on most American university campuses merely because they do not agree with them, so also the Puritans of anti-violence would ban videogames merely because they do not enjoy them.

In fact we have actual data about the effects of videogames; even the most harmful are relatively harmless, in terms of any direct cause and effect on real-world violence. Pornography, on the other hand, has been proven to be a rehearsal for real-world acting-out of the scripts thus depicted. Yet the very people who would ban videogames are often the ones most insistent on protecting the freedom of pornographers. Research makes no difference to them; actual facts rarely influence people’s visceral decisions.

My problem is that I understand the arguments for and against censorship. There are things that I believe damage society — pornography among them — but I’m not absolutely sure that I’m right, or that a ban, if once instituted, would be limited to what I would call “pornography.” Once we admit censorship, the definition of the thing censored will always be expanded to include unintended objects.

It is best, in a free society, if one view never absolutely prevails. In a perpetual struggle between freedom and protection, and between this and that set of values, we have our best likelihood of achieving reasonable balances. Alas that we live in a time when no group can stay in business while accepting reasonable balances. You only get donations for extreme positions.

We’d be better off if, instead of banning censorship, we constantly argued about the definitions of what is or is not censorable, with the boundary constantly shifting back and forth. It is when the boundary is moved all the way to one extreme and stays there that we are endangered.

But that is only my opinion. I might be wrong. So even in my absolutely correct moderation I am not sure that I ought to prevail…

TM: According to your website, our society is becoming less free in matters of speech, press, and religion. You also say “art which is destructive of the values of a decent society is deserving of no special privilege or protection.” Should a society interested in free speech also protect art that it considers destructive?

OSC: It’s in the definition of a “decent society” that the monster hides.

That said, I think it’s more than slightly ridiculous to put “art” on a pedestal as if it existed above the realm of ordinary commerce and conversation. Freedom of the press and of speech and of belief are vital to a free society, for political reasons. But art?

What makes the whole argument ludicrous is that the very people who would protect works that some consider obscene, are perfectly happy to ban works that they consider to be racist. Everybody seems to accept censorship — they just disagree about the list of people-never-to-be-offended. Most people who champion the use of “fuck” would crucify you for saying “nigger” — they are no more in favor of “free speech” than those who believe the reverse, or who would ban both. And those who would ban neither invariably have their own private list of forbidden words. If we did not have such a list locked away in our brains, how would Tourette’s Syndrome even be possible?

Where I find the whole argument becomes offensive is when artists demand public funding for work that is deliberately offensive to taxpayers. Take your artistic freedom as you can — but pay for it yourself. When you expect the public to pay for it with money taken by threat of force, you are demanding that your art become a sort of established religion; and to oppose public funding for your art is not censorship; it is not even like censorship. When you take money from a sponsor, you surrender your freedom; if you want the freedom to be offensive, don’t dip into the pockets of unwilling people who are not free to resist your taking.

A Play is a World: Conservative PC, Liberal PC, and Taking Art Seriously

- | 1

It’s a commonplace that beautiful art can, and often does, come from ugly souls: Caravaggio knifing a man in a Roman alley; Wagner writing Jew-hating tracts alongside his operas; Schopenhauer pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs. But what about the reverse? What about the hypocrisy of living well?

That’s the charge leveled earlier this spring, on a conservative National Review blog, against the Nobel-winning British playwright Harold Pinter—and I want to dwell on that criticism because, as ridiculous as it seems on its face, I think it can lead us in a roundabout way to a better understanding of what it means to take art seriously.

In her National Review piece, Carol Iannone cites an article about the late writer’s remarkably loving relationship with his wife—evidently three decades of not going to bed angry—and contrasts it with the much bleaker world Pinter painted in his plays during those years: “While Pinter was enjoying his high-level marriage of refined intellectual equals in the British upper class, he was inflicting on his servile public a dark vision of obscure miseries, casual cruelties, inarticulate vulgarity, strangled miscommunications, and menacing silences in sordid rooming houses.”

I’m no expert on Pinter, so for the moment I just want to take that harsh characterization of his work, fair or not, as a given. What interests me is the way Iannone goes on to justify it: “We shouldn’t imbibe the bleak visions of many modernist works (especially by left-wing writers), visions based not on life but on willed projections of darkness and despair.” There are a lot of assumptions here that go completely unjustified: that we should be “especially” wary of left-wing writers; that writing has to be “based on life” in some unspecified way in order to succeed. But the basic claim is this: we wouldn’t want to spend any time at all in the world of Pinter’s plays, we wouldn’t want to willingly take on that amount of darkness, when we could spend time somewhere brighter. And the fact that somewhere brighter exists is proven by the writer’s own life.

We might call that view conservative PC. And my first reaction was to dismiss it out of hand: “What’s wrong with a play about despair? Even if a play is nothing but cruelty and vulgarity, a play isn’t a world. I can spend an hour or two with something depressing and despairing, because I also know that there’s plenty of uplifting art for when I feel like being uplifted. The fact that the writer lived a good life—the fact that I can live a good life—is actually a point in favor of bleak, dark plays. I can watch them secure with the fact that that’s not all there is.”

What struck me about my reaction, however, was just how much it had in common with the defense against artistic PC from the other side. How often have we seen a movie or a TV show criticized for, say, a negative or stereotypical portrayal of women? And how often have we heard an instant response like this? “This movie (or show or book) isn’t portraying women—it’s portraying individual characters. You may not like them, but it’s unfair to make them carry the weight of an entire worldview about women, or about anything else. A movie isn’t a world.”

The argument here isn’t simply one over politics, over liberal elites or gender roles; the argument is between two different ways of reading. One is a sort of deliberate tunnel-vision: it asks us to fully inhabit a work, to treat if for the time we’re there as a self-contained world. The other view places a much lighter burden on artists: it tells us in the audience that it’s fine to watch with one eye, and to keep the other eye on the “real world”; and when we can remind ourselves that there’s always a world outside of what we’re watching, the artist’s choices carry a good deal less weight. What the second view is really promising us is art without responsibility—or at least with much less responsibility. That’s exactly why it’s so instinctively appealing. But, by stopping us from becoming fully involved with what we’re reading, watching, or hearing, it also carries a high cost—one I’m not convinced is worth paying.

The term world-building, when we use it at all, is usually reserved for thick, Tolkeinesque fantasy books: world-building means inventing imaginary continents with their own geographies and landmarks and kingdoms. I’d argue, though, that all art is engaged in world-building—and that it can be accomplished as successfully in 14 lines as in 500 pages. Here, for instance, is a world without spring:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

That’s Shakespeare’s Fifth Sonnet. The claim is that time will destroy the beauty of the poem’s subject, just as winter strips the leaves from trees, and the only defense is to bottle up and save “summer’s distillation”—in this case, as it turns out, by conceiving an heir. The sonnet’s urgency comes from the fact that it ends in winter: it is a world where spring, regeneration, and rebirth are all impossible. In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the great critic Helen Vendler explains the poem’s power, and why it’s dependent on this cold ending:

In both quatrains, no possibility is envisaged other than a destructive slope ending in confounding catastrophe. Since Nature is being used as a figure for human life (which is not reborn), the poem exhibits no upward slope in seasonal change. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that nothing can be said to happen in a poem which is not there suggested. If summer is confounded in hideous winter, one is not permitted to add, irrelevantly, “But can spring be far behind?” If the poet had wanted to provoke such an extrapolation, he would by some means have suggested it.

Even though Vendler talks about what we are and are not “permitted” to see in a poem, this kind of reading is much more than an artificial convention or an English professor’s trick. It’s the kind of reading that is compelled by great world-building—by art that is so convincing or so powerful that we barely stop to think that it’s artificial. Just as one can make it through The Lord of the Rings without seriously reflecting that there are no such things as elves, one can make it through this sonnet without seriously reflecting that there is no such thing as a world that ends in winter.

Just as importantly, the kind of blinkered reading that Vendler argues for is our contribution to making a poem or a book or a film “work,” a contribution that is easier the more compelling the work we’re dealing with. If we read through the Fifth Sonnet constantly reminding ourselves of the artificiality of its world—repeating to ourselves at the end of every line, “of course spring comes after winter”—the experience of reading it starts to fade. Without immersion in its world, we can still admire the rhymes and meter and metaphors from a distance, but we are also shut out from them. The poem loses whatever power it had over our emotions; it stops to “work” in the same way. This immersion, or tunnel-vision, is really just a kind of suspension of disbelief, maybe the most fundamental kind. Just as it’s hard to fully experience Hamlet without temporarily believing in ghosts, it’s hard to fully experience this sonnet without disbelieving in spring. It’s hard to fully experience any work without, at least temporarily, treating it as a world.

From that perspective, we can’t mentally protect ourselves from a uniformly bleak play by recalling that there are other, happier plays or other, happier possibilities for our own lives; the point of the play, if it works as theater, is to ask: “What if the world were like this?” Or take a TV series like The Wire, which paints the failure and breakdown of public institutions from police to schools to unions. To treat the series as a world is to understand that it’s passing a judgment not just on Baltimore, the city in which it’s set, but on cities and institutions in general, along with the men and women who run them. We can’t shield ourselves from those conclusions by remembering that there is, say, a well-run town somewhere in Scandinavia.

Or rather, we can—but only at the price of trivializing what we’re watching, reducing it to a forgettable entertainment. In fact, it’s those of us who put the greatest responsibility on art who are most willing to take seriously its power over us: to shape the way we see the world, and the way we act in it. It’s not surprising that the godfather of this view—Plato, who famously called poetry morally corrupting—was one of the most gifted writers who ever lived, as well as (by some accounts) a former poet himself: in other words, a man who knew the power of literature so directly that he came to fear it, arguably too much.

Taking a strong view of artistic responsibility doesn’t tell us what that responsibility has to look like. It doesn’t compel us, like Plato, to expel poets from the city. It doesn’t mandate that all of our art be uplifting. It doesn’t tell us where to draw the line between the kind of bleakness that’s bracing and the kind that’s just degrading. It doesn’t commit us to a view of the gender roles we want our movies and TV shows to embody. It doesn’t commit us to a particular ideology at all. It is the beginning of those arguments, not the end of them. It simply tells us that we can’t sidestep those arguments by protesting that it’s just a play, just a movie, just a book, just one entertainment among many.

Or rather, we can—but in the process, we also admit that those plays, movies, and books can’t really move us, at least not enough to care about the way in which they’re moving us. And to admit that is to flatten the distinction between those entertainments that really are forgettable, and the art that, with our cooperation, successfully creates worlds. The more compelling the world, the greater the obligation that it be one worth living in.

(Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy (now with h-alpha) from astroporn’s photostream)

A Scarred World: George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones

- | 6

“I sit on the damn iron seat when I must. Does that mean I don’t have the same hungers as other men? A bit of wine now and again, a girl squealing in bed, the feel of a horse between my legs? Seven hells, Ned, I want to hit someone.”

Compare that to anything you’ve heard Aragorn say, and you’ve arrived at the salient difference between George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien, even while the frequent comparison of the two remains apt.

Aragorn, of course, is the true-born king in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who spends the trilogy fighting to claim his throne while being handsome and eloquent. The above was said by Robert Baratheon, king of the seven kingdoms in A Game of Thrones. He’s fat, drunk, and far too easily bored to be an effective ruler. The comparison isn’t quite fair, though, because Martin never makes the claim that Robert was destined to be king, or that anybody is destined to be king.

That’s just the thing with Martin. He’s created a fantasy world – warring families, usurped thrones, dark magic, heroic creatures – but hasn’t peopled it with fantasy characters. Yes, there are noble characters and yes, there are villains, but there isn’t a good army and a bad army. Although there are epic landscapes, close-knit brotherhoods, and a reverent relationship with weaponry, there is no one hero and no central quest. The particular gift of George R.R. Martin is that he’s adept at both the epic trappings and the gritty details.

Within the first 50 pages, we are introduced to the book’s four main families – the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Targaryens. Put as simply as possible, the Targaryens had long held the throne of the seven kingdoms, until Robert Baratheon seized it, with the help of his wife’s father and brother – the Lannisters, who betrayed and killed the former king – and his lifelong friend Eddard “Ned” Stark. Years later, the last remaining Targaryens – adolescent brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys – are in exile, planning to take back their family’s throne, which Robert Baratheon lazily holds, under the contemptful watch of his Lannister wife and brothers-in-law. When Robert’s closest adviser dies, he travels with his household to Winterfell, the isolated northern home of the Stark family, to ask Ned to take the position.

For a spell, almost all of the principal characters are at Winterfell – Ned Stark and his wife and six children, Robert, his wife Cersei Lannister, their three insufferable children, and her two brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. What a tangled, tangled web. Old grudges, new grudges, old secrets, new alliances, and more than one drunken revelation reverbate around the halls of Winterfell, just until you’ve got a feel for everyone, and then they all split up. (Even the Targaryens, off in exile, pack up and start moving.) For the rest of the novel, the cast is always on the move, traversing the vast geography of Martin’s world.

I was a Russian major in college, so I can’t read a 500+ page book without Isaiah Berlin whispering in my ear. Berlin was the author of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay based on an ancient Greek adage: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin divides writers into these two categories. Hedgehogs view the world as a stage for a single, encompassing logic (power corrupts, love conquers all, that kind of thing). Foxes are more fascinated by the infinite variety of the human condition. In Berlin’s signature comparison, Dostoevsky is a hedgehog, and Tolstoy is a fox.

The fantasy genre, although I admit I’m not its most versed reader, is full of hedgehogs. Godfather Tolkien, certainly, is pure hedgehog. What I find most fascinating about Martin is that he’s a fox in a hedgehog genre. While his world looks like fantasy (bastards! dwarves! whores! knights!), and the action revolves around the question of the seven kingdoms’ throne (Will Robert keep it? Are the Lannisters plotting for it? Will the Targaryens reclaim it?), the focus is on the clashing relationships and motivations of the people involved in the struggle.

Eddard, for example, leaves his home to serve the king, whom he’s lost faith in. He has to work closely with the king’s council, who he fears are in league with the Lannisters. He has to protect his two daughters, who he’s brought with him, and trust in his eldest son Robb, still a teenager, whom he left in charge of Winterfell. His wife Catelyn is traveling around on a secret reconnaissance mission, which is a whole other thing. Each character’s path through the novel is equally hard to navigate, I can’t think of one who doesn’t fundamentally distrust a number of the people around them.

Destiny and heroics have little purchase in this murky world. No one is the people’s champion. In fact, the salt of earth rarely show up except to mug rich people while they travel. The conflict is confined to the elite of the seven kingdoms, squabbling over a throne, and no side can claim a right to it.

That’s not to say that you won’t take sides. The Starks are the crowd pleasers. They enter the game of thrones reluctantly – always a sign of moral fortitude – and Eddard is honorable to a fault (for which he is endlessly reproached, to reiterate that such nobility has no place in Martin’s universe). The Stark children, in the book’s coolest whim, each have a pet wolf that follows them everywhere, can sense their moods and when they’re in danger.

In the HBO series based on the book, the Starks are the heroes. When we meet them in the first episode, they’re wearing dark, dignified clothes and standing up straight, while the Lannisters wear pastels and lean on anything in sight. The Starks deliver their lines in earnest, the Lannisters in sarcasm. But for all that, the Starks have their ugly moments, and the Lannisters are sometimes kind. The series, as it has thus far, will do well not to ignore those nuances in favor of narrative.

My favorite moment of the series so far is a scene in which a midnight courier’s message forces Eddard and Catelyn out of bed. As Sean Bean, who plays Eddard, stands by the fire, his night shirt drapes open, revealing a wide swath of pectorals covered in scars. Really awesome scars. It’s a powerful visual, and one that conveys, in a heartbeat, the lives of these men. The men of Game of Thrones are rich, powerful lords, knights, and kings who rule over vast lands and kingdoms, and they’ve all had their asses kicked numerous times. Their lives are expansive, and extremlely hard.

“The things we love destroy us every time, lad,” says Tyrion Lannister, early in the book.  And truly, if Martin were a hedgehog, I would say Game of Thrones is about the things we let destroy us. Sometimes those things are plotters, usurpers, or vengeance. Sometimes those things are misplaced trust or foolish love. It’s complicated.

The Best Books… Squared

- | 1

You may have heard of Google Squared. It’s a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, “extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format.” Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world’s knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be – definitively – the “best books” and “best novels” ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity’s RainbowBest Novels:Gravity’s RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)

Surprise Me!