The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia

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A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Minkel

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My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not.

My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically.

At some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic.

Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened — and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free.

The ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay.

But the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there.

And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in — and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage.

I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.”

But I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time.

As the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube — essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened — the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a “Nice tits, babydoll” kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games.

The world has changed — and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier.

In the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell’s newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will.

I decide to spend October with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works — more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon — that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all.

After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Alone Together: At Book Riot Live


Early in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller talks about what it feels like to fall in love with a book — and to want to keep it all to yourself. “Discovering Narnia felt like a breathtaking expansion of the boundaries of my world,” she writes, “yet it was also an intensely private event.” Throughout her bibliomemoir, Miller talks to dozens of other Narnia lovers, including Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen. But perhaps more importantly, she talks to the teacher who introduced her to C.S. Lewis’s fantasy series. “You were so excited you couldn’t talk about it. I tried, but you sort of clammed up,” Wilanne Belden tells her. “I knew how important it was to you, but I think you thought that if you talked about it, it would get away.”

Among all the people she interviewed for The Magician’s Book, Miller describes the few friends who remembered an eagerness to discuss and share Narnia — or Middle Earth — as exceptions to the rule. Most people described childhoods in which they selfishly guarded their most beloved books, the memories of falling into fictional worlds wrapped up with memories of deep solitude. It’s a sentiment I’ve been encountering with some regularity recently, talking to friends and colleagues and a number of authors, notably ones who write books for younger readers — people who arguably have a more acute recollection of the formative power of books at that age.

When I cast back to my own childhood, I don’t remember a burning desire to share the books I loved with other people — but I don’t remember worrying that the magic would slip away if I tried to share any of that, either. I had no trouble tumbling head-first into fictional worlds, and I would linger there, writing the sort of un-networked fanfiction that lots of children dabble in. In adolescence, I came online, and saw that millions of other people were eager to talk about books they loved (and to write networked fanfiction, the kind that I study and write about, that’s meant to be shared, texts talking to texts). I lurked for years, sitting in a paradoxical place where I felt like I was a part of an enormous conversation about my favorite books — but I never said a word.

Is reading an inherently solitary experience? For many of us, our earliest encounters with books probably weren’t solitary at all: if we were lucky, adults read to us until we were skilled enough to take matters into our own hands. If late childhood is the time of unfettered solitary reading, it’s in adolescence when we learn to read together again, critically now, in classrooms as well as outside them. If we keep reading into adulthood, our habits are mostly dictated by preference: if we choose to share the experience of a good book, it’s with a friend or two, or a book club, or 1,000 other people in an online community. Sometimes it’s the book itself that dictates how much or little to share; more often, it’s a reader’s inclination. And sometimes readers are like my paradoxical lurking self: they want to experience something very private together.

In my capacity as a fandom journalist, I’ve spent the past few years attending fan conventions of various shapes and sizes, from the bombast of San Diego Comic-Con to the organic inclusiveness of NineWorlds in London. But I love books more than most of the pop culture on display at these cons, so I prefer gatherings that have books at the heart, from YALC at London Film and Comic-Con to Book Expo America’s consumer-facing BookCon to GeekyCon, which began years back as LeakyCon, named after the Harry Potter fan hub “The Leaky Cauldron.” These events are usually a mix of author panels and signings, and the publishers come out — with books to sell — in full force. But there’s something notable about the crowds at these bookish conventions, and it’s something I’ve puzzled over: they’re mostly young, mostly female, and while you spot plenty of groups geeking out over books, you see a fair number of readers on their own — actively reading. Tucked up in the corners of convention centers, these cons are full of people skipping out on all the programming to read, a curious sort of collective solitude on display.

Last weekend I trekked to the far, far west side of Manhattan to attend the inaugural Book Riot Live. It was the first major event for Riot New Media, the group that owns the popular bookish site Book Riot, and it brought in about 50 speakers, two dozen vendors, and more than 1,100 guests over the course of the weekend. “Book Riot Live came out of our desire to get the community together in real life,” Riot New Media’s events and programming director, Jenn Northington, told me. “Making sure that [it] reflected and celebrated our community was our number one concern. It influenced everything — programming, the layout, the vendors we invited, everything…What are they interested in, which authors have we seen people get the most excited about, what topics have created the most dynamic conversations.”

It was a weekend characterized by dynamic conversations: on the various stages, there were live podcast recordings, panels on bookish topics ranging from specific craft-related challenges to issues of inclusion and diversity in publishing at large, and authors like Margaret Atwood and Laurie Halse Anderson to get the crowds riled up (they were talking about sexism and censorship, respectively). Thankfully for me, it had a far more fannish feel than, say, the programming at BEA, where panelists (in my experience, at least) often seem like they’re confused by things they’re observing rather than speaking with authority about book fandom. These panels were populated by actual fans of books — and that was reflected pretty visibly in the audience, too.

But one of the most interesting things at Book Riot Live was up front, near a set of floor to ceiling windows that offered up a great view of the tourists approaching the Intrepid, moored in the Hudson. There were a few large, circular tables, and beside them, a circle of little beanbag armchairs, all occupied by people reading silently — people sitting alone together. “I can’t remember exactly when we had this idea, but it was part of the planning from very early on!” Northington told me when I asked her about it. “I cannot tell you how many times at other conferences and conventions I’ve heard people say ‘I wish there was a Quiet Room’ or ‘I wish there was somewhere I could just go and sit and look at all these books I now have.’ We definitely all wish for that on staff! So it was a no-brainer to set up a space for it.”

Whenever I took a seat in the quiet area, at a table or squashed down on one of the beanbags, I was struck by what a thoughtful space it was. If you took out a book in any random public space, you’d have to work to block out the rest of the world. (When I forget my noise-cancelling headphones, I often feel like I’m doing battle with the rest of the world when I’m trying to read or write — especially if the book’s a drag.) At Book Riot Live, that exchange was seamless, and silently negotiated: people seemed to sense exactly who wanted to strike up a conversation with another book-loving stranger — and who just wanted to be alone with a book they loved.

Northington and her colleagues seem to have a deep understanding of the duality at play here. “We are all big-mouths about books, all the time,” she told me. “Book Riot as a site came out of the litblogger community and was originally conceived as a blogger collective, and that’s a self-selecting group. You don’t start a blog unless you’re dying to talk with other people about what you’re reading. But I can completely understand folks who just want to sit with the work. There are stories that become so intensely personal that talking about them in public can make you feel mentally naked, and very vulnerable. There have certainly been times I’ve had to process my reaction to a book for a while before I could talk to anyone about it.”

When I write about book fandom, especially for an audience that’s less broadly fannish and more broadly bookish, I often sense a tension from people who can’t imagine reading being a communal experience. For them, it isn’t. I see that same tension with every book start-up that emerges and eventually folds: so many of them have aimed to socially network the reading experiences of the types of readers who just want to be left alone with their books. What a lot of these attempts fail to acknowledge is the people who want to read communally don’t need a new app to do it. If you want to talk about books with other people, you’ll find your spaces online, ones where you get to dictate how — and how much — you share what you’re reading.

These spaces are plentiful in the digital world; perhaps in the future, they’ll be just as easy to find in the analog world as well. If digital technologies have made our private spaces more public, maybe we need more squashy beanbags to make our public spaces a little more private. Maybe we’ll regularly be able to say, “I’m going to go out — and curl up with a good book.”

Image Credit: Flickr/Erin Kelly.

The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): An Introduction

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Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.

It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.

To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.

We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.

This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle.  We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.

The List
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Panel

Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine

Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

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