Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Where I've Found Myself in Writing

Encountering a piece of good fiction, or good design, or good art of any kind, is like finding a part of yourself that's missing. You may have known it wasn't there and was supposed to be; it might complete a mechanism that was incomprehensible and incomplete, or fix one that was damaged. Or it could just be a power up for your brain.

Something that makes you more of whoever you want, or need, to be. The "List ten books that have affected you" non-meme has been circulating heavy on my Facebook wall, and I responded, but as my father-in-law hinted at with his deliberately intimidating list, anybody can list any ten books that sound impressive or enjoyable or shocking. And the question is not, what books did you enjoy the most, or what challenged you the most, or what you think will impress the people who read your list, but what changed you and stuck with you, years later.

Like most of life, the list doesn't mean anything without context. A simple fact that one of my former college professors illustrated by providing comments with her own list. Her's was brief and said just enough. I started to do the same, but as with many of my recent posts, which were intended to be blurbs facebook, I took it too seriously and said too much. But here it is. The ten books that have shaped me more than any other.

1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
This novel not only felt like it was written for me, but the subject matter and voice come the closest to what I want to write. Nerdy heteronormative white guys raised in plenty really don’t have to deal with a lot of shit relative to the rest of the world, but everybody has issues and this book (the whole trilogy really) talked about mine. Trying to do something great when it seems like all the maps have already been drawn. Overcoming selfishness and privilege to be a good person. Finding genuine meaning and satisfaction in your accomplishments. Dealing with the unexpected strife of dreams coming true. And, most importantly, striking a balance between fantasy and reality. NOTE: I wrote more on this trilogy. I am going to finish it and post it relatively soon. I promise.

2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling
I will always think of this as the best book in the series, but a big part of that may stem from when I read it. High school sucked. The rules didn’t matter, and a handful of good teachers couldn’t overcome a school in the grip of a truly evil bastard. To this day, Umbrage remains my most hated villain, and Sirius’s death hit me harder than any other in the series (except for maybe Snape). It was also the perfect fantasy. Harry, exhibiting more personality here than anywhere else in the series, realizes that this shit with Voldemort isn’t going to stop until one or both of them is in the ground and the authority figures in his life cannot be depended on (or even trusted). But instead of merely seething with contempt like I did, he leads a rebellion, rescues his mentors, and ousts the evil bitch who is poisoning his school.

3. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
This is the book my wife used to start courting me. I like to think I would have found it eventually, and it still would have earned a spot on this list, because it speaks to many interests and personal struggles. The sadistically unfair battle school, certainly reminded me of my high school but it far more accurately captured the nature of standardized testing and competing for college admissions. Card’s scenes of violence are the most arresting I’ve ever read, because they manage to capture cold logic of military strategy, without losing the blood boiling nature of schoolyard rivalry (and the hatred that can morph into). It also has an increasingly relevant message about the nature of games, simulations, and their relation to war. Paired with the referral from Grace, and the time when I read it, this book will always be one of my most prominent influences.

4. Sabriel by Garth Nix
Very hard to unpack this one. The thing I love most about Garth Nix is that he proves young adult fiction need not be pedantic or preachy, but honestly, Shade’s Children does a better job of illustrating that. Sabriel is stunning, incredibly capable and personable fantasy heroine, but at the end of the day I have to give the ultimate crown to Buffy Summers. The world is incredibly rich and compelling, though not as rich with possibilities as His Dark Material’s multiverse. Those elements alone would make for a notable novel, but together, the result is stunning. The magic system is also one of the best I’ve ever read; a mix of music and runes and powerful artifacts. Moget also proves that talking animals need not be saccharine or even benevolent.

5. The Subtle Knife
This was another referral from Grace, and it is another YA book that would captivate any adult fantasy fan as well. Initially, I found The Golden Compass more confusing than intriguing. About halfway through, I started to recognize the patterns, but it wasn’t until the second book when the promise of Pullman’s world really blossomed and stamped my fiction with the concept of the multiverse. Lyra was always amazing, but I don’t think I fully appreciated her until she was paired with Will. He was more stoic and traditional, but no less compelling. If I could snatch any one relic from any book, it would be The Subtle Knife. Pullman’s war on God and fundamentalism take a backseat to telling a good story here, but it still contains the remarkable influences of Paradise Lost.

6. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatey
This book scared me so profoundly that I put it in the freezer one night. Not outside my room. Not in a drawer. In my fucking freezer. More importantly, it fostered an intense life-long fascination with demons, nearly ruined the entire horror genre by setting impossible standards, and was the tipping point that started my shift from Christianity to agnosticism. It is also a very rare example of an occasion where seeing a movie adaptation enhanced my subsequent appreciation of the source text. My memories of Reagan’s warped face and voice were present for scenes of horror that did not make the final film cut, and the emotional and interpersonal violence of the situation were exacerbated by greater context.

7. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I am not a born re-reader. That's a serious flaw for an aspiring author or writer of anything, but it's not a thing I normally do, even if I love a book. Usually I only go back to something when writing a paper or blog, or I am trying to figure out how an author I love did something almost impossible. The Magicians, Catcher in the Rye and a few Harry Potter books are rare exceptions. But I make a point of reading a Christmas Carol every year. It is a brilliant story of redemption with a fanciful time travel twist. In many ways, Scrooge is a prototype for House and other flawed yet charming lead men; even when he is an asshole, he's fun to read. But he also becomes the better man he once was, which is an element of storytelling that has tragically fallen out of style.

8. Mythologies by Roland Barthes
The basis for my approach to criticism, tragically read at the very end of my college career. Barthes singles out the “myths” and “fictions” people employ in advertising and society and takes them to task with with wit and aplomb. It's the retroactive model for what I do here.

9. The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhanThe most important theory/philosophy book I read, introduced to me by my thesis chair, Ian Bogost. The Tetrad remains one of the most useful analytical models I ever encountered (a north star for my own thesis), while many of his other predictions, delivered as incontrovertible assertions, are hilariously inaccurate. “Hilariously” is not just an emphatic; entire passages of this book made me howl with laughter.

10. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
One of the first books without any overt fantastic elements or implausible intrigues that really resonated with me. Today that is still a very exclusive club with a bouncer possessing the mind of a judgy, contemptuous hipster, and the body of a gorilla who got Bruce Banner's gamma radiation rage. But Holden Caulfield's sweetness, straining against the most difficult and petulant period of adolescence, felt universal and timeless. That's astounding, given that Salinger's writing always drips with the period in which it was writ.

Yes, this is slightly a different list than the one that I first posted on my Facebook wall. Some stuff has been shuffled, and some has been replaced outright. I'm keeping the old list, because like I said to my friend Jon, I think what initially springs to mind matters. But this is the real deal. The books that have shaped what I do and write more than anything else. I may do this stuff in the future for other media.

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