On reading, books, and First Hills (Part I)

bookcover

THIS IMAGE IS THE COVER to The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett’s final work and one that still lies far Hubwards of our current position in this project. Anne and I won’t get to it for a long time. Even without reading it, however, I can tell a great deal about The Shepherd’s Crown from this cover—or at least about what the book will mean for me. Something delicate, something small, a bittersweet gift and final farewell to a man who lived well. This cover is my first contact with the language and the heart of the book therein.

We have been silent on this blog for a while—call it a casualty of the switch from our previous host to WordPress—so this post is something for those of you who’ve been wandering the cold hinterlands near the Hub, or riding down the upline from Quirm to Ankh-Morpork waiting for our next correspondence.

So here you are, until things resume as usual this Friday: a brief interlude about something that has been present throughout the (re)read thus far but about which I’ve mostly been silent: the experience of reading—the first encounter with words on a page, the first time you flex the binding and look beyond the cover, and indeed about the cover itself. In a word, this post is about what it means to read, write, and fall in love with books.

The Plight of the Fantasy Reader

For me, the significance of reading and books is one of the existential questions, on the order of “What happens to pencil stubs?” or “Can I find two matching socks in the morning without turning on the light?” Seriously, though, it’s a big question and one that for me is about First Hills—let me explain.

Telling people you like to read fantasy books can often be a losing battle. I can stand in front of people, a healthy 28-year old showing every sign of well-adjusted adulthood, and say, “My favorite book is The Hobbit!” and watch as all respect wilts in nearby faces. I might as well say, “Despite appearances, I am in fact a socially deficient man-child.” I find that this reaction suggests a rather distorted view of adulthood and a gross underestimation of children. But I digress.

Frankly, it’s not that I love The Hobbit. It’s that it’s embedded permanently in my mind. Let me explain with a passage from Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” (1939/1947), via a writer who is far more articulate than I am:

“Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say ‘he ate bread,’ the dramatic producer or painter can only show ‘a piece of bread’ according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says ‘he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,’ the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.”

Especially when we’re children, reading has the potential to not just recall images and memories but to be our first sight of the Hill, first taste of the Bread, first sip of the Wine, first touch of the Stone, to be an experience that works itself indelibly into the mind and becomes the archetype by which we judge all things similar. And the First Book of my life, the First Book that I really read, was The Hobbit.

The First Book

Sitting on my bed, I first read about Bilbo and the dwarves going over hill and under hill filtered through the mustiness of yellowed pages and rain-shadows shaken from the oaks outside my window. For me, that moment would become Reading, become the Book  (Below: The Hobbit, owned by my Mom, royally abused by young me.)

hobbit cover

I have since read many fantasy books, and most left me with the sense that their authors were trying hard to imitate Tolkien, or do Tolkien better than Tolkien, or push so consciously against Tolkien that their universes was defined by his absence.

“See, no Tolkien here! And under this rock? Still no Tolkien! Elfs! Dwarfs! Not Tolkien not Tolkien not Tolkien!”

However—

Once in a while, I read a book that mostly escaped Tolkien, or was so well-crafted that I would shut it knowing that my archetypes of Reading, of the Book, would be a little different going forward. And so the Hill and the Wine and the Tree and Stone went on, changed a little with time, but still built always on that First Hill.

In contrast, my idea of what being a Writer is has been constantly redefined by my own shifting self-understanding and identity. Over time, this idea of Writer drifted farther and father from my relatively stable Tolkien-framed archetypes of Reading and Book.

This became a problem.

What do you do when what you feel as a fantasy writer doesn’t fit inside your mental model of what fantasy is? What do you do when you want to write about the mundane and the domestic but your brain thinks in sagas? How do you produce anything if your creative urge flows not from Tolkienian academic curiosity but from a hot, unkept inner rage at a universe that surely ought to be better run? What can you do when your inbuilt fantasy archetypes stem from Tolkien’s Christian cosmogony but your writerly predilections, well, don’t? 

How do you not feel like an impostor the whole damn way? Isn’t it arrogant to assume that anyone can escape the shadow of Tolkien? Why bother writing anything?

And so for a long, long time, I didn’t write fantasy.

Enter Pratchett

And then, on the last page of Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum, I realized that I no longer felt an irreconcilable disjuncture between my ideas of Reader and Writer. Here was a writer who wrote from anger and profound sympathy for humans in the shittiest conditions and did not emulate Tolkien but simply nodded to him as he went by. It was as though all other writers I’d encountered had run straight forward as the boulder broke free of its ropes, but Pratchett just stepped sideways.

Many authors have subtly altered my ideas about language and writing going forward, but Pratchett seemed to change them going backward. Like noticing for the first time a sound that had been so constant for so long that I couldn’t detect it. For a certain kind of mind, with a certain balance of rage and hope, Pratchett offered an example of how to write outside Tolkien. And for that certain kind of mind, stuck between an idea of Reading defined by Tolkien and a desire for Writing that wasn’t, Pratchett cut away the undergrowth on the First Hill, put new leaves on the First Tree, and scribbled a rude sign on the First Stone. He also drank all of the Wine.

Thing is, the Firsts are still with me, but I’ll never be a Frodo or a Gandalf or an Eowyn, nor do I want to write those people. And I don’t want to write their world, as much as I love it. And in reading Pratchett’s characters, in meeting Vimes and Weatherwax, I saw room for someone a little like me in fantasy.

In a sense, Pratchett gave me back a desire to write fantasy.

And that’s where I’ll end this, but it isn’t over. What about that image of the cover of The Shepherd’s Crown at the top of this piece? If the words are powerful enough to make Firsts, what of the book covers that often precede them? What of their power?

Stay tuned for Part II, and then look for a podcast for Unseen Academicals this Friday, followed by a wrap-up podcast for the Wizards arc and a Colour of Magic film podcast next week. From there, we move on to Mort.

Good night, all.


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