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5 Things I Learned by Stealing and Reading the Earthsea Trilogy

Earthsea Trilogy 1970s Paperbacks

A few weeks go I was at my wife’s family’s cabin and I was lurking around in a bedroom browsing my in-laws’ old bookshelf.  Hidden in the midst of a notable collection of Louis L’Amour novels, with an old framed photograph sitting on the shelf in front of them, I discovered copies of the original Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore.

I believe I have read the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea at least three or four times over the course of my life (the first time was probably when I was about 10 years old.)  For whatever reasons it never took and I never continued and finished, but its always been on my list to get back to sometime (right up there with Moby Dick, Swann’s Way, and the Old Testament.) So, it appeared the time had finally come for this book, and I spent a good chunk of my cabin weekend reading that old copy of A Wizard of Earthsea.  As the time came to leave the cabin, I still had about 15 pages left and the story was completely unresolved.  What else could I do but steal the book and take it home? And then since I was already stealing, I might as well steal the whole trilogy.

Although I had various other reading plans, I put them aside to focus on this trilogy.  And now that I’ve finished, I am having a hard time finding anything else from those other reading plans that engages me and forces me to make reading a priority like these books did.

So, rather than a review (because I’m bored with book reviews), here are five things I noticed and learned from these books, mostly from a would-be writer’s perspective:

  1. You don’t have to show everything.  You can tell some things.  And you don’t even have to tell everything.  You can skip time, even and especially across volumes of a trilogy, across years, across great deeds only alluded to or sketched out briefly.  You don’t have to share the whole history of the world you build or the whole lives of the people you bring to life.  You can cover wizard school in three chapters rather than seven books.1

  2. You don’t have to end books with cliffhangers. Not even the second volume of a trilogy.  Each book in a series can be a stand-alone snapshot of a much larger world.2

  3. You don’t have to write high fantasy that is obsessively Euro-centric; you can have high fantasy with people of color.  These books actually set a precedent for this 40+ years ago that I didn’t know existed. Our hero and the majority of the characters are dark-skinned people.  For the most part this isn’t a major focus of the narratives, but it is definitely there and it is intentional.  It’s just one subtle detail of her world and character building, which makes me love it even more.  I didn’t realize this when I started reading A Wizard of Earthsea as a child; it certainly isn’t reflected in any of the cover art I have seen for these books over my lifetime. Depressingly, that downplay was probably a sound marketing decision for the times.  Hopefully the #WeNeedDiverseBooks meme is changing the calculus for those types of decisions and will result in new book covers even for old books such as these. I’m definitely not well-read in fantasy and most of what I have read was a long time ago, so I recognize that I am ignorant and maybe others authors have been engaging in diversity in fantasy for a long time as well.3

  4. The varying ethnic and cultural details are just one example of how LeGuin is a master of using fantasy and other speculative fictions to explore, describe, confront, come to terms with, and rebut ideas we have about culture, race, social norms, politics, religion, sexuality, etc.  I had learned this years ago from reading her The Left Hand of Darkness as a teenager, but I had forgotten since then or taken it for granted.  Speculative fiction provides such capability and opportunity to explore these kinds of issues in a very real, emotional way without the potential for the story and ideas to get bogged down by all the messiness, politicization, and need for research and accuracy that can come with tying a story or character to a particular place and time in the actual historical or contemporary world.  LeGuin is practically an anthropologist of new cultures of her own creation, and I like her approach.4

  5. I love reading paperbacks from the 70s.  They just don’t make them like that anymore.  But more than just the physical-ness of the books themselves, it is good to read something from a different era with a different writing style that is not really trending. A nice widening of perspective from the more contemporary middle grade novels I have been focusing on in the last year or two.  I am reminded that there is so much more to read and learn, I can’t just try to keep up with the new stuff.  I need to read what I need to read, even if it is old mass paperbacks hidden behind a picture frame on a bookshelf in someone’s cabin.5

  1. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with writing seven whole books about wizard school, it’s just nice to see that there are other ways to do it.

  2. Not to say that there’s anything necessarily wrong with cliff-hangers; it’s just nice to see that there are other ways to do it.

  3. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with writing fantasy books all about light-skinned people steeped entirely in European traditions, it’s just nice to see that there are other ways to do it.

  4. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with realistic and historical fiction, it’s just nice that there are other ways to explore serious themes.

  5. [footnote]Not to say that there’s anything wrong with reading newer middle grade fiction books, it’s just nice to know that there is a lot to be gained from older books as well.[/footnote]

Bored with Book Reviews

I’m getting kind of bored with book reviews. Writing book reviews. Reading book reviews. You know, those ones that begin with a summary of the story, and then a small amount of obligatory opinion/critique/accolades? But not just those ones, also the more long-form bloggy/Pitchfork-y ones where it’s more a showcase for me and my unique and sophisticated perspective, my cleverness, quirkiness or snarkiness, my incredible breadth and depth of knowledge, my wonderful research and analysis, and not so much about the book. I’m pretty much disenchanted with the book review. I want to write something else. I want to read something else. I’m bored.

But I’m not good at sharing my enthusiasm for the books I like in other conventional ways. Like talking, for example.  So that’s a problem when, as a pretend librarian, I have this strange urge to share and promote good books. More importantly, I am in a situation professionally where I need to review books online, and I need to encourage my colleagues to do the same. In our district we need to share and collaborate to get good books into the hands of our students, and the best way to do this is in public, online. And I want to share what I am learning.  It feels almost selfish and wasteful to read a book and then not share what I learned about it and from it with others.

But writing a summary or even accolades for a good book has begun to feel redundant with all the other book reviews out there. If I want to entice others to read the book, the publisher-provided written blurbs often do a better job of selling the book than I could do anyway. That’s the whole point of those things, and one of the reasons authors are so blessed to have publishers, right? Why duplicate efforts? (For example, I’ve wasted way too much time already trying to come up with a summary for A Snicker of Magic that brings anything of value that isn’t already better expressed by the wonderful blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket. I’m guessing the author drafted that one herself, but whoever wrote that blurb, she/he/they should be proud of it.)

There’s another complication that practically neutralizes my book review drafts into meaninglessness if I think about it too much, and I do think about it too much. That is this whole business of authors, agents, and editors being on twitter and subscribing to Google update alerts for their names and books. So as soon you post anything anywhere about a book, good or bad, (even a 50-year-old title by an author who is long dead) people are suddenly all up in your business converting your praise into a marketing opportunity, or, if you said something negative, possibly having their feelings hurt or at the least attempting damage control. And you are just a random person saying what you like or spouting your opinion, but it all connects and it all has consequences.

Also, if I write or tweet something good about a book or an author I now know the author is likely going to see it, and then the author is practically obligated to respond kindly to me because that is the nature of this social media game. So, being conscious of that, it can begin to feel almost like I am just flattering them to get their attention, to have a personal interaction with a real, published author. But that’s silly to worry about. Authors are just like everyone else, they like to be told when they’ve done a good job, they like to hear that what they have made or done is appreciated and connecting somewhere. I know I sure would like that. Most of the published authors aren’t rich and aren’t famous outside of their little circle of influence. So I really shouldn’t be worried about being overly nice or complementary to authors.  But fear of that interaction tempts me to be more boring  and unsocial in my book reviews, which then further defeats the purpose of writing a book review in the first place.

Occasionally there is the need for criticism, too.  Working with libraries with very small budgets, it is worthwhile to tell/warn people if a book is only just so-so or not good at all, so they can spend their limited funds on the very best stuff.  Just sharing that information in conversation isn’t effective enough, and ignoring a book just makes it look like you don’t know about that book, not that you don’t recommend it.  So it can be necessary to post those negative comments in written form, online.  But because those negative comments usually  then become transparent to the author, it makes me loathe to even post a bad review.  And this sort of thing sure doesn’t inspire me to post anything negative about someone’s book:

Despite this, or maybe because of this, authorial gaze, on the other side there is the occasional temptation to be mean, just to make it more interesting, just to try to make something happen, just to be contrary to the hype, just to try to be funny, and in some cases just because I was genuinely dissatisfied with the book and would have preferred something else. I shouldn’t say mean, I don’t mean mean, I have no desire to be mean. Nor personally destructive. But critical, yes. Contrary, definitely. Maybe even irreverent, when I encounter something that I feel has been unduly sacralized. But not mean. To me there’s a difference, but others may not see that difference.  I don’t genuinely hate very many things, and I want to like most things. But there are books I’ve wanted to like that I just don’t like.  And there are books that everyone else wants me to like that I’m resistant to liking just because of the hype.  I have been trying to teach myself that it is usually more fun to like something than to hate something. But still, listening to the Billboard Hot 100 usually only makes me sad.

So I’m tired of writing book reviews. I think I’d rather just write books, because that will be a lot easier.

Speaking of book reviews, here’s my latest book review:

Commencing Josh's #Nerdbery Challenge PLUS!

For a while I’ve been contemplating jumping into the history of children’s literature and reading or re-reading many of the classics.  I felt like I needed some sort of structure for this project, and as I considered the various possible ways into this world (these worlds), the Newbery Medal list seemed like a logical place to start. The idea of reading all of the Newbery Medal winners occurred to me as a possible goal for this project, so when I first came across Mr. Schu’s Newbery Challenge, it initially sounded about right for my needs.

But as I looked at the scope of the actual Newbery list and compared it with the endlessly scrolling to-read list in my head, I decided a straight Newbery Challenge is both too much and not enough for me. I need to feel free to skip books on the Newbery list, and I need to mix up other lists with it so I can give myself credit for the non-American and non-Newbery authors I want to study, rather than feeling guilt or failure for going down rabbit holes.

So I am going to do the Newbery Challenge, but I am going to hopscotch and criss-cross my way through the list, and I am going to reference other lists and sources.  For example, here’s another list I really like that will also be informative to my challenge: an informal poll of the Top 100 Chapter Books from the School Library Journal blog A Fuse #8 Production.  I will be augmenting and footnoting my challenge with so many titles that it will likely take me years and years to complete.  But that’s okay.  For example, I want to read The Jungle Book and The Graveyard Book back-to-back. I want to read John Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy that I loved as a kid, even though his books likely aren’t on any award or classics lists and might not even be in print. I will use the lists as references and starting places, but I will slavishly follow nothing but my own interests as they happen to intersect with the lists. I am hopeful that since Mr. Schu states that the one rule of his Newbery Challenge is that it is “stress free,” I can still consider what I am doing as part of his challenge. If not, oh well, I’m still doing it my way.

Because it makes the most sense to me, I am going to use authors as my primary way into the challenge. I will pick an author and read that author’s Newbery and/or Newbery Honor book(s), as well as some of their non-Newbery-winning books if I find them of interest.

I am officially commencing with Kate DiCamillo as my first author. However, I have to give some due to the fact that I initially stumbled onto the value of this author-centered method last year after I read Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli and hoped it would win the Newbery.  (I sort-of apologize that this blog keeps coming back to that misbegotten idea, and I do think I am about ready to let it go.  But even if it was a silly hope it has proven fruitful to me in a number of ways, as you will see if you read on below and also dig back into my earlier posts.)  My love of Hokey Pokey led me to investigate Spinelli’s back catalog, starting with the excellent 1991 Newbery winner Maniac Magee, and then moving on to some of his other books, such as Crash, and the Newbery Honor-winning Wringers. Thus Spinelli was the initial choice for my by-author reading project, until I got sidetracked with life and other books. When Kate DiCamillo recently in reality did win the Newbery for Flora & Ulysses and I read it and loved it, I decided I wanted to revisit her back catalog and consider it the start of this project in earnest. So I’ve put Spinelli aside for now, but I want to give him one more blog mention and I’ll probably come back to him later.

In addition to official Newbery-winning authors, I will also focus on a few should-have-been-could-have-been Newberys, some never-ever-ever-could-have-been Newberys, and classic books/authors who are Newbery-less by reason of having written their books before the advent of the Newbery Medal and/or by reason of not being American. Examples of authors in this category I am likely to explore (or re-explore) are Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett, etc.

So that’s my version of the challenge, and one of the main ongoing projects documented on this blog. I am keeping track of my progress on this page: Check back here if you want to know more about my progress and process, and wish me luck?

Why Not-Quite-Real?

I’ve begun organizing my posts into four not-quite-real sections.  Why not-quite-real? I have a separate answer for each unreality:

The Pretend Librarian

I don’t work in a school library directly with students and teachers, I don’t have a masters degree in library or information science, and I don’t have a teaching license.  This means that I am not a “real” librarian, so therefore I must be a pretend librarian.

The Bogus Writer

I daydream about writing and talk bogus talk about writing and write about writing much more than I actually write.

The Embarrassed Reader

I see through a glass darkly, and I have not put away childish things.  I am apparently reading way below my suggested Lexile level.  (Also, I am only a pretend librarian and a bogus writer.)

The Not-Quite-Real Dad The Dad

Because I am an official, practicing father of two little children.  One of them even kind of looks like me, and the other one kind of acts like me. My cred is intact here.

Ironic and sincere at the same time.  Not-quite-real. See also: “How the Newbery Medal Leads Me to Hubris and Existential Crisis: A Quandary in Four Parts”