The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

The Hobbit Readalong, Part 3 – Dissecting Gollum’s Riddle Game

In The Tragedy of Arthur–Arthur Phillips’ brilliant novel about the finding, or forgery, of a supposedly lost Shakespearean play–Phillips boldly questions the genius of ol’ Billy Shakes. Specifically, he argues that Shakespeare has been attributed too much credit by his critics, who have, in large part, done a great deal of work for him.

Here, Phillips explains it best:

“Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”

Similarly, I’ve always thought The Hobbit benefited from a bit of revisionist history. In the 80 years since its publication, Tolkien has, almost without exaggeration, been deified. The brilliance of The Lord of the Rings has penetrated everything he ever touched, any speech he ever delivered, any piddling little riddle he ever concocted. Thus, to quote Phillips, “he wrote it, so it must be right.”

But is it, really? The Hobbit is, at times, so childlike it’s difficult to call it art. Its poetry is so simple it’s hard to give it much credit.

At least, that’s what I used to think.

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The Lover’s Dictionary is More Than Just a Valentine’s Day Read

Is it even possible to accurately talk about love? Do we even have the words to describe something that can be both utterly mundane and completely transcendent, pulling us out of our everyday lives and making us feel a part of something greater than ourselves?

Taking a unique approach to this problem, the nameless narrator of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary constructs the story of his relationship as a dictionary. Through short entries, he provides an intimate window into the great events and common trifles of being a couple, giving us an indelible and deeply moving portrait of modern love.

Novels are, on the whole, uniform. The framework of one novel is often very much the same as any other. Which is why I find it irresistible when I stumble upon an author who has taken a chance, who was brave enough to step outside the confines of “the Novel” in an attempt to create something entirely unique. With The Lover’s Dictionary, Levithan has certainly done that.

Rather than structure his tale in chronological order, Levithan took a non-linear approach, jumping his story around in time based on the words he has chosen for each letter of the alphabet. From A to Z, we are treated to dozens of intensely personal, tragic, poetic moments that speak to anyone who has felt the joys and miseries of love.

With it’s unique concept, The Lover’s Dictionary could certainly have floundered without Levithan’s delicate touch. Instead, it is one of the most accurate and articulate portrayals of life’s most ineffable experience.

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Does the Publisher Matter When You’re Buying a Book?

When was the last time you bought a book based on the publisher? When was the last time you even visited a publisher’s website? How many publishers can you even name? Do they even make a difference to you at all? Or do you follow your favorite houses like your favourite sports teams? Let’s take a few minutes to dive into whether or not publishers matter to us at all.

Back when it was first announced, the New York Times published an article about Amy Schumer’s $8 million book deal (a dollar amount so psychotic it might warrant its very own blog post). In it, literary agent Russell Galen talks about how bidding wars happen between publishers, and specifically how Schumer’s $1 million advance just a few years ago ballooned into an offer eight times that size. It’s an interesting piece based on economics alone, but the kicker for me was when Galen started talking about how the publisher (Gallery Books) can possibly come out on top after such a gigantic advance.

“Even if you lose money in the short run, it helps your prestige,” Galen said. “If you are a big publisher, you need to show the flag, you need to make news, because it helps your entire list.”

But does it?

I may be wrong, but instinct and personal experience tells me that the publisher of a book barely factors into whether people buy that book. People care about four things: who the author is, what the book is about, how well it’s been reviewed, and how pretty the cover is. For the most part, I’d wager that readers couldn’t give two shits whether a book came from Vintage or Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster.

How then, does having a popular book help a publisher’s prestige? For agents and authors and people in the industry, sure. But for readers?

Think of the last really good book you read. Can you tell me who published it? Think of the third-last book you read. Can you tell me who published that? If you can, you’re a total book nerd. I can’t even tell you the publisher of the book I’m reading right now. The book I held in my hand less than four hours ago.

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

The Hobbit Readalong, Part 2 – Tra-la-la-ohmygodshutup

Wherein Bilbo and Gandalf meet the Dwarves and set off on their adventure. Bilbo discovers three trolls. Later, at Rivendell, Elrond studies the swords that the party collected from the troll cave, and tells Gandalf that they are ancient Elvish weapons, and also discovers Moon-letters written upon Gandalf’s map. While crossing the Misty Mountains they spend the night in a cave. They are captured by Goblins and brought before the Great Goblin; however, Gandalf rescues them, though during their escape Bilbo becomes lost in the tunnels. 

“Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting! For your hospitality our sincerest thanks, and for your offer of professional assistance our grateful acceptance. Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for.

Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual,

We have honour to remain
Yours deeply
Thorin & Co.”

One would be hard pressed to argue The Hobbit being anything other than a children’s story, but moments like this one—when Thorin leaves a letter for Bilbo the morning after their unexpected party—illustrate that he wasn’t ignoring adults entirely. (I mean, look at that language.)

The sarcasm here is razor sharp. While the letter appears nothing more than an unusually formal contract, its purpose is to mock Bilbo for his hesitation and supposed cowardice.

First, Thorin thanks Bilbo for offering his “professional” assistance, when in fact the dwarves forced his hand and have little faith in his ability to burgle anything. Next, he waves in Bilbo’s face the very real possibilities of failure and death, knowing that Bilbo is the last person willing to risk either. Finally, Thorin refers to Bilbo’s slumber as his “esteemed repose,” mocking his overblown civility. Thorin may as well have written, “Get over yourself and get your ass to Bywater.”

(Side note: Bywater, the Lonely Mountain, The Hill, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, Long Lake, Dale … the names in The Hobbit are far simpler than what we will see later in The Lord of the Rings. Very kid-friendly. They almost always describe exactly what the place is like.)

When I first read The Hobbit as a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old I hated the scene where Bilbo found Thorin’s note. The sarcasm was entirely lost on me at the time, and so I chalked it up to poor (by way of inconsistent) writing on Tolkien’s part. It seemed so out of place; the dwarves don’t talk like this. Now, seeing it for what it is, I love it. It adds a hardy bitterness to Thorin that’s welcome this early in the story.

However, despite my change of heart, I’m less excited to report that chapters two through four remain my least favourite section of the book.

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

The Hobbit Readalong, Part I – Tookishness is a Funny Word

Wherein Bilbo Baggins receives a visit from the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves. After eating, they discuss the recovery of the treasure that the dragon Smaug took from Erebor, the dwarves’ home, and Bilbo is hired as their “burglar,” despite his protests.

J. R. R. Tolkien spoke at great length, both in his letters and lectures, about what he called “secondary belief.” For Tolkien, reading fantasy wasn’t about a willing suspension of disbelief as much as it was a secondary belief in an imagined world. As long as that world holds to an internal logical consistency, its laws can be entirely different from our own while being every bit as believable. Through this secondary belief (which is only accomplished at the hands of a master storyteller) readers can easily accept things like elves and magic and dragons.

Due to the depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth—its people, their languages, their cultures, their histories—this internal consistency became Tolkien’s hallmark. Until the wellspring of fantasy that arose in the ’90s (with Williams, Jordan, Martin, and others), Tolkien was basically alone—with a handful of lesser exceptions—in creating entire worlds that seemed to believably exist. Secondary belief is the reason people used to regularly spray paint “Frodo Lives” on buildings in the ’60s and ’70s.

What’s curious, then, is that there is a moment early on in The Hobbit that spits in the face of this internal consistency, this secondary belief: the dwarves’ musical interlude in Chapter 1. When the dwarves break out their instruments shortly after arriving at Bag End we’re experiencing a very unusual moment in a Tolkien narrative. He’s usually so careful not to jolt his readers out of their secondary belief, but he deliberately seems to be doing it here.

Given Thorin’s importance within dwarven culture (even as destitute as its become), I suppose it’s possible he could have been carrying a golden harp with him on his journey to Hobbiton. It’s believable that Nori, Dori, and Ori carried flutes in their coats. But we’re supposed to believe that Fili and Kili carried fiddles around with them? Bombur carried a drum. Others brought clarinets. Others still had violas as big as their bodies. Are we really expected to believe that a few of these dwarves travelled all the way from the Blue Mountains with cellos strapped to their backs?

Even in a world with elves and orcs and magic and angel-esque old men who mush teams of rabbits through giant spider-infested forests, the instrument scene is wildly implausible. It might seem like a trivial moment to harp on—especially given its place so early in the story—but it’s vitally important that it happens. Why did Tolkien do this, then? Why move from secondary belief to suspended disbelief?

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The Futures by Anna Pitoniak review

Just Because You Can Write a Novel, That Doesn’t Mean You Should

When I was 21 I started writing a novel.

Well, by “writing” I mean I bought a fancy moleskine and nice pens and wrote down little vignettes of no consequence while riding the bus back and forth to class. Clever quips, character sketches, you know, the annoying shit that makes a person feel creative without actually doing anything, ever.

It was about a young 20-something guy who dated an overbearing, controlling girl who didn’t “get” him. During the novel he found the girl of his dreams, learned to love himself, and, I’m not even kidding, the denouement involved him decorating his bedroom with posters of the bands he loved. Because he was apparently not allowed to do that before?

He was also an English major who looked and sounded exactly like me. It may or may not have been autobiographical. Worst of all, its working title was Strong Enough to Break, which I stole from a documentary about Hanson.

It went nowhere. As in, I never even wrote a first sentence. But had I been disciplined, I would have actually written that piece of shit. That thing would have existed, for no other reason than the fact that I was obliviously miserable in my relationship.

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Headphones around a group of books

The Feature That Blew My Mind

Thanks to my subscription I “read” about 15-20 extra books a year. (And no, listening to audiobooks isn’t “cheating.” It’s been scientifically proven that your mental processes are about the same when you listen as when you read.)

But due to the nature of the medium, I feel like I’m only satisfied about 75% of the time. Narrators, by and large, are terrible at their job. The great ones are so few and far between it breaks my heart. I weep for authors like Miriam Toews, who have to sit idly by while their work is butchered by mannequins come to life.

If it’s not a poor narrator, then it’s a poor story, or material that just doesn’t quite work as well in audio as well as it does in print.

Regardless of the reason, a poor audiobook experience is always a tough pill to swallow. Audiobooks aren’t like physical books. You can’t just take them back to the store and return them.

Or so I thought…

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