When Books Fail Us

There’s a sacred, unspoken expectation among Readers that the right book will come along at the right time. In fact, as Alain de Botton wrote, “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.”

Often we aren’t aware that the right book is needed until providence has placed it in our hands. Then comes that moment–that chapter, that sentence, that word–that reminds us why we’re Readers in the first place: because literature is transcendent; restorative, even.

Inevitably, Readers learn to rely on this moment. We put our trust in it, and expect the right book to always come along at the right time.

Then, on the day when we need it most, it doesn’t.

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

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.”

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

Tra-la-la-ohmygodshutup

One would be hard pressed to argue The Hobbit being anything other than a children’s story, but when Thorin leaves a letter for Bilbo the morning after their unexpected party it becomes clear that Tolkien wasn’t ignoring adults entirely.

“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.”

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.”

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

Tookishness is a Funny Word

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.

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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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5 Authors Who Changed My Life

These aren’t necessarily my favorite authors (although several are) or the authors I read the most (although several are), but they’re authors who have had a profound impact on my life.

The Author I Have to Defend

Christopher Moore. Moore is an author many refuse to take seriously, which I get, to some extent. There’s no denying that he wrote the line “Blessed are the dumbfucks” in a book about Jesus. Yet, at the same time, he’s a soulful writer with an alarming humanity: “There’s a fine edge to new grief, it severs nerves, disconnects reality–there’s mercy in a sharp blade. Only with time, as the edge wears, does the real ache begin.” Don’t let titles like “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” or “Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove” scare you away. He’s been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, for crying out loud. There are writers who make you laugh, and there are writers who make you think. Moore is one of the rare few who does both.

The Author Who Matured Me as a Reader

John Milton. In my first year at Saint Mary’s University I took a fantastic Literary Traditions course from the wonderful, inspiring David Heckerl. (It’s amazing what a good professor can do for you.) In our first semester we tackled Paradise Lost and it, quite literally, changed my life. I was set to be a kinesiology student when I enrolled at St. Mary’s, but at the last moment I switched my major to English (to the confusion of many). I never once regretted that decision, in large part to Paradise Lost. Once I read Milton there was no turning back. Most professors will tell you who to read. Heckerl, through Milton, taught me how to read.

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Finding My Father, One Book at a Time

I was a year old when a man fell asleep at the wheel, blew a red light, and t-boned my father’s car as he was driving through an intersection. The man, who was almost 90 years old, died instantly. My father, meanwhile, broke two cheekbones, his right wrist, and lost about 75% of his right kneecap. He also cracked his forehead on the steering wheel–resulting in a gash that required more than 40 stitches to close–and the resulting head trauma left him in a coma.

Despite giving him about a 10% chance of living, doctors operated on his broken bones over the next few days. Steel pins were placed in his wrist, a false kneecap–held together with a copious amount of wiring–replaced what had been lost, and his jaws were wired shut. He would stay that way for the next six weeks. His face was so swollen, my mother tells me, that she couldn’t even see his ears.

By the end of the week he had come down with pneumonia and was placed on life support. Eventually, his right lung collapsed.

But then my mother felt him squeeze her hand.

A devout, devout Catholic, my mother had been praying to God, for 10 days, in hopes that he would give her husband back to her. Her prayers, it seemed, were answered. Albeit, with cruel irony.

My mother ran out of the room screaming to the nurses that her John was awake. A nurse came in and squeezed his hand three times. He squeezed it back three times. She leaned down, and said to him, “Your wife is here. Say something to her.”

He smiled and turned his head. He looked my mother in the eyes, and said, “Fuck off.”

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