Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mind Meld: Reading and Re-reading

(It's live! So here's a link to the full column plus what I wrote and submitted. Go and read the whole thing, your wallet may groan from all the book purchase ideas you jot down!)

So Paul came to me and asked me to write about books that I read and re-read until they fall apart (which is kind of amusing, given the care I take of the books I own: I recently gave several books to my mother-in-law and she asked me if I had read them, they looked so new). I thought about this for a while. I could have written about my youth in New Jersey, when I traveled the galaxies and when bookstores were so rare that I did not have one in my town until the 1970's. I did read many books then that (almost) fell apart, a combination of there being so few genre books being published (compared to today; anybody who claims "there's nothing to read" isn't looking hard enough!) and there being so few sources (rummage sales, garage sales and the library were my primary sources until around 1976).

While I have many favorite books and many favorite authors from that period (still), I thought it better to talk about some books that are not only read and re-read, but which helped me as well. You see, in 2001 I witnessed (directly) something that affected me badly, and which still affects me today ("trigger warning": contains real-world events). While this has not entirely gone away, in fact, probably will not ever go away as long as certain sights and smells remind me, I can point towards certain books and authors and thank them for helping me "muddle through" and start on the road to healing.

Which books? Which authors? In particular, Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford D. Simak, Spider Robinson and Patrick O'Brian. What is it about these four that struck me in the same way and helped?

Arthur C. Clarke died in 2008 and by then was pretty much forgotten by all the cool kids. But I'll start with him as he was the first of these four that I started reading and several common elements can be found. Clarke never wrote very long novels. In fact, with some of the doorstops that get published these days, his novels might fit within chapters of today's books. those relatively short works he shot off more ideas per page than most writers manage in the thick tomes that seem to fill the bookshelves these days. He was always optimistic, always filled with awe at the universe, able to excite you on subjects as diverse as the ocean, space exploration or mathematics. I needed short works as my attention span (indeed, there were times when I even despaired of being able to think clearly anymore) was shot. I needed optimism, as I clearly had lost all of my own. And I needed ideas to get me out of a hole. Clarke was this and more; even his after thoughts caused interest (and a drain on my wallet).

Clifford D. Simak is another name that we have mostly forgotten. I first read his stories in various multi-author anthologies and the anthologies by him alone, courtesy of those rummage sales that m parent's visited during the year to stock up on Christmas presents (all hail the Science Fiction Book Club and whatever member in the Teaneck, New Jersey area that bought so many volumes that ended up on my shelves!). Simak is often seen as the creator of "pastoral" science fiction, stories where a simpler life takes precedence. But Simak wrote about space travel, time travel and may have contributed as much to our picture of robots as Isaac Asimov did. He also wrote of compassion, humility, loyalty and friendship. In books such as City, Way Station, The Goblin Reservation and stories such as The Big Front Yard I found a quieter time to help me heal and the qualities of being I thought I had lost.

I first came across Spider Robinson when a local magazine stand/soda fountain ("local" being that I had to walk six miles, no joke, to get to it) started selling Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine. He told quirky little tales about a bar named Callahan's (a place to me as mysterious as the far side of the galaxy, being that I was too young to actually go to a bar) where everybody knew your name, where people made room for you, and even aliens or time-travelers might fine the answer to what ailed them. The series grew from a sprinkling of short stories, to novels and even a offshoot series (Lady Sally's). While some may be put off by the style (many puns) or the let's-hold-hands-and-think-positive-thoughts solution to some of the stories, I sorely needed a place like Callahan's in 2001 onwards and these stories were the next best thing.

And, finally, Patrick O'Brian. Now, I know that Paul said "genre" and O'Brian's long series about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Doctor Stephen Maturin (naturalist and intelligence agent) are not "science fiction", but could counter that they both bear many similarities to science fiction and influenced authors of said (for example, David Drake). Be that as it may, I mention O'Brian as I've read and re-read the books in these series (overall, I've probably read the entire series six times and some individual novels as many as twelve or more times), so I think this counts as something that I've read until it fell apart. I gave my trade paperbacks first to a co-worker to get him hooked and then to both my father and a brother-in-law. I bought a large boxed set, which is in rotation on a regular basis. I bought the audiobooks and listened to them all over one summer (one interesting thing about this experience was how much different I interpreted some of the stories based on who the narrator, the incomparable Simon Vance paced and enunciated).

Why this author and series compared to the other books I mention? Running as a strong thread through all of the books of this series is friendship, compassion, humility and loyalty. And music. All things I needed to ground me and thaw me and start me on the path back.

Night after night they played there in the great cabin with the stern-windows open and the ship's wake flowing away and away in the darkness. Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike in nationality, education, religion, appearance and habit of mind as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and 'cello; though this was a language in which Jack was somewhat more articulate than his friend, wittier, more original and indeed more learned. They were alike in their musical tastes, in their reasonably high degree of amateur skill, and in their untiring relish. (Patrick O'Brian, The Far Side of the World

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