Archive for Musings

Why Do We Read?

NOTE: Today.com has no permission to use this photo on their siteBefore you wonder why I’m trying to tackle such a general question, let me narrow it down, because it stems from something very specific that I noticed last week. I was reading some blog reviews about Dorothy Dunnett’s books, and came upon something that made me do a double take. The person reviewing The Game of Kings said that Francis Crawford, the main character, had a tendency to break into quotations in various foreign languages (mostly Latin and French), and they were never translated for the reader. And this was regarded as a negative point.

My first reaction? “What? Have you never heard of Babelfish? Can you not simply look it up??” Granted, that’s not entirely fair, because some of the quotations are from more archaic French, and Babelfish would probably have a hard time with them. But this reminded me of when I was writing a fanfic, entitled Apotheosis, and someone said I should change the title because few people would know what the word meant. I did NOT change the title. My essential response was, “It’s spelled D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y, and I am not going to spoonfeed a reader who expects just to lie there and do no work at all.” My thought was that I refused to reduce things to the lowest level of readership. (I did make one concession: I put the definition of “apotheosis” at the end of the story, after the Epilogue.)

The Uses of EnchantmentThis ties in with another thing that C.S. Lewis said long ago. When criticized that perhaps his children’s books (the Chronicles of Narnia)  were somewhat above children’s heads, he said he believed it was a bad idea only to give children things that sat on the same level they were sitting on. The best way to write for kids, he thought, was to give them something to reach up to, something to aspire to. Something to grow up to.

When I was ten, my aunt gave me The Lord of the Rings to read. I slowly ploughed through the book, and had forgotten half of the beginning by the time I reached the end. But I was utterly enthralled, because I was reaching up to a wonderful adult world of fantasy. I had enjoyed The Hobbit, which was more on my own level, but this — this was sheer magic to me. And it wasn’t the magic of Middle-Earth, but the magic of mysterious things that I could only half-understand, but which I could reach up toward and begin to touch if I just kept reading.

I had a similar experiences with other books that were “too old” for me. It would never have occurred to me to want them simplified and brought down to my level. Rather, I wanted to stretch myself until I could get up to their level.

So why do we read? Is it only to be shown or taught things we already know? What’s the point of that? Do we not want to stretch ourselves beyond where we already are?

Ancient LivesMuch of the time, the context in which the quotations in the Lymond Chronicles occur gives the reader some idea of what they mean, even if they’re not fully understood. But even if they go right over the reader’s head, they do something else for countless Dorothy Dunnett fans — they make us try to find out. We go to dictionaries, we do web searches for pictures, we read histories. I can’t count the histories I’ve read because Dunnett referred to places or events in passing, without explaining much about them in the plot. The ancient authors whose works I’ve dipped into! My eagerness to watch a recent documentary about the African city of Timbuktu, because one of Dunnett’s books took us there!

Sometimes we do need a simple read, something light to take to the beach or hotel, or to help us fall asleep. But do we really want to spend our whole reading lives being the equivalent of babies that just lie back and get fed mush with a spoon, or do we want to get up, learn to walk, and find more complex culinary masterpieces to feast on? Surely it’s what we don’t know, the things that aren’t handed to us on a silver platter, that are the most interesting things to read?

That’s how I feel about it, anyway.

The Game of Kings – I’m all Verklempt

Game of KingsToday I finished reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings for probably the sixth or seventh time.

More on the book later. But right now I’m all emotional again. Yegods, this series is wonderful. This is only the first book, but already I can’t wait to get to Queen’s Play, the second book.

In every book in this series that has a happy ending (and not all of them do), the pages that lead up to the ending just make you want to cry, they’re so good. Gah. And this is just the first book!

If I could read this series on my deathbed, I would die happy.

Guy Gavriel Kay and my reading history

The Fionavar Tapestr

It was the autumn of 1985 when I walked down an aisle in the book store of the University of Calgary, and one particular book cover caught my eye. In fact, the cover of The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, didn’t merely catch my eye, but I felt like it snagged my whole soul as I came to a dead halt and grabbed the book off the shelf.

I only needed a cursory reading of the blurb before I was buying and devouring the book. And since I was buying it a year after it had been launched, it wasn’t long till the second book, The Wandering Fire, was also bought and devoured whole. And not long afterward, as Guy travelled around for the promotional tour for the the hardcover of book three, The Darkest Road, I got to meet him and ask, in breathless excitement, “Where did you get this mythology??

With my reading of the three books, which comprised the trilogy called The Fionavar Tapestry, the only way I could describe how they made me feel was to say that I felt like my veins were filled with light. Twenty five years later, I can still pick up that trilogy and feel the same way.

What was amazing to me about the original cover art for all three books, painted by Martin Springett, was that they seemed to be one with the feel and soul of the books. The reason I was struck by that first cover in the book store was that it felt exactly like what was inside the book — and since what was inside the book affected me so deeply, that cover inevitably affected me too.

Eventually, because of that cover snagging my eye, I got introduced by Guy Kay to the eccentric writing of Robert Graves. And for the first time in my life, I found out about Celtic mythology, which I love madly.

And when Guy told me that one of his characters, Diarmuid, was patterned in tribute after Dorothy Dunnett’s main character in the Lymond Chronicles, I immediately rushed out to read those books too, because I wanted to see this character who was “like Diarmuid.” Ha! Anyone who reads here regularly knows how that turned out. Diarmuid, in fact, is “like Francis Crawford,” at least to some small degree. Because although Guy did a good job, there’s just nobody, in the end, who is “like Francis Crawford of Lymond.”

So I owe a lot to Guy Gavriel Kay and that first book, and to Martin Springett for being able to take the spirit of all three books and paint them, for the covers. I’ve been, once, to Martin Springett’s house, and seen the huge originals of those covers hanging on his walls. And I’ve got my own posters of all of them too.

This all came to mind today because I saw a notice that Guy’s latest book, Under Heaven, will be published in April. And that led me to this little “The Summer Tree 25th Anniversary” blurb on Guy’s website, from last year. You can see him and Martin together, with the very first painting, the one that caught my eye that very first day on that original book cover.

Much of my reading and study history in the past twenty five years has been because of these two. I never forget this.

First Lines Meme

Another fun summarizing meme, that I first saw last year from Melanie at Indextrious Reader and now have seen there and with Kiirstin at A Book a Week as well. Post the first line from each month of the past year.

I’ll post the first three months of this year, which took place at That Other Place where I no longer have my blog. But fortunately, next year it will all be lines from this blog, which is much better situated and in my own more rational control.

January – I heard a song this morning called “Hemingway,” by the Canadian “north country” /blues band, Porkbelly Futures.

February – Good day, and happy Sunday!

March – A shout-out to my American readers about a book giveaway from St. Martin’s Press.

April – Today’s Wondrous Words are brought to you by the letter “K,” and by the books The Secret, The Know-it-All, and A Golden Age.

May – Did you know that it’s Buy Indie Day today?

JuneImmoral, first published in 2005 by the Minotaur imprint of St. Martin’s Press, was Brian Freeman’s first novel, though that barely shows in a rough edge or two.

JulyPierre Elliott Trudeau by Nino Ricci is another volume in the excellent Extraordinary Canadians series edited by John Ralston Saul.

August – The most profound moment at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit came, for me, in the very last display case.

September – This has to be one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen.

October – Trying to catch up and get busy here again!

November – I was so glad to read this today, from the Sci Fi Wire website: ‘Gandalf’ has read the Hobbit script and tells us about it.

DecemberYes everyone, it’s time for “Canada Reads” once again.

Very eclectic, yes? I like that it isn’t all just book reviews, and that there are other things than books talked about here. But still related to books — after all, the Dead Sea Scrolls were books, as is the Hobbit.

We’ll see if I can range farther afield next year. Tomorrow. 🙂

Happy New Year!

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