Ten: All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

I was recently nominated by my good friend Jeff L. to name my ten favorite books. Since it is better than pouring a bucket of ice water over my head (that’s how this works, right?) I have decided to indulge him. Now the rest of you have to suffer. Everyone say, “Thanks, Jeff.”

 

Before I give you my list, I have a couple notes: these are not necessarily my “favorite” books in the sense that I read them a lot (some of them are, but that’s incidental). Rather, they are “favorites” in the sense that I think about them and what’s in them a lot. They made a positive impact on me, in some form or another, even if any given book on this list isn’t “good” by any metric or even if I have never read it a second time. That said, here we go:

 

1.) The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide by E. Gary Gygax: It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am, above all other self identifiers, a Dungeons and Dragons nerd. I am not old enough to be a proper “old schooler” or “grognard.” I came into the hobby in 1985 at 10 years old, ushered in by Frank Mentzer and Larry Elmore. That fabled Red Box didn’t just show me a new way to play, it changed my life. I wrote stories before then, but that game showed me how to be inside them. So why the AD&D DMG instead of the Basic Set? My brothers and I played the Basic and Expert and following sets for years. We played by the rules in a style informed by what was in those sets, and it was fun, but it was very insular and specific. Some years later when I found the AD&D DMG, I was shown a whole different world of play. Moreover, it was introduced by a powerful style, a voice of authority that resonated with me. It forever changed the way I not only ran the game, but the way I viewed the game at its most fundamental level. Before, D&D had been a story construction engine; the realization from within the hallowed pages of the DMg that it could still be a game, that the story was better when it emerged organically from play, was, well, a revelation. No matter what edition of the game I run, I refer to the AD&D DMG for inspiration and as a reminder of what the game is.

 

2.) Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: I was a comics late bloomer. My first comic book was Flash (series 3) #50, which I picked up from the newsstand at the corner store (remember those?) after having fallen in love with The Flash Television Show. I was hooked on comics — the Flash especially — from that day on. For a long time, I survived on typical super-hero books, mostly by DC Comics. At the same time, I was playing a lot of the DC Heroes Role Playing Game by Mayfair Games. Among the many supplements for that game was one for the Watchmen. At the time, at 15 with no point of reference, I did not get it at all. I tossed it in a box, forgotten. But the seed was planted. Soon after, I was skimming through the monthly Science Fiction Book Club order book that arrived at my house. I always scoured the “Alterverse” section for comic books, novels based on games and other media properties, and the like. That day, I saw a hardcover, copy of Watchmen advertised. All I knew was that it was somehow related to the universe shared by Superman and Batman, so I ordered it. Four to six weeks later, my mind was blown. I read Watchmen once a year, and every time I find something I had not fully digested before. It speaks volumes about comics, about comics fans, about wish fulfillment, about sex, about dreams, about life. If ever there was a super-hero comic that could be called capital-L-Literature, this is it. That it inspired a decade of heinous anti-heroes and spiked leather is a testament to how powerful it is, in the same way that a decade of terrible derivative fantasy flooded the bookstores after the Lord of the Rings appeared. Speaking of…

 

3.) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I read The Hobbit in sixth grade. It is still one of my all time favorite adventure stories. But (by design) that is all The Hobbit is, a fairy tale adventure for young readers that turned out so well written that it is satisfying for adults as well. The Lord of the Rings, however, is much more. It is an adventure story (a Heroic story, to be more precise) but it is also a universe, a world so convincing that it has created a world around it here in our real world. The power of LotR is in its Truth (rather than its Reality). It was carefully crafted to speak to the deepest aspects of human nature, calling back to our oldest and most universal tales. That is was inspirational on everything from Star Wars to Dungeons and Dragons (both things I love) is just gravy. As a novel, LotR is a great work; as work of Literature, LotR is hugely important. It is also difficult. There are sections that drag, especially if one is looking for a fast paced adventure story. It’s most intricate and well crafted elements are woken subtly so that often scholarship, or at least very careful re-reading, is necessary to tease them out. It is long. It is very Male and very White. But these difficulties merely serve as obstacles in the quest to conquer it and make the prize at the end all that more rewarding.

 

4.) The DragonLance Chronicles and Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman: Perhaps best described as the bastard childĀ of Tolkien fandom and Dungeons and Dragons, DragonLance (DL hereafter) is stilted in its prose, cardboard in its characters, cliched in its plot and ham-fisted in its themes. Nonetheless, it is near and dear not just to my heart but to the hearts of millions of fantasy fans and gamers who came of age in the 1980s and beyond. We laughed when Bupu fell in love with Raistlin. We cried when Sturm and Flint died. We raged when Raistlin betrayed his brother and the Companions, and we cried again when he sacrificed himself to save all of Krynn. DragonLance was, for the 14 year old D&D fan, perfectly crafted and whatever its faults it is forever a part of those of us that discovered it at that perfect age.

 

5.) Incognito by David Eagleman: It is hard to overstate the impact this book had on me when it read it shortly after its release. It reveals so much about our minds and manages, ultimately, to only inspire more questions about who and what we are from a cognitive perspective. The idea than any of us could become a monster due to something as base and material as a brain tumor is terrifying. That we all see things we don’t realize we see and make judgments that we think are just “intuition” but are actually completely analytical decisions is inspiring. That there within each of us is a sort of internal council of Selves that are all Us, while all also being someone Else is mystifying. The machines locked in our skulls from which we emerge are the real Final Frontier and this book serves as a great introduction to if not understanding it, appreciating it.

 

6.) The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: I have loved The Last Unicorn since I was a you child, enchanted by the beauty, whimsy and depth of the animated film. It spoke to me, through the Unicorn’s loneliness, through Schmendrick’s ambition, through Molly’s hope, through Prince Lir’s love and even through King Haggard’s desire to own all the magical things in the world. It is astounding, even to myself, that it took until this year for me to actually read the novel. It was one of those situations, like with, say, Fahrenheit 451, where my familiarity with it through other media and means told me that I did not need to read it, that I would not get much out of it. Perhaps I was even a little afraid that the book would be that rare creature that was worse than the beloved film. Whatever, the case, I avoided the novel, both actively and inactively, for decades. What a terrible mistake. Beagle’s prose is exquisite, a beauty unto itself. That the film hewed so close to the novel was a blessing, for I could immerse myself in the poetry of the language without suffering under the dissonance of trying to square the film I loved with the novel (imagine, if you will, a rabid fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies reading that novel for the first time!). Perhaps it is better that I discovered the novel so late: I think prose is a thing one appreciates more with age, especially if one is a writer oneself. In any case, The Last Unicorn is easily one of the most well written, most powerful novels I have ever read.

 

7.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy: If there is a novel more beautifully crafted than The Last Unicorn, it is The Road. While the film is good, the novel is a near perfect piece of fiction. It was the book I read that made me realize that, whatever I think of my own abilities as a storyteller or a wordsmith, I would never win a Pulitzer Prize because no haphazard combination of nouns and verbs I could throw together could ever hope to equal McCarthy’s prose in that book. Moreover, aside from the craft of the prose, the power and truth in the tale was overwhelming, arresting and at once uplifting and crushing. I do not know that I will ever read The Road again — as a man and a father it strikes so deeply into me I do not know if I could bear the terrible beauty of it again — but I will never forget it.

 

8.) The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe byGeorge Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier: I own and have read a lot of writing guides, especially those that focus on speculative fiction. This one is by far the best — not for its writing advice (it barely gives any at all), but for its comprehensive survey of science as it relates directly to science fiction. A lot of SF writing books talk about incorporating science and about making speculative science or magic consistent, but this book laid out actual science and then extrapolated. It suggested and also warned. In short, it was exactly what it said on the tin, and was superbly indexed to boot. Twenty years after having acquired it, even though some of the science has since been overturned, when I have an idea for a hard science fiction story, the first book I grab and peruse for inspiration and guidance is The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe.

 

9.) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke: Any number of Clarke’s novels could have gone on this list. Clarke is, by far, my favorite science fiction author, especially among the hard science fiction authors, most because in his work he never forgets that he is talking about Us. There are strange worlds and aliens and objects in his stories, but there are also always people — recognizably human characters that act as we might even if they live a thousand years hence and a thousand light years away. The reason I chose Childhood’s End above, say, Rendezvous with Rama or The Light of Other Days (both of which I adore) is because Childhood’s End left me hurt and uncertain and flabbergasted. Some read the end of the book as an optimistic promise, and perhaps Clark himself meant it that way. But to me, the novel promised an unsatisfying end for our species, an extinction devoid even of the dramatic exit of a hurtling comet. Even the brainless dinosaurs deserved so much. In Childhood’s End, we simply faded away, relinquishing the definition of “human” to our progenitors, but suddenly and irrevocably. It is an existential novel, and one I recall whenever I see great injustice or stupidity commited by mankind.

 

10.) There are so many books vying for this last place, from the beautiful agony of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to the the dense tension of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, from the wit and wisdom of Twain (pick any of them, though my favorite is Puddin Head Wilson) to the visceral, guttural magnetism of Beowulf. As one who possesses a degree in English Literature, I have been exposed to many, many great novels (and some not so great ones that continue to get read anyway). And as a fan of genre fiction, I have consumed a great many rotten apples (and some beautifully crafted works otherwise ignored because they had a dragon or rocket ship on the cover). In the end, what I realize is that all narrative prose, fiction or nonfiction, classical or fresh, literary or genre, has value. We are a species of stories, and while stories in the short form are often satisfying and powerful, only longer tales can delve the complexities of our nature. Our authors create worlds for us to experience, and by that experience we get a clearer sight into our own world and ourselves. So, my final “favorite” book is every book every written, for each one, no matter how terrible or how banal or how shallow, is a window into something of ourselves.

 

I want to thank Jeff L. for nominating me to do this. It was a pleasure, and a bit of a challenge, to really think about my favorite books, and why they are my favorites.

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The Too High Bar

The very first story I remember writing was a fantasy. I don’t recall how old I was, although I am fairly sure I was under 10 because I had not yet discovered Dungeons and Dragons, but I do remember writing it in one of those black and white covered composition books. Nor do I recall anything of the story itself, except that it was about a champion on a quest to slay a dragon. Strangely, I do have a very specific memory of writing it, particularly at a moment when I described how the dragon’s eyes “glew” with fierce light and my mother corrected me that it was “glowed.” I recall arguing, as well, holding up “blow” and “blew” as evidence that she was surely wrong. I do not remember whether I changed it. I wish I still had that notebook. I would like to know more about what I wrote, perhaps even uncover what it was inspired by. I imagine that nothing had so great an influence on that story as the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon, which was my first exposure to Tolkien.

 

I love fantasy, especially the “Tolkienesque” kind, with elves and dwarves and heroes and Dark Lords and all the other trappings. I love Tolkien’s work in particular, but to be honest I am not that discerning at times. For example, to my shame The Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies are as close to my heart as is Lord of the Rings. Not because they rival the good Professor’s work in skill and craft, of course, but because of where they landed in my formative reading experience. In gaming, both table top and electronic, that flavor of fantasy is by far my favorite. All that said, I find that I have a difficult time writing fantasy. As I just began rereading The Lord of the Rings again — the mark of great literature is, I think, that one can revisit it again and again and always find something both meaningful and new in it, because the great works are able to speak to us across the changing landscapes of our lives — I think I finally hit upon why I have such difficulty with writing fantasy:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien.

 

In particular, I will never be able to craft a world in the way that he did, with its deep history and complex languages. The fact is, I am far more interested in storytelling than world building. The problem is that the definition of fantasy for me, what makes great fantasy so rich and powerful, is a great fantastic world that is complex, cohesive and real feeling. That is what Tolkien created in me with his work, and now when I desire to write a fantasy, to tell stories about champions hunting evil dragons, I cannot help but see how thin and brittle the world in which I place that story is. The bar Tolkien set is too high for me to reach and so I often do not try at all.

 

What I found I prefer, as far as world building is concerned, is to take something familiar, whether it is our own world or the typical medieval fantasy world or any other archetypal setting, and season it with the unfamiliar. When it comes to fantasy, though, this is something that is all too common and I dread the idea of being another terrible Tolkien imitator, making Middle Earth with cat folk, for example. Unfortunately, I believe some stories belong in certain genres and are best told in those genres, which leaves me at a loss sometimes when I have a story to write that is absolutely, unequivocally a fantasy story. A world of knights and ogres and wizards and dragons brings with it a host of implicit qualities that aid the author in communicating with the audience, conveying meaning easily while offering accessible opportunities to subvert assumptions. Every genre is a toolbox with which the writer builds a story with the help of a genre savvy audience. To feel a genre closed off from me, especially one I so love, because of my own inadequacies is, to say the least, unpleasant.

 

This is a limitation I do not feel with other genres. If I have difficulties with any other genre in this way, it would be hard science fiction and that is only because I am not a scientist or even an engineer and therefore do not know a lot of things I should know in order to write such a story. Even so, I do read a lot of science and have access to the Internet, so I have those two tools — knowing which questions to ask and where to go about finding the answers — which usually suffice for any given story I am likely to want to write. There is no equivalent in fantasy, no way to Google up a long and detailed history of a particular region so the singular chapter the protagonists spend in the place is as real and convincing as life outside the reader’s window. Instead, I find myself relying in writing on a skill that has served me well in game-mastering table top role-playing games: treating the world like an old time Hollywood movie set, all veneer and no substance. That works when at a table, helping players navigate a monster riddled maze or dragon-haunted badlands. Players see through that sort of thing and don’t care because they are engaged in the game itself; readers are not so forgiving, I don’t think. Or, at least, I am not, which brings us back around to the problem itself:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien. The bar is too high.