Saturday, December 30, 2006

(10x15: 10 books that changed my life by the time I turned 15)

Originally posted: Sat, 30 Dec 2006 05:48:25

Over the holidays, I looked through some of my keepsakes and visited my parents. So I'm in a nostalgic mood. And in that mood, I began thinking about some of the books I read in the first fifteen years of life. I was a voracious reader, although unfortunately I tended toward pulpy science fiction and fantasy novels. But some texts really stand out -- not necessarily the ones I read most often, but the ones that had a lasting impact on me. Here are ten books I read by fifteen:

20000 Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

One of my older siblings probably was the original owner of this annotated hardcover edition of Jules Verne's classic. Annotated is the key word here: the margins were filled with footnotes about the inventions and the geographical and natural features encountered in Verne's fictional travelogue, and those footnotes both helped me to understand the text and sustained my interest in it. When the text talked about a narwahl, the annotations described the creature and provided an illustration; when the text described light bulbs, the annotation explained that they had not yet been invented and discussed Verne's uncanny ability to extrapolate inventions from current trends. I remember how proud I was to finish the text (I was seven) and how interested I became in hard science fiction after that.

Verne's novel was a real travelogue: The narrative (the narrator is captured by a megalomaniac who has built a submarine and uses it to sink ships) is a thin premise on which the author hangs a series of descriptions of undersea life, sunken cities, and icebergs. For a seven-year-old, the clash between the narrator's egalitarian perspective and Captain Nemo's aristocratic one) was fascinating and useful, and the fact that the narrator was nearly brought under Nemo's thrall was especially instructive.

Interestingly, I was not nearly as enchanted with other science fiction from roughly the same time period. Edward Bellamy's utopia Looking Backwards was creepy, with its description of a lockstep society. HG Wells' The First Men in the Moon was even more creepy: I had trouble digesting the fact that one character was actually enchanted by the moon civilization's regimented, genetically controlled organization. And of course The Time Machine was especially creepy: I found no one to root for. Looking backward (pun intended), I realize that science fiction is less a prediction of the future than it is a commentary on the present; Verne's hard science fiction was an optimistic commentary that was given the certainty of concrete technological innovation, while Wells and Bellamy employed transparently flimsy plot devices to describe futures in which genuine human dialogue and conflict had been squeezed out -- sociological, "soft" science fiction. I preferred the "hard" science fiction, and in later years I read Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, and others in that vein.

Incidentally, we didn't have Wells' The Invisible Man, but we had Ralph Ellison's. That was an extremely confusing book for a seven-year-old, and I didn't finish it until much later, in college, I think.

New American Standard Ryrie Study Bible

by Charles Ryrie (Editor)

I was raised in an evangelical household -- not the stereotypical kind that you see on television that shouts Hallelujah a lot and handles snakes, but the kind that takes the Biblical text seriously and seeks to understand its historical and cultural context. The Ryrie Study Bible, heavily annotated by Charles Ryrie of Dallas Theological Seminary, was de rigeur: nearly every verse had an annotation that explained controversies, gave alternate translations from the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, pointed to non-Biblical sources, and described archaeological findings that helped to put the text in context. Every book had a half-page introduction that summarized and dated it. And even the dreariest passages in Leviticus were enlivened by discussions of the cultural context in which they were followed. Between this text and Verne's, no wonder I like footnotes so much.

I read the Ryrie Study Bible cover to cover at least a few times, a chapter a night, after my normal reading. Doing this certainly did not make me more virtuous, but it did instill an appreciation of the book that has most deeply impacted Western culture. And Ryrie's annotations helped me understand from an early age that reasonable people could disagree about given texts and interpret them differently based on various types of evidence. On the other hand, Ryrie never questioned the inerrancy of Scripture, and consequently he went through some really complicated acrobatics in order to reconcile passages with each other and with archaeological evidence -- something to which I was not sufficiently sensitized at the time.

Chariots of the Gods?

by Erich Von Daniken

On the other hand, I was skeptical of this 1972 book from the beginning. I remember reading it and similar books that had been handed down from older siblings (we had an enormous bookshelf at our house) and also watching the documentary based on Von Daniken's "research." Von Daniken postulates that the Earth had been visited by ancient astronauts who were or were not our ancestors -- he's not always clear on this point, and based on the variety of evidence he provides, the Earth looks like a busy crossroads for UFOs. That evidence, however, is transparently contradictory and often transparently ripped from its context. Before I knew what the term "Occam's Razor" meant, I was already applying it to this pseudoscientific text. (I was probably eight or nine.)

People forget what sort of impact this book had, though. Six years later, science fiction writer James P. Hogan put forth a much more plausible scenario of ancient astronauts in Inherit the Stars, as if to say, "Look, Van Daniken, here's how it's done." Later still, The X-Files and Stargate picked up the thread. Meanwhile, I continued reading lurid books along the same lines, such as Von Daniken's Gods from Outer Space and Fanthorpe's The World's Greatest Unsolved Mysteries, laughing up my sleeve -- but secretly wanting to believe.

The Making of Star Trek

by Stephen E. Whitfield

Speaking of wanting to believe, I was a huge Star Trek fan as a kid. And although the show had been off the air since before I was born, I always hoped they would find a way to bring it back. Reading this book, a nuts-and-bolts account of the show's genesis and operation as well as studio politics, made me really interested in the whole enterprise of developing and maintaining a fictional world. It also cleared up a lot of mysteries. (Why did the Enterprise have a transporter? Because they couldn't afford the special effects it would take to land a spaceship every week.) I memorized Star Trek trivia from this book like sports fans memorize sports trivia. On one level, it was an enormous waste of time -- the book was published between the second and third seasons, so it had an optimism that I knew from the beginning was misplaced -- but on another level, I learned early about the complex collaboration and the enormous coherence issues involved in a large, er, enterprise such as this one. Let's face it, it's probably a good thing to understand how your fiction is manufactured.

Barlowe's guide to extraterrestrials

by Wayne Douglas Barlowe

And yet, it's also fun to pretend that all the fiction that takes place in different worlds can be brought together in one place. That was the premise behind Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, an illustrated compendium of "great aliens from science fiction literature." If you want to see a stunning portrait of Arthur C Clarke's Overlord, Larry Niven's Puppeteer, or Frank Herbert's Guild Steersman -- along with detailed annotations and a scale chart -- well, here you go. The appendix includes process sketches as well. This book led me to read a number of others, just to see what the aliens were like in context. (I found that Barlowe often took considerable liberties with the sketchy descriptions.) If you haven't seen this text, you really ought to take advantage of Amazon's Look Inside the Book feature and see what sorts of messed-up things I was reading at eleven or twelve.

At the time I was reading this book, Dungeons and Dragons was big, and I had the notion of using Barlowe's Guide as a sort of "monster's guide" for a science fiction RPG. Blessedly, those plans never came to fruition. Eventually, I sold this book at a garage sale, and have regretted it ever since.


by Frank Herbert

I was nine or ten when my older brother gave me this book for Christmas. It was a bit adult for me -- religious fanaticism, Machiavellian intrigue, and genetic programs were probably not appropriate for a ten-year-old -- but I really latched onto it for reasons that I have discussed elsewhere. Looking back, I see that although Dune had no footnotes, it did have several appendices that were meant to make the text more real through supplemental context, just as the Ryrie Study Bible further explained the Bible with its supplemental notes on archaeology.

In later years, my older brother gave or lent me a string of age-inappropriate books, including many works by Piers Anthony (who has strikingly infantile attitudes about sexuality) and Stephen R. Donaldson (whose antihero Thomas Covenant performs relentless narcissistic handwringing in a reality that is entirely centered around him). But Dune is one of a kind -- tightly integrated, intriguingly interwoven despite its deep flaws, describing a future world in Roman decline and yearning for a jihad that would sweep away the old order and restore the vitality of humanity. If only Herbert had stopped there instead of authoring and coauthoring an endless stream of derivative sequels.


by Larry Niven

Larry Niven represents a melding of the two science fiction traditions that have their roots in Verne and Wells respectively: on the one hand, the "hard sf" that relies on plausible extrapolations, and on the other, the more sociologically concerned science fiction that postulates how societies change in contact with new technologies and new civilizations. Ringworld is not Niven's best work, but it leverages Niven's "Known Space" stories to present a compelling vision: a massive artifact left behind by an unknown race, so large that it has more livable space than any race would ever need, so ancient that its denizens had forgotten it was an artifact. This wasn't an entirely new idea, and in fact Tony Rothman did something similar in far more obsessive detail the next year with his interesting, but far less compelling, The World is Round. (Nor was it as well fact-checked.) But its combination of sheer scope, inventive technology, and sociological observation -- and its sly references to other "Known Space" works -- made it a remarkable book that spawned a number of imitators.

Far Arena

by Richard Sapir

I was probably 13 or 14 when I picked this book up, either at a garage sale or a used bookstore. It looked intriguing -- and turned out to be really strong, despite some flaws. Sapir's protagonist works his way up from slavery to become a free man and the premier gladiator in Domitian's Rome. After disgracing Domitian, he is marched up to the frozen North and, er, frozen, only to be discovered and revived in the late 20th century. (This device is not very plausible, but at least it's more plausible than the device in Bellamy's classic utopian novel Looking Backwards, in which the protagonist is hypnotized to sleep and revived a century later!) In any case, the gladiator's story is told as a series of flashbacks interspersed with stories from a variety of perspectives: a Texan geologist working for the oil company that finds the frozen gladiator, a Russian doctor who is the foremost expert on cryogenics, and a nun who happens to be fluent in spoken Latin. I'm not sure which was more intriguing to me: the Roman flashbacks, which were quite detailed, or the gladiator's coming to grips with a modern world that seems both bizarre and strikingly familiar to him.


by George Orwell

I'm pretty sure I read 1984 in 1981, when I was eleven, in anticipation of the upcoming date. (The novel was arbitrarily set in 1984 because Orwell was writing in 1948.) 1984 is a classic, of course, and certainly in the H.G. Wells dystopian mold. But it was also deeply disturbing to me: the pervasive surveillance, the control over language that was meant to yield the control of thought, the constant tailoring of history, and eventually the psychological breaking of the protagonist. When confronted with his deepest fear, he cracks, and at the end "he loved Big Brother" -- with no God to appeal to, no heroic sacrifice to make, no hope and no escape. Of course, reading this in 1981, I was also reading it through the lens of what I knew about the Soviet Union, so it was scarily real. And that brings us to the next and last book:

The Gulag Archipelago

by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

Although I had read plenty of dystopian novels by the age of 15, and heard plenty about the travails in the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago -- which I primarily read at endless swim meets during the summer of my 15th year, I recall -- really brought the horrors of the Soviet experiment home to me. Like 1984, Solzhenitsyn's descriptions of the secret police, show trials, and labor camps were told without hope of appeal or justice. But whereas the secret police of 1984 were psychological surgeons, the Stasi were butchers, interested not in assent but in convictions and punishment. The dry, pervasive fear that Solzhenitsyn described stayed with me, and is brought back forcefully whenever I read biographies of Bakhtin or Wertsch's account of double consciousness -- or whenever I read about activity theory's development in the Soviet Union.


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