Banned Books Week – Day 7

On this, the last day of Banned Books Week, I decided to cast my net a bit further in defining what counts as a book.  And I chose 20th Century Boys, a Japanese manga series by Naoki Urasawa.  It’s an amazing story—honestly, one of the best stories I’ve ever read, hands down—executed with a deft hand for character and pacing and emotional weight.  And it’s in book form, so it counts!

20th Century Boys
20th Century Boys, Volume 1, by Naoki Urasawa

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels and manga for many years now, and I’m incredibly impressed by the breadth and quality of stories told in this serial art format.  From stunning, complicated art styles to very simple styles, these creators weave amazing stories, using panel composition and framing, color and linework, to guide the reader through.

20th Century Boys, in particular, is a favorite of mine.  It follows an ordinary workaday Japanese man named Kenji, thrust suddenly into a conspiracy involving a cult trying to take over the world.  And the seeds of this cult—and the means to stopping them—lie in Kenji’s past, in the stories he and his childhood friends wrote together when they were just kids hanging out in their secret fort.  There’s a LOT more to it than that.  But suffice to say it’s equal parts mystery, thriller, horror, and intense character drama, and the time I devoted to reading it was time very well spent.

I think (I hope) that graphic novels are being viewed more often these days as the mature, varied medium they are.  They encompass a wide variety of genres and have a lot to say to us.  And honestly, there are so many I could recommend to those willing to give them a try.

Anyway, that wraps up my week of talking about books that have had an impact on me!  There are so many more that I could have included here, that I’d love to talk about in future posts.  So, watch this space!

And in the meantime, if any of my listings have inspired you to pick up something new, or at least gotten you thinking about books that have impacted your own life, I’d be happy to hear all about it!  After all, the world can always use more Book Love.

Banned Books Week – Day 6

As I approach the end of this week, I’ve found it harder to narrow down “books that have had an impact on me” to just seven.  In truth, books have shaped me in so many ways over the course of my life.  They’ve taught me lessons, opened my eyes to new ways of seeing, pushed my writing further, introduced me to characters who’ve made a home in my heart, and brought me countless hours of joy.

All this is to say that I may just continue these book love posts as a regular feature here at the blog.  Because the world could always use more book love!

For today’s entry, I decided to cheat a little, and select an unusual anthology I stumbled across many years ago in a used book sale.  1000 Beautiful Things, by Marjorie Barrows, is a curiosity cabinet in book form.  It’s a collection of poems, short stories, essays, psalms, quotations, and excerpts of larger novels and plays.  Whatever Ms. Barrows found to be examples of beauty in word form.  Compiled in 1945, its contents may show their age, may come across as a bit stuffy to modern readers.  But there is something very dear to me that I can open this book and find a few paragraphs from John Ruskin, writing about the transcendental majesty of water.  Or find a tiny poem about a quiet, starlit night.

1000 Beautiful Things
1000 Beautiful Things, compiled by Marjorie Barrows

Ms. Barrows and I are alike, in that we are both magpies, collectors of beautiful words.  I have files and folders in my computer where I store quotations and poems and favorite short stories.  I have a little tin full of short phrases and interesting images written on slips of paper, that I can dive into whenever I’m in need of inspiration.  I once papered an entire stairwell with photocopied poems.

Words are my joy, and that joy can come from so many sources in so many ways.  So I plan to keep adding to my little curiosity cabinet.  And when I am feeling down or discouraged or uninspired, I can open up my collection, and find something to refresh my heart.

Banned Books Week – Day 5

Everyone knows Tolkien.  The influence of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the modern fantasy genre cannot be overstated, and Tolkien himself is a household name.  Ask a lot of fantasy writers for someone who was a big influence on them, and many of them will tell stories of reading Tolkien in their youth.

So you don’t need to tell me those books had an impact.  But I will point you to a far less well-known Tolkien work, which had a greater impact on me personally.  Tree and Leaf is a deceptively slim volume, originally containing Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and the short story “Leaf by Niggle.”  The later edition I read also included his poem “Mythopoeia.”  The book was recommended to me by a friend in college, and I was so glad when I finally tracked it down in my grad school library; at the time, the book was not easy to find.

Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The essay and the poem are both defenses of the value of myth and fantasy in our lives and in our stories.  While fantasy has broken out much more into the mainstream today, for much of my young life, it was derided as useless at best and actively dangerous at worst.  In academia, professors and even fellow students often didn’t know how to approach it, and assumed that fantasy was intended for younger readers, lacking depth and unable to reach the lofty heights of True Literature.  So reading these defenses were important to me.  They reassured me that the space I chose to play in, the stories I wanted to tell, had value.

And “Leaf by Niggle” is its own gorgeous story whose images continue to haunt me to this day.  It’s a story about a man working tirelessly to achieve his grand artistic vision, and the unexpected way in which that vision is finally realized—in many senses of the word.

So, you could say that Tree and Leaf is Tolkien explaining, exploring, and justifying the act of imaginative creation (or sub-creation, as he would term it).  In prose and poem and essay, he reflects on the value and importance of a topic that meant so much to him—and that means so much to me.

Banned Books Week – Day 4

In thinking about books that have had an impact on me, I wanted to include at least one book about writing.  I didn’t know any writers in my immediate circle growing up, so I turned instead to tracking down books on the topic.  And not necessarily dry tomes on grammar and composition, or books with shiny, bold-print titles insisting they know the One True Technique to crafting an Instant Bestseller ™.  I’m talking quieter books where one writer shares anecdotes about how they got started writing, what their relationship to the muse is like, the sorts of experiences they had in the industry and what led them to writing certain stories.

I gobbled these books up.  I still do.  Especially when the well of inspiration is running dry and I can’t quite bring myself to put in the necessary butt-in-chair time, reading the creative experiences of others has often helped me get back on track, and inspired me to put hand to keyboard.

I can list off so many of these books that are definitely worth your while (maybe in a future post, I’ll do just that!).  But for now, I want to talk about Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, which was like a bolt of lightning directly to my college-age writer brain.

Wild Mind
Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg

Goldberg’s book is a blend of musings on creativity, writing exercises derived from Zen practice, and deeply personal vignettes into her life.  She advocates a writing practice that is very stream-of-consciousness, letting the words and images flow without editorial judgment.  After reading Wild Mind, I tried my hand at more freestyle journaling, letting the muse take me where she would.  I also tried to notice more sensory details about the world around me.  Goldberg painted her own experiences so vividly that I felt like I was traveling with her.  The summer I read this book, the sunlight seemed brighter, cool fruit smoothies tasted sweeter, and I have never been more in love with the sound and smell of rainy days.

Anne McCaffrey showed me how to build entire worlds out of my own imagination.  Natalie Goldberg showed me the world I already lived in, through a new lens.

Banned Books Week – Day 3

*kicks down door*

Okay, it’s time to put the pedal to the metal this Banned Books Week, by talking about a book about banned books, that has itself been banned!  I am, of course, talking about the science fiction classic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is an absolute master of craft, and this book was my gateway drug into his deftly-written work.  He is able to pack so much into his stories with just a few careful strokes.  With only a single sentence, he can evoke entire worlds.  This is what astounded me the first time I read Fahrenheit 451.  Bradbury doesn’t dwell on details—a sharp contrast to the richly-detailed fantastic worlds I was used to reading—and yet he can convey so much.

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

He didn’t need to spend whole pages describing the malignant robot dogs that chased down our protagonist; he only conveyed just enough that I knew they were terrifying.  To my young imagination, they were lethal shadows, they were ghosts, and my mind could fill in all the details on its own.

As for the story itself, it’s famous enough:  in an unspecified future, the world passively consumes shallow media that’s high on petty drama and low on substance, while books are contraband, fit only to be burned by Firemen.  Our hero, Guy Montag, is one such Fireman, but defects when he is introduced to books and learns to slow down and start paying attention to the world.

Much can and has been said about this book’s reflection on real-world trends:  the speeding up and dumbing down of media, a 24-hour cycle of nonstop sensation at the expense of quieter reflection, and the slow atrophying of our connections to ourselves and others.  Make no mistake, this book’s world is a dystopia and it reflects the very worst of ourselves back at us.  I’m not going to belabor its points here, because this blog entry would go on forever and turn into a book report.

But suffice to say that while I believe some media trends are cause for concern and even active pushback, I am also seeing positive trends in how we tell stories and the sort of stories we are telling.  The human thirst for stories that move us is a bottomless well, deep and full of starlight.

And I will leave you with this:  the most powerful image this book left me with is the image of people who have become books.  Memorized every line, every word, and carried the books with them into the future.  I’ve often wondered what book I would choose to become, if I had to.  Or even if I just wanted to.

We don’t need to memorize books word for word.  But if each of us takes at least one book into our hearts and carries it with us into the future, I think there is hope for us yet.

Banned Books Week – Day 2

Every day this week, in honor of Banned Books Week, I will be posting a blurb about a book that has had an impact on me.  Today’s book is Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey.

One of the enduring character archetypes of books for younger readers are spunky young heroines who escape the confines of a constricting life and get to a place where they are able/encouraged to flourish.  For me, that heroine was Menolly, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong.

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey

I’ve talked before about how Dragonquest changed my life, by introducing me to McCaffrey’s Pern series and fostering a lifelong love of dragons and a determination to become a Writer.  Dragonsong was the second Pern book I picked up, and though the main character didn’t become a dragonrider, she did find something more important to her: a place to express herself artistically.  She also broke the glass ceiling in the process, because in Pern, women typically were only taught music as an elective, a trifle to while away their hours—assuming they were allowed to learn at all.  But only men became Harpers.

It’s a systemic inequality that parallels similar structures in the real world.  Through Menolly, we were allowed to imagine an alternative path to success:  if we were brave, clever, willing to persevere and take risks.

My younger self probably wouldn’t have articulated it in this way.  But Menolly went on an adventure to become a musician, and ended up with 9 pet mini-dragons along the way.  What wasn’t to like??

She might not have picked up a sword and gone off to battle, but she taught us how to be brave for the sake of our art.  And she also taught us to remember to be kind along the way.

It’s always important to be kind.