2019 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 31, 2019

This is the 12th year I’ve been doing these “Year in Reading” posts. They’re really written for my poor memory because I can’t imagine anyone caring about a list of books I’ve read. It’s a ritual where think about my reading habits and contemplate what I might want to read in the next year. At the end of last year I said, “Other than gorging on short science fiction, I’ll make no promises for 2019.” I think that’s the first time I’ve actually done exactly what I said I was going to do regarding my reading predictions.

This year I won’t list the books I’ve read. I’m being lazy because it takes a lot of work to create that HTML table. I’ve started using Goodreads to track my reading so here’s my 2019 summary for those who care. It’s much more visual anyway since it displays the list by the covers.

The Best Science Fiction 1949 1950 1951 1952

This year I read many anthologies and author collections of science fiction short stories. I’m guessing well over two hundred stories. I also read several books about the history of science fiction. I’ve separated my obsession with science fiction to another blog. I’m starting to wonder if I read too much science fiction, especially older science fiction.

Asimov and others

What’s interesting is when I look over the books I read in 2019 the books that stand out the most weren’t science fiction. I’d have to say my novel of the year was The Overstory by Richard Powers. I was also very impressed with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Picking my favorite nonfiction book is harder, so here’s my three-way tie:

2019 - Favorite Nonfiction Books

Since I don’t feel like spending a lot of words on describing these books I thought I’d link to reviews that do:

I will say that I wish I could remember what’s in these books. It bothers me that I read intensely fascinating nonfiction books and then quickly forget it. I’ve written about this forgetting angst before. My best existential solution is to tell myself that feeling knowledgable about these subjects while I read them is good enough. This is my second reading of the Hugo Award-winning The World Beyond the Hill, and it’s already fading away. I hate that.

Quite often when I reread one of these Year in Reading posts I discover so many titles that I no longer recognize at all. And I’m not even talking Alzheimer’s forgetting, but merely mundane I’m-getting-old forgetting. Part of my problem is I chase too many squirrels. One comforting aspect of focusing on old science fiction this year is the feeling that I’m becoming knowledgable about something. It is a rather useless academic territory to claim, but at least it feels familiar when wandering around in the same small land.

I assume next year I will continue exploring deeper into the history of science fiction. However, I would like to broaden my reading somewhat. At the end of this year, I read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan because several best-of-the-decade lists praised it. This literary fix-up novel (13 short stories that have connections) was far better written than any science fiction I read and does broaden my reading experience, but I’m not sure I cared. Still, I might try some more contemporary literary fiction in 2020.

I feel in my waning years that I need to specialize in a few subjects because I can’t maintain a coherent sense of a generalist. On the other hand, I am impressed by how many Jeopardy clues trigger lost facts to pop out of my head. There’s a jumble of knowledge in there, I just can’t organize or quickly access it.

More and more I’m impressed by people who can explain things in detail. The ability to quickly recall bits of information and string them together into a verbal narrative is a skill I envy. I’d love to be able to describe what I read in a coherent speech when my friends ask me about what I’ve been reading.

Next year when I read a book I truly admire I hope I will study it, write a concise summary, and then develop that into a little speech. I wonder if the act of preparing a micro-lecture will help me remember more?

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

JWH

I Believe I’ve Found a Solution to All My Reading Problems

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 3, 2019

Problems:
  • I miss reading like I did when I was young
  • I try to read too many books concurrently
  • I start too many books I don’t finish
  • I buy too many books I never even get around to trying to read
  • I start too many reading projects (reading multiple books on one subject)
  • I’m attracted to too many subjects
  • I want to read every book that sounds great
Solutions:
  • Only read one book at a time
  • Only listen to one book at a time
  • Keep a list of books I want to read next
  • Keep a list of audiobooks I want to listen to next
  • I can only buy a new book/audiobook when I’m finished with my current book/audiobook and I must read it immediately.
  • I must look through my TBR lists before buying a new book.

When I was a young bookworm I only bought a new book when I finished my old book. I didn’t have much money, so deciding what to buy and read next was a huge pleasure that I’d spend a lot of time contemplating. When I first joined Audible.com, I only had two credits each month, and I was very careful about how I used them. I’d listened to everything I bought. Deciding on the next audiobook was always a delicious time of deciding.

Being able to afford all the books and audiobooks I want has been bad for me. I spend more time buying books and thinking about buying books than I do reading and listening. When I was younger, I used to read an hour or two every day, and many hours on the weekend. I barely read three hours a week now, but I do get in 5-7 hours a week of listening to books. I miss those days when I got so into books I’d finish them in a day or two.

I thought when I retired I would get more books read, but it’s been just the opposite. I have too many other distractions in my life. I won’t go into all of them, I’m sure everyone knows about all the new entertainment diversions that have popped up in the last couple of decades.

What worries me is another problem, a lack of focus. I wonder if getting older is reducing my ability to stay focused, or is it just all the distractions? Part of the problem is I have dozens of books pulled off my bookshelves in different stages of being read. I jump from one book to the next as my mental whims come and go. I have too many writing projects I want to research, and that means I don’t get anything finished. I can focus just enough to complete a blog length essay. I’d like to write something longer, but that would require focusing on one topic for days or weeks and my mind can’t seem to do that.

I’ve been wondering if my lack of writing focus is related to my lack of reading focus. Sometime after midnight last night, a solution jumped into my mind. I theorized if I only read one book at a time maybe that would help. Because reading and listening work only in their own unique settings I decided I could keep one book and one audiobook going.

From this theory, I’ve developed a plan that I believe might solve all my reading problems. I can’t start or buy new books/audiobooks while I’m working on a book/audiobook. I have to keep TBR lists for books and audiobooks with at least a hundred titles on each and I have to read through those lists before buying a new book/audiobook. I  have over a thousand unread books I could put on each list but the idea is to put just enough books I’m craving to read on each list to remind me why I shouldn’t buy another book.

To further keep me from buying new books/audiobooks, is making the rule I can only buy books after finishing books, and I must read any new purchase immediately. Any new book becomes the next read. In other words, to buy a book/audiobook I have to look at my TBR list and decide I want to read a new book more than any of the books on the list.

Right now I try to read all the books that are laying around and it doesn’t work. I need an analogous saying for “My eyes are bigger than my stomach” regarding reading. When you have countless books you’re dying to read it’s rather insane to go buy more. And boy am I crazy.

I don’t know if I will have the discipline to accomplish this plan but I’m going to try very hard. I’ve already started unsubscribing to the mailing lists advertising books on sale. I’ve got to break my restless habit of visiting used bookstores twice a week. I’ve also got to break my habit of jumping on ABEbooks and ordering any book that I think I should read.

I believe I will actually save money if I only buy books just before I read them even if I have to pay the full new price. Now, I’ve come to that conclusion before. And it slowed down my book buy a great deal, but I still bought way more than I can read. My problem is I want to read too much and I believe buying a book means I’ll eventually read it. That’s obviously not true.

The trick of this plan is to only buy a book when I’ve just finished another, whether book or audiobook. And only purchase that book if I want to read it before any of the other great books I already own and supposedly dying to read. If I can stick to that one act of discipline I believe it will have a cascading effect on solving all my reading problems.

Update 11/4/19:

I’ve decided I need a quitting factor. If I commit to reading a book I don’t want to be stuck finishing it if the book is no good. But I also want to give a book a fair shake. I figure I need to read a certain number of pages to get to know the book, but I’m not sure what that number will be. See the comments below for one suggested formula.

I also need to decide what to do with books I quit. Do I still keep them? For printed books, I’ve always donated those to the library book sales. But what about ebooks and audiobooks that clutter up my digital libraries? I’m thinking I should delete them. I believe Amazon has a provision for that, but that seems kind of drastic.

Finally, I decided on a couple loop-holes about buying books. If I buy a new book it has to be read immediately. But I can buy books I’ve already read. Quite often when I listen to a book I want a printed copy for reference. I keep an eye out for cheap used copies. Or there are books I’ve read in the past that I wished I owned a copy for reference. And sometimes I want to buy reference books that aren’t meant to be read from cover-to-cover. Finally, there are some books that I collect for various reasons — because I want a special edition, or I want to replace an old copy, or I just want an edition for its dust jacket or cover. This leaves me a little room to have fun book shopping without stockpiling books to read. However, my discipline will be sorely tested if I see a mint used edition of a book I’ve always wanted to read for $3.

I’ve already finished the first book I committed to reading and wrote a review last night. That felt good. I’m already reading on the second book I committed to, and I’m very excited about being able to stick with it. I skipped TV watching last night to read on it, and got up this morning and read some more. This early success suggests my idea of committing to reading only one book at a time works.

I guess its finally time to get down to the nitty-gritty of reading all those books I bought to read in my retirement years.

JWH

 

What Would Have Made Me Want To Study as a Schoolkid?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 23, 2019

I considered my K-12 education a 13-year prison sentence. I did my mediocre best getting mostly Cs and Bs, with rare As and Ds. My good grades didn’t reflect my ability but showed what I was actually interested in. I had a lot of great teachers that tried hard to get me to learn, but I didn’t cooperate. I wish to apologize to all of them now, especially my 12th-grade math teacher. I just didn’t want to pay attention, study, or do homework. Life was full of fun diversions and I found no incentive to make the most of my school years.

I regret that now and it’s really pointless to worry about it now, but it is an interesting problem to think about solving. How do you get kids to want to study? A certain percentage of children respond well to traditional classroom learning, but most don’t. When I’m shopping in used bookstores I look at K-12 textbooks and I’m horrified by how much crap they want to stuff in a young person’s head.

Part of the problem is society wants kids to acquire proficiency in a specific set of subjects before they’re 18. Then they up the ante by a couple of magnitudes for higher education. Before you can start life you have to be programmed with 400,000 facts. We’re told we need that many factoids to succeed in life but I doubt many believe it. I always considered it cruel and unusual punishment. I never knew what crime I committed to deserve such torture.

And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy learning as a child. I was a bookworm from the 4th-grade on, reading several hundred books while serving my K-12 time. I just didn’t want to read the books teachers wanted me to read.

I don’t know if I was a typical child. But I’d guess most kids didn’t like the system either. I’ve often thought about what if I could have designed my own pedagogy. It’s a fun thing to fantasize about. Try it and post a comment. I have come to some conclusions for me only, not a general system.

  1. The most important thing I should have been taught as a kid is about the world of work and how I’d spend forty years doing something that I could either like or dislike. I needed to learn as early as possible if I didn’t find my right vocation I’d spend those years in quiet desperation at best and crushing resentment at worse.
  2. I needed to have been shown by experience that there are many kinds of tasks and work environments. After high school, it took me several jobs to realize I preferred working inside rather than outside. I eventually learned I rather work with machines than people, but I liked an environment with well-educated people, and tasks that produced something useful to humanity rather than the bottom line. And I didn’t need to be the boss. I’m pretty sure I could have learned all of that in grade school.
  3. I learned too late in life that I loved science and technology. Again, I can imagine ways to get kids to learn subjects they like while they are still in grade school. It might require spending some classroom time in real work environments.
  4. What I sorely missed was a real incentive to study. I was told an education led to a good job but I never knew what a good job meant. I think study incentives need to be more immediate. I think the goal of being freed from classes would have been the incentive that would have worked for me. In other words, tell me the week’s goal. If I can finish by Thursday I could have Friday off. If I could finish in four weeks of a six weeks period, I could have two weeks off. If I could finish the year in March, I could have a long summer. Or even, if I could finish at 14 I could bum around for a few years before college. That would have inspired me to study harder. (I know that K-12 schools also serve as babysitters, so being freed from classes might mean more library days, or sports, or clubs, or other school activities. Although I wanted to be out on the streets or at home.)
  5. For such a finish-early system to work we’d need to carefully define and quantify what needs to be learned. Right now schools are one-size-fits-all. Not every kid wants to learn everything every other kid learns. Society needs to decide what subjects form a basic education, and what should be electives. We should find creative ways to test everything. Educators have gone nuts with cultural literacy.
  6. Society is discovering all kinds of learning and teaching methods. They didn’t have personal computers when I was little. But I think if they did I would have learned best in the classroom and taking quizzes at night on the computer for homework. If testing had been more like computer games and trivia contests they would have been fun. Competing for high scores would have pushed me, but grades never did in the least. If every subject had a rating like in chess, that would have been fun.

I’m curious if anything could have motivated me to study as a kid. It’s too bad we don’t have time machines. It would be a fun challenge to go back in time and see if could motivate my younger self.

Uh, maybe that’s an idea for a science fiction novel.

JWH

 

 

 

I’m a Slow Learner of the Big Picture

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 12, 2019

It took me over ten years to graduate college, changing majors several times. I realize now that my problem was seeing the bigger picture of every topic. I never understood why I needed to learn what was required in each course. For example, The Modern Novel, a course I took for the English major I finally completed. Back in the 1970s, I couldn’t fathom why they called novels from the 1920s modern. Well, now in the 2010s, I do. I just read The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein. Goldstein chronicles how Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Elliot struggled in their personal lives to finish their most famous works in 1922. Each floundered in their efforts before finding new narrative techniques.

I now see the “modern novel” in a larger context, and I’m sure if I keep reading the history of everything from 1875-1930 I’ll expand that mental map even larger. Since I was an English major in the 1970s I’ve learned about the revolutions in art, music, philosophy, and other subjects in the early 20th century that add to that bigger picture. If I had taken courses in history, science, art, music, literature, engineering, medicine, etc. concurrently that covered the 18th-century one semester, then the 19th the next, and then 20th century, I would have understood how everything came together in the 1920s to be labeled modern. And that would have helped me comprehend the “post-modern.”

Concurrent to reading The World Broke in Two I’m also reading and studying the history of science fiction short stories. I’ve been reading these since the 1960s, and their evolution is finally coming together in multiple related ways. I realize now that I’m quite a slow learner when it comes to constructing the big picture in my head.

I remember back in high school and college feeling jealous how some of my fellow students always knew the answers. I assumed they studied harder than I did because I knew I didn’t study much. But that’s only part of the reason why they did better in school. I’m just now realizing they were also better at connecting the dots.

One of the big regrets in my life is not finding a passion while young to pursue with great effort and concentration. I knew success requires hard work, but the willingness to work hard requires drive and focus, and I never had that. I now understand that seeing the big picture is part of creating that drive and focus.

I’ve always been somewhat smarter than average, but never very smart. I had enough innate skills to get through school without studying much, but not enough cognitive insight to understand why I should study. I always saw school like the smaller image in the larger image above – a fragment of the whole that didn’t make sense.

Evidently, some people have a knack for seeing the synergy of details when they are young. We know this from the early works of successful people. It must be a cognitive skill like a sense of direction, spatial awareness, or conceptualizing in three-dimensions, but with data and ideas.

I know what I’m saying is vague, but then I’m trying to describe something I’m challenged at understanding. I only have a hint of its existence. I wonder if its a skill they can teach young kids? However, I also wonder if the way they teach subjects in school actually works against gaining this skill. Because schools divide up learning into thousands of lessons we’re trained to memorize individual facts, and not how those facts make patterns. Of course, pedagogy might have changed since I went to school a half-century ago.

I’ve often wondered if in each school year they should teach students the history of reality from the Big Bang to now so they see how all areas of knowledge evolved together. Of course, in pre-K years teachers would have to be very vague by telling kids the biggest generalizations, but with each successive year refine those details. I wonder if kids learned to see how knowledge arose from previous knowledge it wouldn’t help reveal bigger pictures of how things work.

JWH

 

I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

Do Bookworms Read Too Many Books?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 27, 2019

Yesterday I reread “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner for the third time. I’ve read the story twice in the last ten months. This time I read “Vintage Season” by listening to an audio edition on headphones while simultaneously reading the words on my iPad. Consuming fiction via two senses is the penultimate way to get into a story. I believe the ultimate way to fully experience a work of fiction is to read it several times.

The trouble with rereading is our TBR piles are always growing. We’re driven to brain-cram as many new stories into one lifetime as possible. Reading a story once is like driving through a city and claiming you’ve been there. Rereading a story the first time is like a two-day stay. Reading a story many times is like visiting a town for weeks. Literary scholars are those folks who move into a story as a permanent residence.

There’s value to being widely traveled in books, but at some point, all the places start looking the same. It’s a shame we can’t read everything. Even if I read just the great books, this lifetime won’t be enough.

Fiction is like finding old dinosaur bones. The first reading is an amateur fossil hunter digging up the bones and getting a rough idea what the creature looked like. Rereading is a professional paleontologist carefully reconstructing every aspect of that dinosaur.

The first time I read “Vintage Season” decades ago it was just another mind-blowing science fiction story. However, it stayed with me. I don’t actually remember the title of very many short stories, but I remembered this one. When I reread the story the second time last March when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out on audio, it was like watching an old favorite movie I had first seen as a kid on a black and white TV and seeing it again on a new high definition TV and then realizing it wasn’t a black and white movie, but a Technicolor masterpiece. Reading “Vintage Season” again yesterday while listening to the audio version, felt like I was walking around inside a 3D movie.

This intense immersion with a story will not work with all stories. Every work of fiction is a creative vision by a writer encrypted and compressed into words. Fantastically rich visions can’t be decrypted and decompressed in one reading.

If our reading lives are racing through one new book after another we’re barely getting the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story, and if we’re speed reading, it’s just an introductory abstraction.

I am now torn between chasing after all those novels and short stories I want to read before I die and rereading old favorites knowing I might reach a higher plane of bookworm existence.

JWH

 

 

As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH