The Top 10 Science Fiction Film Game

Over at Jason Sanford’s site, he tags John Scalzi’s little game of improving on the AFI’s Top 10 science fiction films.  I imagine every blogger with any opinion about science fiction at all will want to play, because I know I do.  And it’s not that I disagree terribly with AFI, which I do, I just think a person’s favorite Top 10 SF films are their own Rorschach test of personality.

Here are my favorite Top 10 SF Movies at the moment:

  • The Matrix
  • Gattaca
  • Aliens
  • A.I.
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Things to Come
  • The Abyss
  • Starship Troopers
  • The Fifth Element
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

They are somewhat in order, but actually fluctuate moment by moment because my choices are not based on intellect, but mood.  Like music, I experience movies as a mood enhancer, and I like my science fiction to turn up the sense of wonder to the max and make me feel intensely philosophical.  However, my philosophical mood changes often, and if I made the list a month from now it might be very different.

All of these films are upbeat, even if they are sometimes about people who are beaten down.  I prefer Aliens and The Fifth Element over Alien and The Twelve Monkeys because they feel so much more positive.  I also have a nagging feeling there might be dozens of better movies I should be listing but I just can’t remember them at the moment.  What was that little Australian film that showed Saturn rising up in our sky?  That was a cool film.

I quickly pulled these ten titles from Sci-Fi Lists Top 100 Sci-Fi Films.  If you hop over to Google and search on the phrase “Top Science Fiction Movies” you can find all kinds of lists, and surprisingly, there’s a tremendous overlap.  I guess hundreds of SF films were pretty ho-hum or even ha-ha silly and are quickly forgotten.  And ten or twenty years ago my list would have been very different, but many of my old favorites like Planet of the Apes, 2001, Forbidden Planet, Back to the Future, etc., I’ve watched so many times they fizzle more than they bang.  The above list are the ones that still make my neurons explode with excitement.

Jim

My Kind of Story

After consuming 2,000-3,000 books over the last half-century you’d think I’d know exactly what kind of books I love to read, but I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been living on the trial and error method up to now.  Before recent revelations, if I didn’t like a book it was a bad book, or a boring book, or if I wanted to be generous I could claim I wasn’t in the right mood for that book or whine that the book covered a topic out of my territory.  If I loved a book, it was brilliant, insightful, well written, heartfelt, and perfect for me.  What if I’m wrong?  What if why I love or hate a story has nothing to do with those factors?  What if it has nothing to do with genre?  What if it has nothing to do with favorite writers?  What if the books I love the most, the ones I read the fastest are due to a particular writing formula?

Recently I selected The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon for my June book in the 1% Well-Read challenge, but that book rubbed me the wrong way.  Since the Pynchon book was about the 1960s I thought I’d try a different book about the same time period and see how another author handled the subject.  I quickly found, Drop City by T. C. Boyle, also covered in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  Both books open in California, but the Pynchon book came out in 1966 and appeared to be about 1964, and the Boyle book was published in 2003 and was about 1970.  Drop City rubbed me the right way.

So, with two books about Californian counter-culture, why did one soar and the other crash and burn?  You’d think the book written in the middle of the 1960s would feel more authentic, but actually the book written in 2003 hit an emotional bull’s eye with my old memories of the times.  Well, for one thing, Pynchon was born in 1937, and Boyle was born in 1948, and I was born in 1951.  In fact, the Pynchon book reminded me of another book from 1966, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina, also born in 1937.  I had the same kind of trouble with the Farina book, and for many of the same reasons I didn’t like the Pynchon novel.  Both of those books felt overly intellectual and writerly, whereas the Boyle book felt like it was just a straight-forward tale about real people.

This first clue leads me to think I need to read writers who are like me in some way, because obviously I can’t always read writers my own age.  I like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but they definitely aren’t like me, and I don’t resonate with them emotionally.  I admire their stories greatly, but I don’t have a personal bond with them like I do with modern stories.  I don’t think it’s time that keeps us apart, but their storytelling techniques.

Great Expectations is one of my all time favorite books, but that’s more for abstract reasons, and I greatly admire it for creative and intellectual reasons.  I’ve got to admit that I preferred the narrative of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber (1960), a novel set in Dickens’ time over straight Dickens storytelling.  Modern writers have developed skills to get their readers closer to their characters.  I don’t know is this is an illusion, and modern historical fiction is more appealing because the historical characters are just more modern themselves, or if Jane Austen used modern writing techniques we’d feel even closer to her two hundred year old characters.

My all time favorite books are books written by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s.  I also have a strong affinity for Jack Kerouac and his books from the 1950s.  These books I’ve read and reread.  Some of my more recent favorites are The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter series, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, His Dark Materials, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret Live of Bees, Middlesex, The Wonder Boys, Positively 4th Street, Nobody’s Fool, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Poisonwood Bible, The Glass Castle, Truth and Beauty, The Sparrow, Cloud Atlas, The Memory of Running, The Time Traveler’s Wife, A Woman of the Iron People, Bellwether, and so on.

Maybe here’s enough clues to solve the puzzle.  I think the books I cozy up to the fastest are first person narratives, or stories told in very limited third person.  I don’t like intellectual authors, especially those who use third person omniscient to expound about life and reality.  What I’m discovering is my kind of stories are about people, told in a very straight forward manner, and I greatly prefer the voice of the character over the voice of the author.  Not only that, but I’m pretty hung-up on wanting the story to unfold in a linear fashion.

I’m starting to wonder:  What if my kind of story depends on how the story is told rather than what it’s about?  When I was in elementary school and begun getting into books I loved biographies and autobiographies first.  Very linear people stories.  If you examine the book list above, all the stories are focused on people and the narrator tells the story by sticking close to the main character’s POV.  I liked Drop City better than The Crying of Lot 49 because Boyle got closer to his characters, but it wasn’t a super great book to me because he didn’t get close enough and there were too many of them.

When I listened to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this week, I got extremely excited about the beginning when I was first learning about Oscar, and got very disappointed when the story turned away from him.  I just started Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell, and the first story, “Baby Doll,” was a hit because of the characters, and the third story, “The Last American,” was a dud because it was all ideas and no characterization.  Intellectually I know “The Last American” is supposed to be a good story.  I can see it’s creative parts.  But it was painful for me to read because it had no character I could get behind.

I don’t think I’m seduced by every character driven story, because I’ve hated some stories with great personal writing because the POV character was too unlikable.  I love stories where the POV character have a distinctive voice, like Chi-mo in King Dork or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.  I think one of the reasons why I love the work of David Sedaris is his distinctive voice – he wouldn’t be so funny if he wasn’t so unique.

Literary writers definitely have the skills I like, but they often write about boring people.  The character details may show fantastic writing, but the personalities of the POV characters are often unappealing.  Who really cares about average alcoholic writers living in academia and getting divorced?  Well, Michael Chabon made Grady Tripp different in The Wonder Boys.

Drop City would have been a much better book to me if Boyle had followed a couple of his characters more closely.  It’s still a damn good story, but it’s movie like in that all the characters seem equal distant.  A lot of writers do this, that is, follow the techniques of the movies, jumping from character to character.  You can only get so emotionally close to an ensemble.  The Big Chill was a masterpiece of my generation, but it didn’t have the wrenching impact of Forrest Gump or Four Friends.

Other techniques I don’t like are flashbacks, convoluted plots and frames.  In the MFA classes I’ve taken, many of the student writers loved putting stories in frames, and then jumping back into flashbacks two, three and even four layers deep.  Sometimes they even use fantastic tricks to bring the modern narrator back into the past, as was done with Middlesex and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  To me, this hurts the story.  I can understand how dazzling this writing trick is intellectually, but not emotionally.

Now that I know what kind of storytelling turns me on it should help me improve my batting average finding great books to read.  On the other hand, it may not be that useful.  I often select books because other people say they are great and I want to discover what these people have discovered.  There are a lot of reasons to read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, a book that is definitely not my kind of story.  It is instructive about the nature of the early English novel and life in the 18th century England.  Tom Jones can be a great novel but one I hate to read.  So, should I read it?

Now that I’m more aware of what I like to read, should I only gorge on my kind of stories?  If reading was only about entertainment, then yes.  If reading is about pushing yourself into unknown territory, then no.  It is interesting to know about my reading sweet tooth.  Now I just have to learn how to recognize other reading flavors and how to savor them.

Jim

Pulp Fiction

Long ago, before Quentin Tarantino’s great film, before I was born in 1951, before television, there was pulp fiction.  It was called pulp fiction because of the grade of paper the stories were printed on was called pulp, and a whole entertainment industry was built around selling magazines with short stories and serialized novels wrapped in crude color reproductions of what is now called pulp art.

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When I was young I often met older science fiction fans that collected these magazines, but surely, most of the kids of the generation before me, who grew up loving to read pulp fiction, must be very old, if still living, and the pulp fiction generation surely must be dying out.  Yet, over at Fantasy & Science Fiction they are running an article, “The New Nostalgia: The Classic Pulp Story Revival” by Dave Truesdale that chronicles how several small press publishers are keeping the pulp fiction tradition alive with quality hardbound reprints.  This article is well worth reading on many levels because it renews memories of a few old authors and their best stories and informs about the sub-culture of the small press publishing.

Pulp fiction has also been kept alive by the legacy of comic books and their impact on the movies with all the classic super heroes being reinvented every year, and reoccurring pulp action films like the Indiana Jones series or the remake of King Kong.  Comics are the direct descendants of pulp magazines that featured cruder art and stories for the younger readers on the same pulp paper.  Pulp fiction was never literary but a few fine writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the tradition.  Most of the prose was purple and all action, and aimed at the poorly educated, often featuring very politically incorrect attitudes about race, gender, ethnic groups, and foreigners.  Society and the well bred looked down on the lowly pulp fiction fan.

Evidently, old pulp fiction is finding new younger readers through the popularity of action movies, reprints and inherited nostalgia.  When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s much of the best pulp fiction, including mysteries, westerns, science fiction, adventure, spy, thrillers and other genres were reprinted as cheap paperbacks for 25 and 35 cents, but now the buy-in price are $40 deluxe volumes.

There was always a tremendous vitality to pulp fiction, which explained why titles included words like astounding, thrilling, amazing, wonder, adventure, fantastic, and that wink-wink keyword, spicy.  Science fiction really is a child of pulp fiction, and I think many readers hated the change that the New Wave brought to the genre during the 1960s, where emerging writers tried to force science fiction out of the gutter and into the classroom where the revolutionaries wanted it to wear literary robes.  Today science fiction is often represented in the minds of the public at large by Star Trek and Star Wars, but those stories owe a lot to two pulp fiction superstars:  E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edward Hamilton.

If you want to sample classic science fiction pulp stories, and not spend too much money, I recommend tracking down copies of two anthologies:  Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.   These books collect some of the best SF short stories from 1931-1945.  You can find both at ABEBooks.com, but watch out, both fat original hardback anthologies were often reprinted as multi-volume paperback books, and it would be worth your while to use the advance search and specify hardback editions, thus saving you on total costs and postage.  These two books will give you a great education about the foundation of science fiction.

The URLs linked to these titles also give you table of contents for the stories which if you are really hoarding your gasoline dollars might find on the web for free.   Now, as you read the stories, consider these issues:

One, are they still fun to read?  Are they as fun as reading Harry Potter or any of your other current favorite writers?  Second, do the ideas seem stupid, in the light of modern knowledge?  Third, do you notice why I call them politically incorrect?  Fourth, can you tell the difference between pulp fiction writing and modern MFA writing (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), or even modern genre writing (Charlie Stross and John Scalzi)?  Fifth, are these stories worth preserving?  Sixth, are they worth your reading time over reading newer stories?

All fiction from 1900-1950 is thinning out fast in our collective memories, and few stories from that era get reprinted.  I’m not just talking about pulp fiction.  If you can, find a copy of Best American Short Stories from before 1950 and some original pulp magazines.  Most of the contents from either will never have seen print since the original publications.  The small presses that are reprinting classic pulp fiction stories, are really just rescuing one story in a thousand, maybe one in ten thousand.

Looking at the periods 1800-1850 and 1850-1900, only the rarest of stories are still read by modern readers.  Baby boomers can remember the famous books they read from 1950-2000, but how many of the following generations know about those best selling titles?  My guess is the pulp fiction nostalgia is for the boomers who can remember reading pulp fiction from its first generation of reprints.  I would imagine, out of all the genres only a handful of novels will become classics, like The Maltese Falcon, Tarzan of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, and Riders of the Purple Sage.  But how many kids under 16 discover these tales?

I occasionally enjoy reading an old pulp story and appreciate these small press publishers bringing back old favorites by Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard and Jack Williamson that I first discovered in used editions of Ace Doubles.  I think my identity is partly based on pulp fiction, and I feel I help keep these old friends alive by continuing to read them.  I know all of my generation and the stories we loved will soon pass on and be forgotten, but it’s pleasant to think a few of the stories will survive and future generations will enjoy them and wonder about their fans.

Jim

Living with Music Technology

The options of how you played music used to be rather simple.  You bought a record, put it on the turntable and played the songs you wanted.  Sure, you had to manually pick up the stylus arm and move it carefully to the exact track you wanted, and if you loved a particular song you had to jump out of your chair over and over again to keep that cut playing, but that technology required little thinking because there was little choice.  Of course if you were an eight-track or cassette user, the whole job was even more complicated and time consuming, but the tech skills were still pretty low.  In the twenty-first century you need to be a skilled computer operator to listen to your favorite tunes.

I am a fan of the Rhapsody Music service where I have no stylus arm to maneuver or cassette tape to position, and I no longer have to worry about scratching records or dealing with skips and pops, but it’s not all snap of my fingers easy.  I got so mad at Rhapsody that I almost canceled my subscription last week.  My browser kept disconnecting from the service, interrupting the songs I was playing, which was very annoying.  And I’ve yet to get the Rhapsody client software to play nice with Vista, even after being patient and giving Rhapsody a year to work out the kinks.

Luckily, the browser client has gotten better and better reducing the effort to listen to music down to being able to remember the name of the artist and track I want – not quite that easy as I get older – typing said information in the input box – again, not perfectly easy because I have to be able to spell those bits of data perfectly – but after that the only required effort to play a song is the physical exertion of a mouse click.  Just now I was in the mood to hear live versions of “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds.  Within seconds of thinking of this whim I discovered a newly released live CD on Rhapsody and was playing the song.  After that I remembered the live cut on the (Untitled)/(Unissued) CD, just a couple mouse clicks a way.  This is a breeze compared to the good old days.

This is not to say everything is perfect in tune heaven.  Ease of use depends on how closely tied I am to my computer.  If I’m writing like I am now, the work required is very minimal.  I have to keep a browser window open and pick out songs I want by typing their names and clicking on the play button.  If I want to play music away from the computer it gets more complicated, a lot more complicated.  My life would be easier if I just accepted I had to buy a compatible MP3 player to match Rhapsody’s requirements and pay the extra $5 a month, but I don’t like listening to music through earbud headphones.  What I’d like to do is go out to the living room, sit in my La-Z-Boy and play songs on my big stereo without having to get my lazy butt up whenever I think of a new song to hear.

Before I switched to Vista I had a nice setup with Windows XP, Linksys WiFi, Rhapsody, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 and Firefly Media Server.  I collected my favorite music by downloading files from Rhapsody, ran a system service called Firefly that talked to all my music libraries on my computer.  The M1001 was installed in the living and attached to my receiver via an optical cable and talked to my computer via WiFi.  I was in music nirvana except for all the clicking I had to do on my Roku remote to find songs I wanted to play.  And it was annoying I couldn’t stay in my La-Z-Boy to pick out the music either because the LCD readout on the Roku was too small to see across the room.

For months I dreamed of finding a small device that would allow me to control everything from my chair, with the ease of selecting music just like I was at my computer.  I thought of laptops, PDAs, and the emerging tech like the Nokia N800 Linux handhelds.  Before I could make a decision I upgraded to Vista and my lovely setup stopped working.

I wanted to give Rhapsody the benefit of the doubt and allow them time to catch up with Microsoft, however they never did.  I don’t know if it’s my HP computer, Vista or the Rhapsody software client, but they have never worked together.  Without the Rhapsody software, its DRM would stop Firefly from sending songs to the M1001.  Now I could have easily solved this problem if I was willing to spend a $1000 and buy a Sonos system.

Sonos talks to Rhapsody directly over the Internet, bypassing the computer, and even offers a handheld song selector device that would allow me to keep my fat ass in my chair and play music through my big stereo, or any stereo in my house if I that I was willing to purchase another Sonos connector.  Very cool tech but the price is too hot for me right now.  I keep hoping Sonos and Rhapsody will become a huge iPod level success and come down in price, plus give me some assurance that they have a long future before I invest even more money in my music system.

My wife recently got a new laptop and gave me back my laptop she had appropriated, so I decided to set it up as a Rhapsody music play station.  I reformatted the drive and put a fresh copy of XP on it, and then loaded the Rhapsody client.  I then took a patch cord and plugged the mini-headphone jack into the laptop’s headphone jack and the the split left and right channel RCA connects on the other end into my stereo’s CD input jacks.  I do believe the optical connector from the M1001 to the optical input on the receiver provided better sound, but I decided to leave the M1001 out of the mix right now.  My plan is to use a very long stereo cable so I can sit in my La-Z-Boy and put my laptop in my lap and use it as a music selector.

This isn’t a perfect setup.  The laptop is much bigger than a Sonos remote, and it gets hot on my thighs, but it does the job.  However, I can imagine a fair number of improvements.  Rhapsody provides an extremely large library for $120 a year, but it’s not complete.  It appears to offer almost everything in print – there are a few holdouts like The Beatles and Led Zepplin, but that’s not the big problem.  I have hundreds of CDs in my library that are out of print and no longer offered by Rhapsody.

Now I could consider Rhapsody’s millions of songs all I need and ignore my older CDs, or I’ll have to develop a dual music library system.  I’d have to rip all my old albums to supplement Rhapsody.  That would be a huge job that I’ve avoided until now.  I’d need a newer laptop with a larger hard drive, and I’d have to make backups and keep them off site, and all of that becomes a long job list that bums out thoughts of my future free weekends.  It makes me wonder if the old days were better, even if I could only play one LP in a sitting, and had to leap over to the stereo every time I wanted to skip a song.

I can understand why young people love the portable players like the iPod.  If only Steve Jobs would bless the concept of subscription music.  I could buy an iPod Touch and call it quits.  This past year I finally got rid of all my LPs I had been dragging around the country for forty years.  What a relief that was.  My wife and I still struggle with storing and shelving all our CDs.  Susan hasn’t embraced subscription music because she believes music should only be played in the car where God and 1950s America intended.  Susan recently discovered the powers of the iPod for music, a device she previously only used for audio books, and has began ripping her favorite CDs and taking her iPod for rides and leaving the CDs at home.  Sadly for me, she’s refused the job of becoming our MP3 librarian though.

Even if we did rip 2000 CDs, I can’t imagine using iTunes with so many songs.  Nor can I imagine protecting all those hundreds of gigabytes from now until eternity.  In my quest for finding simplicity in my old age I’ve considered following two musical paths.  One would be to give up digital music and go back to CDs.  The second would be to give up all physical music and live completely with subscription music.  There are even portable players out there that will talk directly to Rhapsody over WiFi, but can you imagine what the world will be like when iPhone 3.0 has subscription music?   Can you see the future where you have a device that goes anywhere and allows you to just name a song and it plays.  That’s pretty damn Sci-Fi to daydream about.

Why choose CD only?  Well, they’re paid for, and if I retire to some nice little town and never relocate again until it’s time to move into my coffin, taking care of all those CDs wouldn’t be too bad.  However, if I make several more moves before I retire, it will be a blessing to go all digital because my old back doesn’t like humping all those boxes of CDs.  To be honest, it’s no choice.  Since I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber I’ve seldom even touched my CD collection.  I would make the decision right now if I knew subscription music had a solid future.  But except for one blogging friend, I don’t know anyone that enjoys subscription music.  All my music fan buddies prefers to buy digital songs or CDs.

No one seems to understand the Valhalla of digital subscription music, so I have to wait to make my decision.  If the concept of subscription music goes the way of the 78, LP and SACD, I’ll have to rip my CDs and start buying tunes from Amazon one at a time and figure out how to schlep those gigabytes around for the next thirty years.  If only Steve Jobs would give his kiss of approval, owning music would be over.  Why has he embraced subscription movies but not music?

I’m in a holding pattern with music technology.  I’ve heard that Rhapsody and other subscription music services can be had through Tivos and cable TV boxes, but I haven’t played with such devices.  What would be better than Sonos is selecting tracks to play through my HDTV that’s connected to my receiver in the living room with the same remote I use for selecting video to watch.  Now that would be converging technology!

When I’m working at my computer I could play Rhapsody.  If I was in my living room I could play Rhapsody though my TV.  For those people with portable players they can get music over cell phone technology.  And when the Internet comes to the car, music subscription could follow me there.  What more could I ask for from technology?  A chip in my head that when I think of a song it plays in my brain and I hear music like I had a $100,000 stereo system in my head?  Would people call us songheads, and look down on us like we’re dopeheads?

Jim

Old Books Versus New Books

I’ve been working on my website, ClassicBooklists.com, that attempts to identify the best all-time books through comparing recommendation lists and looking for consensus.  As a byproduct of this endeavor, I’m reading a lot about classic books.  The obvious question comes up:  Should I read the old highly-praised books or should I read what everyone else loves to read at the moment?  For example, the last two books I bought from Audible.com were The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the new Pulitzer Prize winner by Junot Díaz.  If I followed Harold Bloom’s advice, the sage of western lit, the choice is always between known quality writing and untested new stories, but then I’d miss out on one of the most exciting novels I’ve discovered in years.  There could be dozens of canon-worthy writers getting published today but we won’t know that for decades, until the academics give us the signal to start reading.

Bestsellers

Most books are sold hot off the presses and people love to read the latest books on the bestseller lists.  Personally, I consider it great fun to read a book that I can discuss with other bookworms and this usually means keeping up with the new.  And I take gleeful pride in my rare discovery of a book before Entertainment Weekly puts it on their The Must List.  There is certain pleasure in keeping up with pop culture, and I think people naturally prefer the new in things.  And that’s okay.  Besides, sometimes a movie or Oprah will make an old book a bestseller again, and throw the past a bone.

If you track such things, most books disappear as they age.  Their best shot at finding readers are when they are new.  Classic books are like bestsellers of time, but few actually make the hit parade compared to all the titles that slip off into oblivion.  Classic titles come and go out of fashion and damn few stay permanently in print.  By reading an old book you help keep it on the All Time Bestseller List.

Academics

Without the demands of an English teacher, would anybody read the classics?  Would anyone be reading James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, and other literary oldies if it wasn’t because they were forced-fed them in high school and college?  Jane Austen and William Shakespeare have major fan clubs that keep their stories popular with the public, but how many people discover Milton or Dante on their own?

And why do books get so much academic support over music, dance, paintings and other art forms from history?  We’re made to read old books in school but old music and paintings don’t get equal blackboard time.  Sure, we force years of English classes on our kids so they will master language, writing and communication for practical reasons, and maybe the English teachers just sneak in as many of their old favorite inspirations as possible, like promoting Catcher in the Rye.  How active would university English departments be if they didn’t have technical writing, creative writing, ESL majors, and the basic freshman courses?

Can you imagine what our culture would be like if our schools only taught job skills?  Okay, film majors and aspiring writers taking creative writing courses would study old books a bit because it’s practical to recycle the classics occasionally.  Brad Pitt was a great action hero in Troy, and Reese Witherspoon showed off a range of acting talent in Vanity Fair, but they did much better job-wise with Oceans Eleven and Legally Blonde.  And when Will Smith got people to watch I, Robot, they didn’t bother to film the actual classic SF stories.

The Movies

And speaking of the movies, how many people read old books because they saw the film first?   I know films have gotten me to read several library shelves of books.  I have no proof, but I would bet that Hollywood has gotten more kids to read classic books than English teachers.  How many people would go out and read James Joyce if HBO converted A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses into several seasons of television with the production quality of The Sopranos?

Movies may be the best salesmen for books, both new and old than any other form of literary promotion, except television.  Little Women and Pride and Prejudice get remade almost once a decade.  Movies brings the classic words to the screen along with visuals that help us see the classics, and that’s a big sell.

The question is:  Do seeing the classics on the big screen equal reading the classics on the little page?  You know how I vote, but am I right?      

Superstar Writers

Many people buy new books by their favorite writers, and some writers become superstars of the reading world.  Again, I’m not against this because I want my favorite writers to get rich and keep typing out books I love to read.  How many millions of us are now anxiously awaiting J. K. Rowing’s first non-Harry Potter novel?  And if you haunt bookstores you know there’s always hordes of new writers to discover.  But here’s the problem, why waste time taking a chance on a possibly bad book when there are so many Perfect-10 tomes waiting to be read? 

Time and waiting helps.  If you wait until the end of the year then reviewers will make their best-of lists and if you compare enough lists, the year’s best books will be revealed.  If you wait longer, you can catch The Best Books of the Last 25 Years lists, or The Best Books of the Century.  But who wants to wait.  Most people buy books by following their favorite authors or trying books written by superstar writers that catches the public’s attention..

Harold Bloom came down almighty hard on J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, where he claimed thirty-five million book buyers can be wrong about Harry Potter, and that giving Stephen King a National Book Award tarnishes all the rightful past winners.  I’ve read the Harry Potter books twice, and will probably reread them again in the future.  I’d hate to have missed out on them.  From the long list of Bloom’s Western Canon I hope I can pass on a few classics to have time to enjoy Harry Potter.  Of course, the fact is I don’t always know what I’m missing.  What if there are old and forgotten books far more exciting than the Harry Potter novels?

The Great Books

I keep throwing out the name Harold Bloom, but that’s only because he’s the point man for the philosophy that believes knowledge of the great books equals quality education.  He calls his best-of-list, The Western Canon. That idea has been around a long time, and was especially promoted by Mortimer J. Adler, one of the editors of The Great Books of the Western World put out by the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Their theory is simple – knowledge of the great books equals an Ivy league education, and one publisher even produced The Harvard Classics to promote the idea.

There was a serious backlash to this idea because these canonical books were mostly written by old white men.  And many people didn’t cotton to this reading list because the books were old and musty – and just not much fun to read.  But is reading old books like eating spinach and broccoli, and reading J. K. Rowling like eating Ben and Jerry’s?  If you want your mind to grow up strong and fit, should you put so many old titles into your reading diet?

Are the seven plays by Sophocles really that much more deserving of my reading time than the seven Harry Potter books?  Bloom thinks our culture is going down the drain, and if you’ve ever seen the Jay Leno skit, Jaywalking, you’ll probably agree.  If people actually tried to study Bloom’s Western Canon they’d have little time for any other kind of reading, and publishers should just as well stop cranking out new books.  But what if Bloom is right?  Would America be better educated if CBS, NBC and ABC only showed Shakespearean plays and other dramas from the Western Canon?

Hell, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting idea, but that’s all it will ever be, just an idea, because our culture will never exchange pop culture for classic culture.  Maybe it shouldn’t even be an either or thing.  If all you ever read is fantasy and science fiction, you’ll never know much about contemporary culture, or history.  But if all you read is the Greek and Roman classics, then you’ll still be ignorant of contemporary culture and speculation about the future and the creative universe of fantasy ideas.  Also, there might even be value in reading bad writing.  How can you understand the American West without knowing about the dime novel?

The obvious answer is to be well-rounded in your reading, and read from all time periods.  But do the hard core classics of The Great Books get equal time with the latest Charlie Stross novel or the latest YA fad like the Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series?  And what if you flat out hate the classics?  Should you be forced to read them like taking bad tasting medicine, telling yourself that it’s good for you cultural health?  Recently I tried reading The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a title on Bloom’s list, but I found it unbearable.  And how many people really want to read Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for fun?

My reply requires an analogy, and one many people might not even be familiar with, but I will try anyway because I think it’s very apt.  Throughout the twentieth century we have found places in the world where tribes of primitive people still live.  It happened just recently in the Amazon.  Anthropologists do not like it when we pollute their pristine lost cultures with modern ideas because it usually shatters these lost tribe’s psyches.  The green jungle folk who have hidden out from civilization know so little of history and science compared to us modern folk who live in concrete jungles.  But do we really know that much more? 

But this is a perfect analogy to cultural literacy because the half-ass educated of our population have primitive minds compared to those who are well educated.  And it is no less mind-shattering to the tiny world view souls living in the big modern society to be hammered by mind-blowing ideas of a bigger universe.  Why do you think fundamentalists of any religion act the way they do? 

No one living in America believes they are ignorant and backward, because how can that be when we’ve got five hundred TV channels and the Internet stuffing our minds?  As long as you just read pop genres like science fiction and mysteries, your knowledge of the larger world of literature is no bigger than believers in cargo cults.  Most science fiction readers and computer geeks like to think they are Slans, but what if that’s the blue pill path, and the Western Canon is the red pill?  A twisty bit of weirdness for sure.

Remember those aborigines?  Just because we read books doesn’t mean our brothers and sisters living in nature have empty minds – yes, they would have a hard time surviving in our cities, but we’d have a hard time surviving in their habitats.  Reading in the Western Canon doesn’t make you a superior person.  Classics do not provide superior forms of fun and entertainment.  They aren’t even the best way to study history.  All they provide is a multiplex view so whether you’re a cool cat from Manhattan who hangs at the trendiest drinking holes, or a nature man living in the Amazon knowing all the best watering holes to hunt dinner, you’ll have a sense of perspective.

Artistic Knowledge 

Knowledge comes in all flavors.  There’s scientific knowledge, which tests reality systematically, and historical knowledge that evolves over time, and engineering knowledge that comes from necessity.  Artistic knowledge is one person’s inner view of how things work in reality.  All the old books are really is a series of people over time giving their opinions.  It becomes a collective view of reality.  Artistic knowledge isn’t like scientific knowledge – and one of the many weaknesses of the Western Canon is it doesn’t include paintings, dance, sculpture, fashion, music, and other crafts and cultural artifacts of the times.  And more than that, it doesn’t collect the knowledge from cultures outside of the Western world.

Reading Skill

Reading the old books isn’t easy.  Many are boring to the modern mind, and some are almost impossible to read.  You can’t just jump into Paradise Lost and get hooked on the story like you can with the TV show Lost.  It can be hard to identify with what’s going on in an old book.  I’m sure, to some kids reading To Kill A Mockingbird it’s too far a jump into the past to grok.  I love the book King Dork because the protagonist makes fun of all his teachers who believe the secrets of adolescence are in The Catcher in the Rye and try to force it on their students.  It’s like Dorothy Parker’s classic definition of horticulture, “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.” 

Hell, I know plenty of kids from the youngest two generations that can’t watch a black and white movie, and it’s no wonder they can’t answer Jay Leno’s basic cultural history questions.  More than once I’ve heard a young person say they love old movies, and I’ll ask them to name a few, and they will throw out titles like Caddyshack (1980) and Back to the Future (1985) with great nostalgia.  Is it any wonder they can’t fathom Grand Hotel (1932) much less The General (1927).  Reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen is probably like trying to read a book in a foreign language to these kids.

The Cultural Time Barrier 

Could it be, for some readers, maybe even most readers, just enjoying books from their own time is a good enough form of literacy?  To many parents, just getting their kids to read anything is a triumph.  Our own times are rich and diverse.  We know so much more about the universe now than people did fifty years ago, much less five hundred or five thousand years ago.  It is rather interesting that so many people can enjoy The Bible, a collection of stories that span centuries of pre-history but they won’t try to make up the gap between the first century and the twenty-first.

History is a boring subject for most people, and if you can’t enjoy a Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn screwball comedy from the 1930s, it’s doubtful you’ll see the humor in The Pickwick Papers from the 1830s.  Maybe there’s a cultural time barrier like the old sound barrier and it takes a certain speed to break on through.  Why do so many young women today love Jane Austen when so many others don’t?

There’s always the theory that trying to force feed the classics on children when they are in school destroys any chance of those kids ever enjoying reading a book.  But has the Harry Potter fad ever proven to create a new generation of bookworms?  There are those who believe that books are a dead art form, and movies are the new art crown of creation for the masses.  Or maybe the bookworm gene only shows up in a small percentage of the population anyway.

None of this answers the question:  Should we read old books.  And should we believe Harold Bloom when he says certain books are far superior to modern reading fare and we shouldn’t waste our time on crappy writing?  Except for the first Harry Potter book, I couldn’t find any comments from Bloom on the later entries.  I thought J. K. Rowling’s writing improved with each new book.  I also have to ask if Bloom’s dislike of Harry Potter reflects a failure on his part to come forward in time and enjoy the current pop culture.

I could believe that Harold Bloom is right and that J. K. Rowling is a bad writer, except that there are books on the Western Canon list that I consider bad writing for one reason or another.  I thought The Crying of Lot 49 was particularly weak on characterization, plot and emotional conflict.  Bloom’s main nail to hammer regarding Rowling was her use of cliché phrases, but there are plenty of books on his list that would be guilty of that fault too.  Bloom likes to focus on word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph writing quality, but I think he forgets that storytelling always trumps writing ability.  I’d even say characterization trumps writing ability.  Shakespeare turned some catchy phrases but that wasn’t his skill that kept people coming to see his plays all these years.

Really great stories are timeless, just look how often ancient tales are recycled for modern movies.  The classic science fiction novel Dune is set in the far future, but the characters feel like people Homer knew, and I don’t mean that cartoon Homer.  The reason why so many young women love Jane Austen is because she tapped into the psychology of women at a level unaffected by time.  The reason why Charles Dickens can even make atheists feel teary-eyed over Christmas is because he could play his readers’ emotions like a Geek playing Halo.  Ditto for J. K. Rowling and Stephen King.  I think that’s a skill that Bloom doesn’t credit enough in his tally of writing talents.

And this may hint at why most people can’t read outside of their time.  The writing reflected in the works of the Western Canon represent great feats of intellect, but they communicate little emotionally to the modern reader.  To enjoy reading older books requires emotionally resonating with people from the past, and that’s not easy.

Escapism

If your goal in picking up a book is to escape the worries of daily life, then it doesn’t matter when the book you select comes from.  If you have a lineup of favorite mystery writers that consistently keeps your mind off things then why try anything new?  For pure entertainment, contemporary writers can’t be beat.  I feel the best new writers have distilled the writing techniques from the past and have truly honed the art of storytelling to baroque levels of diversion.  Many of these writers are using all of history for their storytelling canvas.  Some even have the writing chops that would impress Harold Bloom.  Both in creative writing and creative non-fiction, some of the best writers are surfing the breaking waves of literature.  There is always more great contemporary writing, both literary and genre, than any bookworm yet born can handle.

I bet you didn’t think I’d say that?  I’m trying to be real and honest here while promoting the reading of old books.  I’d go so far as to say if you’re only going to read a few books, try and read the best contemporary books first, even if they’re just escapist nonsense as long as they get you to read for fun.  It’s my theory that learning to read for fun is more important than reading for an education.  If you get hooked on books it will be like other drugs, eventually you’ll crave the harder stuff.

Scholarship

Most people do not want to be English professors and turn their fun hobby into ghoulish book autopsies.  However, many readers often enjoy becoming amateur scholars on pet subjects.  If you’re a fan of mysteries you might eventually want to learn how they evolved starting with Edgar Allan Poe.  I have had a lot of fun learning about the Classics of Science Fiction.  If you enjoy Masterpiece Theater on PBS, it’s easy to take up the study of the English novel.  If you like to argue then studying the Greeks and rhetoric will help you win more verbal battles with your friends.  You have to have zero curiosity about life not to wonder how various ideas and practices got started.

Take the current oil crisis.  Our society is shifting from cheap energy to expensive energy, and hopefully renewable energy, but it’s a stressful time, and we may have to experience a terrible economic downturn.  Surely, there must be other times in history where people had to endure quick economic and social change – so how did their society handle it?   Try reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Or read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser for a story about someone trying to shift from simple rural life to living a new life in the big city.

The thing about studying the past, even for fun, is that it teaches a lot about living in the present.  Read the Old Testament, it was never about religion, that’s a later interpretation, but about nation building and the psychology of creating an organized society.  The history of books is about mankind striving to get somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Jim  

The Potential of Possibilities

I’ve had this restless unease my whole life about wasting time, always feeling a nagging guilt I should be doing something constructive instead of having so much fun.  I’ve always been a why do today what you can put off until tomorrow kind of a guy.  Bumping along this way, I’ve finished college, got married, kept a good job and basically done the essentials, but I never pursued those ambitions I dreamed about in youth.  Well, obviously everyone can’t be an astronaut or rock star, two careers ill suited for my personality even if I had had the natural aptitude, which I didn’t.  On the other hand, if I had applied myself I could have been an astronomer that occasionally wrote science fiction novels.  I was just too lazy.

When you’re thirteen and thinking about your future you feel you have endless time.  Just five years later when I had to fill in the forms that declared my major I wasn’t in the mood to buckle down to math and physics classes because by then all I could think about was majoring in the opposite sex.  Oh, I started the classes and got decent grades, I just didn’t have the discipline to keep taking them for eight straight years.

There comes a time when you realize you have to choose between chasing a dream and settling for being ordinary.  Becoming an original like Neil Armstrong or Bo Diddley takes a kind of focus that few people have, and being ordinary is a natural pursuit for those people who love variety.

But I can’t help but think of those five years of adolescence when I felt the potential of possibilities.  It’s a time when I viewed a vast vista of time and dreamed of all the ways to spend it.  That’s how I’m now feeling about retiring – I have an expanse of time that’s full of possibilities.  People often talk about young ambition, but what about old ambition?  Why is retiring seen as a time of withdrawal from life?

Everyone talks about what they want to be when they grow up, but why don’t people talk about what they want to be before they die?  How come when people retire they don’t go off to college and major in something for their retiring years?  If I can retire with thirty years before I’m sixty, and I could live to be ninety, then I have thirty more years for a second career.

Well the cruel answer of the fates is at sixty we don’t have the health and energy we did at eighteen, but is that a show stopper?  Once again, it’s a question of discipline and focus, and choosing between having general fun and pursing specialization.  Has anyone at age sixty ever set out to do something new like become an engineer, doctor, actor or pop star and succeeded?  I can understand you can’t pick becoming a major league baseball player, deep sea diver or fighter jet pilot because of the physical limitations, but what about thinking careers?  Isn’t old age supposed to be for the wise?

On one hand I think of retirement as catching up on reading all those books I bought and never read, and pursuing quiet activities like watching television and listening to music, and just plain relaxing after years in the rat race, but on the other hand why don’t I expect more of myself.   We ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, as if being grown is just achieving full physical height.  If growing is equated to mental development, then asking someone what they want to be when they grow up is like saying, what do you want to be doing when you die, because unless we’re attacked by some brain plague, we can keep growing to the end.

Jim

History versus Historical Fiction

I just finished listening to a new novel by Emma Bull called Territory.  It’s a historical fantasy novel that takes place in Tombstone, Arizona during the legendary year of 1881.  Now I have read many non-fiction books about Wyatt Earp, read many fictional accounts, and I have seen most of the major film stories about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. corral.   Territory was entertaining enough that I wanted to stay plugged into my iPod every free moment last week.  Part of this is due to my love of the Tombstone myth, and part due to a good story with good characters.  The narrators were excellent.

Emma Bull seems to know most of the essential facts and speculation about the famous event, and she invents new theories about the how and why of the known facts, especially about the stagecoach holdup on March 15, 1881.  What she does different is add fantasy elements to the story, and I don’t mean she makes up false accusations, but adds fantasy, as in magic, to the storyline.  I love fictional accounts of real people, and I love a good fantasy story that uses famous people for characters, like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld stories, which featured Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) and Sir Richard Burton.  In Riverworld there was no attempt to recreate an actual historical event, whereas Territory does build a plot around “true” events, so in that regards it attempts to be realistic.

Emma Bull stays on the periphery of the most famous characters, dealing more with the Earp wives and Big Nose Kate, than with the Wyatt Earp & brothers, except for Doc Holliday, who is one of three point-of-view characters.  The other two are fictional POV characters, Jesse Fox and Mrs. Mildred Benjamin.  I think this was a good choice – too many of the Tombstone stories follow the Earps, and seeing history from the sidelines is a good vantage point.

Now I don’t know about the magic element.  I suppose if you’re a fantasy writer you always feel compelled to throw fantasy elements into your writing recipe, but this story could stand strong and tall without magic.  In fact, I think with more history and less fantasy it would have been a better novel of any type.  Obviously, Ms. Bull mined Tombstone’s history for rich historical ore and found plenty to refine.  Her addition of magic creates a non-historical plot thread but that hole in history is also later plugged by the same magic.

There are two types of historical novels – the authentic and the romantic.  Now the romantic historical novel can be very realistic to its time, but it’s ultimate goal is to tell a fun story, often with made-up characters.  Of course, the authentic historical novel seeks to recreate everything as realistic as possible, matching all known facts, and often focuses on real people from the past.  Both are fantasies in essence, because non-fiction history is a kind of fantasy too.  Even our own personal memories are fantasies.  I think when science fiction readers got tired of space opera, many genre writers turned to fantasy, and in recent times, turned to blending historical fiction with science fiction and fantasy.  Readers and movie fans often love a good costume drama, so I think this type of story is growing in popularity.

Territory is a lightweight romantic historical fantasy that entertains with quite a few good facts.  Readers unfamiliar with the Tombstone myths of 1881 can still follow the story, but I’m not sure if they can really enjoy it like it should be read.   Tombstone of 1881 was about law and order, Republicans versus Democrats, American West mythology, guns versus gun control, survival of the fittest, greed, revenge, murder, love, redemption, and every element of a great story.  Shakespeare would have loved the material, and could have written a play more complex than Hamlet with the famous ambiguous characters of Tombstone.  That’s why the story gets filmed so much and used for background for novels.

The most interesting speculation Emma Bull conjures regards the stage holdup and its motivation on Wyatt Earp for later events.  Most of the glamorous stories about Wyatt Earp make him into a frontier hero, but if you dig deep you know that he was involved on both sides of the law.  I wished that Emma Bull had jettisoned the fantasy elements to make more room for the story to be an authentic historical novel because she showed a lot of talent for that, and I also wish she had even added fifty-percent more to her word count.  I think having Mildred Benjamin be a typesetter and cub reporter was enough of a fantasy element for this story.  Her current approach to this classic western is what I would call Deadwood PG.

Overall, I enjoyed this story, but ended up wanting more.  Of course, the additional words I want might bore the average reader, because I’d like to see a lot more history and facts painted into the story.  Really great authentic historical fiction makes the reader feel like they are walking through the past.  Every significant detail adds to the beauty of the work, and you feel like you are learning from first-hand experience.  What really sets off the feeling of reality is the voice of the characters and narrator.  Ms. Bull throws in quite a few archaic words and phrases from the time, but her characters have the tainted feel of the modern mind.  It’s never obvious, but I kept asking myself would a person from 1881 think or say that.

Authentic voice is very hard to pull off.  One way to test modern historical fiction for voice is to compare it to works of fiction written from the time period, but to go even deeper, you have to compare the modern sound to letters and diaries of the time.  It’s not just the period vocabulary, but the popular phrases, topics of interests, the pop culture of the time, common philosophical opinions and so on.  Territory doesn’t go very deep in this regard.

Unfortunately, there is no Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie quality novel written by someone who lived during the time in the old west.  About the closest thing we have is Roughing It by Mark Twain, written about ten years earlier about his 1861-1867 trip out west seeking his fortune in a Nevada silver mining camp.  Of course, this might be like learning about contemporary France from the essays of David Sedaris.  Another source is Isabella Bird, who traveled through the Rocky Mountains in 1873 and wrote about her adventures in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.  

The true western novel didn’t evolved until well after the west was tamed, and in many ways western fiction is often more fantasy fiction than historical fiction.  If you really want to know about Tombstone you need to read non-fiction books like Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra.  The trouble is, reading one book is like eating one chocolate chip cookie.  That’s the thing about history and historical fiction – you run the chance of getting bit by the what-really-happened bug.   Emma Bull takes a particularly strange photo of Wyatt Earp that shows a sinister evil side.  If you read wide enough you’ll find Wyatt Earp detractors who will back this view, but is it the correct take?  You’ll have to read about six history books to get a decent idea.

Jim