december required reading
Revisit your childhood favorites this holiday nostalgia season!!!
Lewis Moralists versus Tolkien World-Builders
Tavis and Sophie and I saw Zadie Smith in conversation with Michael Chabon at UCLA last week and it was as awe-inspiring as you’d imagine a meeting of two of the western world’s best modern novelists would be.
Zadie joked that almost all British people can be lumped into one of two groups -- those who read Lewis as children and then grew up with strong senses of justice, loyalty, and morality...versus those who read Tolkien and grew up to be imaginative, creative architects of sorts.
Regardless of whether you read these books as a child (Tavis and I were both Lewis kids), it’s never too late to educate yourself in some solid British fantasy basics. Start with the obvious choice of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe if you feel like stepping through a coat closet and into a magical forest-y world full of fuzzy fawns and Tilda Swinton witches!!
Alternately, you can start with The Hobbit if you’re not bothered by a complete lack of female characters (readers don’t meet the gorgeous, overly perfect, not-so-manic elfie dream girl Arwen until well into the series). I suggest starting with The Hobbit before the main trilogy because it is supposed to be written for children and yet it still took me a long time to get through. I’ll let you know if I ever survive the “adult” books.
The Eragon series (Inheritance Cycle)
***Please do not ever watch the film adaption of this.*** Even though many Eragon characters and plot points are clearly lifted from Tolkien by the 15-year-old homeschooler who wrote these books, I LIKE THEM a lot better than LOTR to be honest. These books are still full of great vocabulary so keep your dictionary close, but overall much more readable than most old-school fantasies. Also, strong female characters are also a thing in the Eragon universe, how revolutionary!
Eragon’s mentor Brom was the first vehicle through which I received the sentiment “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” This is originally a quote by Grace Hopper, one of the foremothers of computer programming, which is arguably much cooler than coming from a bearded old dude obsessed with dragons but HEY! I never would’ve known that without these ~silly kids books~. Learning is cool!!
The Harry Potter series
I talk about these books surprisingly sparingly on this blog considering that they have been my most constant companions from age six onward – they taught me about morality and got me into college because they’re all I wrote my essays on. Yes, I am the geek with the Deathly Hallows tattoo.
I don’t think I need to explain to you why the defining young adult series of our generation, well, defined our generation. But to those of you who have not yet given them a try, I am here to tell you that it really is not ever too late.
I am also 100% serious in telling you that I would be so excited to discuss books and watch all movies with you. I recently did this with my dear friend Mollie, who I’ve known for almost as long as Harry and company. It was so fun for me to re-experience the adventures of my oldest ink and paper pals with one of my oldest real-life friends.
LASTLY, they are a really great tool if you want to learn a new tongue. They’ve been translated into almost every living language on the planet and are even printed in some dead languages too (JK is a Classics nerd like me, long live all my favorite Greek goddesses).
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
On page sixty-five of my well-worn copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, I have long ago triple-underlined what the young protagonist Milo says to his wind-up watchdog “Tock” as they sit in their prison cell in Dictionopolis:
“You can get in a lot of trouble mixing up words or just not knowing how to spell them. If we ever get out of here, I’m going to make sure I learn all about them.”
I was a sick kid and often had to miss out, as I did when the local youth theater brought their staged version of this story to my elementary school one fall morning. As soon as I was better, I checked out the book from the library (early FOMO, and a big deal for ambitious ‘lil me, who mostly checked out books to win AR points in quizes I cheated through). I devoured it more quickly than anything I’d read before. The book astounded me, and it is to its credit that I’ve pursued my own obsession with make-believe.
In its warm clutches I was Milo, the bored kid suddenly thrown into a world beyond his own, sent on a quest to return Rhyme and Reason to a kingdom divided by ignorance, confusion, Dischord, and Dynne. It’s a story that champions morality and knowledge, a quest colored by a love and respect for words, wit, and goodness. Reading it was a gift that made me discover the boundless fields of my own imagination. Like opening your eyes through crystal clear water, like discovering a new language, a new you. In this book, I met myself on the page.
I couldn’t know at the time (again, was too distracted by capitalism-inspired points contests for 7 year olds), but The Phantom Tollbooth, and my many re-readings, would mold my interests, sense of humor, and art-making for years to come. I’m lucky to have had a librarian that tracked it down for me, and I’m lucky to have missed out on a menagerie of prepubescent teens reenacting its pages inside a cafeteria. I might be an entirely different artist today if I’d been so subjected. I might hate toll booths.