Monday, November 12, 2007

Reading to write

Stevie asks:
What's your favorite book that isn't about theology?
I like that you assume that my favorite books are all about theology. After all, I know accountants would just curl up with the tax code if they weren't forced away from it by family members worried about their mental health. No, I kid theology because I love theology, but it's not always my preferred leisure reading. (Although just this past month I devoured James Kugel's How To Read The Bible at every spare moment as if it were a page-turning mystery.)

I have a soft spot for epic, heroic fantasy, and I'm not sure why. After all, as a teenager I was into hard science fiction -- the harder the better. (One of the books I read to tatters during those years was Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg, about tiny flat sentient creatures living on the surface of a neutron star who careen through full lives so quickly that it would be almost impossible for a human observer to recognize their intelligence.) I read LotR and Piers Anthony and so forth during this time -- one of my high school friends was more into fantasy than I was, and I piggy-backed off of her -- but it was the plausible and technological future worlds that held my interest.

In college I used to ride my bike about five miles from campus to a used book store, where I engaged in the reverse-pyramid scheme of used paperbacks -- buy 'em for half price, sell 'em back for 2 for 1 credit, meaning that every book I bought could be traded in for one quarter of a future book. I don't know why I picked up Sheepfarmer's Daughter on one of my trips -- maybe it was because it was the first volume of a trilogy. (I tend to overrate getting in on the ground floor.) To the best of my recollection I wasn't reading any fantasy at the time -- even my SF phase was largely behind me. (Actually, somewhat to my shame, I was reading a lot of Regency period romance novels, a genre I still find irresistible.)

What can I say? From the very first pages, I met a heroine who was almost exactly what I needed. She craved adventure and chafed under structure, before she learned to appreciate it. She was always on the verge of being misunderstood, but fair-minded and thoughtful superiors managed to give her what she needed. She was favored of destiny, but could not think of herself as particularly good or accomplished. She made impossible choices, and struggled to bring good out of evil. She approached the world with what she knew how to do best, and hoped with all her heart that it would meet the challenge.

I wanted to be Paksenarrion. I still do. Her trilogy, collected as The Deed of Paksenarrion, is my favorite book. I return to it every year to remind myself how to be a hero, and why it doesn't require any extra measure of self-knowledge or self-confidence or moral uprightness. Paks helps me to believe that there's enough in me, when combined with what's good on earth and in heaven, to do what needs to be done.

I know it's not a very prestigious or literary choice for my favorite book. Believe me, when I pick it up on a yearly basis -- or teach it to students, occasionally -- I approach it with trepidation. What if I open it up and find that my admiration has been misplaced, that it's trash and poorly written and clumsily plotted and unbelievably characterized? But every year it is just as beautiful -- as human, as suspenseful, as inspiring, as nuanced -- and students have fallen in love with it, too, validating my affection.

I wish I could plow through the conference paper I'm writing, the final exams I'm planning, the syllabi I'm constructing, the journal articles and encyclopedia articles that are waiting for my attention, in a 72-hour Red Bull-fueled marathon of work. And then do nothing but read about Paksenarrion during my trip to San Diego. A sojourn with this soldier would rejuvenate me, as it always does, for the missions I undertake in my own journey through life.

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