Lucy Pevensie is looking in a spell book for a spell she desperately needs. The spell, it turns out, is in the form of a story, a really amazing story that Lucy can't stop reading. It's so good that she tries to go back and reread it, but finds the (magical) pages only turn in one direction. Worst of all, the story is erasing itself from her brain even as she reads it, so that by the time she gets to the end she can't remember it at all. But it was such a good story that from that day on, whenever she reads something that she enjoys, it's only because it in some way reminded her of that one perfect, lost story.
Sound familiar? The Magician's Book. The perfect story you read as a child, and which since you read it has gone utterly unmatched and only vaguely echoed by anything else you read?
If you're a nerd-child like me, you probably have a book (or book series) like this. You might still be able to quote from it extensively, even though you haven't read it in five, ten, twenty, or fifty years. You're still not sure you ever felt as good or as intense as you did that first time you read it, and you may have wished really desperately that you could just find and be transported to the world those characters lived in. Any of this ringing any bells for you?
When I read The Magician's Book, Laura Miller's monograph on her love of Narnia and rereading it as an adult, bells were clanging in my head, like Sunday morning at all the churches in the world.
For Laura Miller, the book columnist at Salon.com, the Magician's Book was Narnia. She writes about her childhood love for Narnia, her return to the series as an adult, and everything she has learned about and ruminated on regarding nerdy childish reading patterns. Some points she makes:
1) As children, we read books desperately then, falling wholly and completely in love with them (did you ever sneak a book under the dining room table or under the lid of your desk at school, and then get yelled at by your parent/teacher for reading instead of being social/studious? I did all the time. ALL THE TIME.)
2) We kept reading as adults, but don't really love reading as much or as purely as we used to when we were kids. This is because...
3) Experience, life-knowledge, exposure to various things, etc destroy our credulity as we get older, meaning we don't allow ourselves the same escapism we used to as kids. One of her great examples here is the nearly universal desire of children to read about talking animals or a hero's ability to commune with animals--it's because, down to that bitter moment we actually become adults, all children hang onto the hope that *they* will be the child to bridge that gap and talk with animals. Eventually, we finally give up on that hope, and then we feel stupid and embarrassed at ourselves for ever feeling hope in that particular magic.
(That's another sad part about being an adult--being embarrassed by the things that made us happy when we were kids.)
Laura Miller says that, for us, you know, us kids who read constantly and obsessively when we were kids, we've spent our entire lives trying, like Lucy, to resuscitate that feeling of total immersion we felt when we read our Magician's Books when we were kids. We read things and like or enjoy them based on to what degree they can recall that ancient, complete escapism.
Now, full disclosure--I read a lot. I mean, besides for work. And despite all this very great amount of reading that I do, it is very, very rare that I read anything and experience a sense of pure enjoyment. I mean, I often experience some or various enjoyments from what I read, or I appreciate different elements about the book, or maybe it strikes a particularly resonant chord for me. But very, very, VERY rarely do I get so totally lost in a book that every time I put it down I just itch to re-immerse myself. You know, the way I read EVERYTHING when I was a kid.
So recently, I reread my Magician's Book--an epic fantasy called The Elvenbane, which I'll review separately. I don't want to give up any spoilers regarding whether or not it held up to my childish love for it; I'll get to that later. But I've decided it's really silly to be embarrassed about the things I read and loved as a child. That means--mostly epic fantasy, which made me so, so happy as a child. So very happy.
So, calling all nerd children: what do you think of Laura Miller's thesis about childhood reading? What was your Magician's Book? I can't wait to hear.
*Postscript: I dedicate this post to Alyssa Smith, the Sterling editor who loaned me her copy of Laura Miller's MAGICIAN'S BOOK and inspired this post. Alyssa has been a very good friend for a long time, and has been one of a small vanguard of folks who have helped me re-discover my inner geek. Alyssa also had the horrific experience of losing all of her belongings and pets in a fire that burned down her entire house earlier this week. Alyssa has done a lot of kind things for a lot of people, so please send her your love, good wishes, and, if you can spare a couple bucks, her friends are collecting donations to help her rebuild her life. More details here.