Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.


A New Feature: Nicking from Novels

I am reading more. I haven’t quite made it to a book a week yet, but that owes as much to skimming several books at once as to a lack of time spent reading. Last week I posted about Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. That post was more or less a book review. A short one, but a book review.

That’s not what I want to do on this blog. I love books. I sometimes like reading book reviews. My personal reading plan, though, revolves around mixing up books that I “should” have read—ones generally agreed to be good—with arbitrary grabs off the library shelves. Those won’t all be good, and I don’t want to fill up my blog with takedowns of authors who are probably perfectly nice people writing perfectly serviceable fiction that doesn’t please a snob like me. (I reserve the right to flex my scathing review chops if I come across something truly awful, though.)

Instead…instead I’m going to write about literary larceny. Grammarian grand theft. Reckless writerly ransacking. In short, I’m going to approach the books I read like Conan approaching a jungle temple. Even bad books do good things. The point of reading—as a writer—is to take those good things and make them your own when you need to.

Back when I was doing my degree in (music) composition, I had to listen to unfamiliar pieces of new music every week. Usually, I was listening along with the score. Given the average age of the composition faculty, it’s not surprising that we tracked this ongoing assignment with notecards. On the front of the card, we wrote the particulars of the recording and the score. On the back, we wrote notes about what we heard (and sometimes what we saw). In addition to building familiarity with a range of new music, the idea was that we could return to these pieces if there were techniques we wanted to use. I had a big stack of 3×5 cards by the end of my two years. They didn’t make the move from Minnesota, but it was a good project while it lasted.

The new feature here at Walking Ledges will be something similar: Nicking from Novels. For all the books I read, I hope to find a few things that the author does particularly well. I’ll describe those, providing some quotes when applicable. Over time, it will create a compendium of sorts for other people to use (while giving props to the original authors), and be more interesting than just hearing whether some guy in Texas liked a book or not.

Planning the new feature has already changed the way I’m reading. I spent years as an undergrad and grad student picking texts apart—sometimes for content, sometimes for delivery. It was analytical work. Reading novels for technique is not quite the same. It is, again, like the listening I did when I was a composer. The what and why become less important than the how. (This was also the thing that led me away from composition: I really cared about the why.) Sometimes the things I notice are little, like the one I mentioned last week about Chabon sketching his background characters with mini-anecdotes. Sometimes they are larger: how the author deals with magic, with the foundation of the world, with characters’ roots. I don’t expect that it will kill my enjoyment of what I read. I have a better perspective on the questions now than I did ten years ago, and can approach them a bit more like I approach eating things other people have cooked: what’s tasty? How can I use that stuff in my own recipes? Will it work without mushrooms?

Anyway! First proper post of the new feature will likely come tomorrow. The series should continue to run weekly on Fridays.

Skinny Books and Fat Books

A while back, I mentioned that my family was in the process of house-shopping. We closed on a home at the end of June. Between cleaning up after the previous owners’ rat infestation and compensating for some–ahem–puzzling choices by the contractors who redid the interior, we’ve started to pack up our apartment. That means packing books.

We have…lots of books. Before we moved from Minneapolis to Austin, I went through and removed many academic books I didn’t care about from the household library. (I also finally recycled 8 years’ worth of seminar notes.) Even after that liberation from the Academy’s lingering tyranny, we still had seventeen or eighteen boxes of books to move—north of 250 kilograms. Over the last year, most of the family’s acquisitions have been kids books, so at least we haven’t added much to our tonnage.

Packing up books is like playing Tetris without the underlying grid, but at least working at a college bookstore got me plenty of practice. After buyback, part of my job was to list and pack up hundreds and hundreds of textbooks for shipping back to the wholesalers. (The store’s book room was upstairs, too, which made things extra fun even with a good handcart.) Textbooks don’t come in standard sizes. Their sizes certainly aren’t related to standard box sizes, either. Filling boxes to their limits (but not beyond) is tricky, especially since you have to pack the books straight so their bindings aren’t damaged.

Being in the humanities and fine arts, I have not accumulated many textbooks. Instead, my collection is heavy on monographs and anthologies. They’re bound just as idiosyncratically as the big hardcover textbooks. Thin or thick, wide or tall, they’ve all got to go somewhere. I’ve discovered that the little Dover editions of philosophy are great for filling gaps. I’ve also still got a few scores around—I have no intention of giving up the Beethoven string quartets I scribbled so much analysis into. The scores are large enough they usually have to go at the bottom of a box, messing up everything that goes on top of them.

I also have literature and fantasy novels. They tend to be slightly more uniform in size—and much, much lighter—but vary in thickness. Because they’re light, they’re usually easy to pack. (It’s also nice to stumble on a light box of books while moving.) The variation in thickness, though…it got me thinking about what I like to read and how that has changed over the years.

The skinniest books in my collection are early printings of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Many of those are themselves collections of short stories that appeared in pulp magazines. Most don’t even hit 200 pages. Steve Brust’s Taltos books are the next category up, getting to about 250 pages—still pretty thin in the paperback printings. At the other end of the spectrum (discounting omnibuses) are Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books. These are epics. Though published in hardcover as a trilogy, the third book had to be split into two parts for paperback (and they’re still over 800 pages). Throw in the odd trade paperback and some hardcovers, and the fantasy collection is nearly as motley in size as the academic one.

It has been a long time since I found myself immersed in an epic. I’ve read most (but not all) of George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It didn’t exactly grow on me.  The best books I’ve read lately have been short: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the most beautiful gems of a book I’ve ever read, and it’s 181 pages in hardcover, including the afterword. Most of the “epics” I have left on my bookshelf are ones that I read in high school or the early part of college.

I have come to prize economy and the power of not laying everything out for the reader. (Gene Wolfe is an absolute master of this.) It’s an aesthetic principle, I know, a choice rather than some law of the universe. It’s still important to me. I think that my preference owes something to the work I’ve done in poetry and composition since I was “in to” fantasy epics. Those prize density of meaning rather than scope of narrative. They are about the right notes and the right details rather than raw volume. Some of that has certainly carried over to my fiction tastes and “serious” writing—if not my blogging, where my verbal sprawl can run amok.

There’s also the question of finding time to read. Getting reading into my day is much like getting books into boxes: my time is irregularly chunked by varying demands. Family responsibilities are like those big scores and omnibuses. They devour large quantities of time and have to go in first. It’s hard to sneak epics in around the edges or in the gaps. The skinny books, the little gems…they fit in the cracks. Perhaps after the summer, when the school calendar is again regulating my days and my kids’ days, I’ll find my way back to epics. Or perhaps I’ll just squeeze in more skinny books.

Books and the Magic of the Unknown

Sometimes the real is magical. A few days before I moved away from Minneapolis, I was walking to the grocery store and stopped at the elementary school playground for a few minutes. A hawk landed on the playground equipment about 12 meters from the bench where  I sat. Then it moved to the top of the swing set, less than 5 meters away. It perched there, preened, and flew off after five minutes or so. This was inner city Minneapolis, a quarter mile from I-35. The moment was an unexpected treasure.

Sometimes it feels like magic is about to be real: the moments you think you’re about to step into Narnia, or fall down a rabbit hole. And sometimes, incredibly, it’s not just a bit of borrowed imaginary scenery. When I was 18, I went to Hay-on-Wye, a town near the Welsh border with England. Hay-on-Wye is the National Book Town of Wales, a small town of about 2,000 with a disproportionate number of used book stores. There might not be as many as there used to be, but at the time it seemed like half the shops in town sold used books. I went into several, but one sticks in my memory. The shopkeep, with all the earnest theatricality of a circus ringmaster, greeted me with “Welcome to Wonderland.” It felt like Wonderland. Looking back rationally, it was just a big, untidy used book shop. The feeling, though…I felt like I had taken that step into Narnia or Wonderland. I didn’t know what I’d find on the shelves, or how far back they went, or if I’d ever need to leave. It felt like a Neil Gaiman story before I’d ever read any of his stories.

Books have that magic, especially when many of them are collected in one place, waiting to be discovered. Going through grad school in the humanities means spending long hours in libraries. It means having an opinion on Dewey versus Library of Congress. It means stumbling into interesting sources (whether or not they’re relevant). It meant, for me, getting to do research at the New York Public Library on 42nd with the lions out front…even if that research involved sitting at a microfilm reader for hurried hours. Libraries were as close as grad school got me to my high school essay about being a wizard when I grew up.

The magic comes from the unknown. That’s a hell of a lot harder to replicate on-line, where you can search for exactly what you need and not find anything else. Access to the digital archive of the New York Times was a godsend for my dissertation. I was able to pull just what I needed and not have to spend time with microfilm. Despite the extra work involved, though, I had a lot more fun looking through the entire 1970s run of the Village Voice on microform. I learned pretty quickly that music reviews were in the mid-50s of each issue. The stuff I found on the way was interesting, though, including coverage of the May 1977 theatrical release of this little movie called Star Wars:

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music.

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music. (I think this one is actually from the NYT on a day I was looking at microfilm. Microfilm scanning still leaves a lot to be desired.)

None of the magic kept my eyes from turning an exhausted red by the ends of my Saturdays in the library basement, but the potential of something cool, dissertation-related or not, helped keep me going. When we make up stories, we’re engaging in that same kind of quest. I’ve heard Steven Brust, for example, aver in varied fashion that he writes “to see what happens next.” We read books to see what happens next, too. When writers suck us in, the next page’s unknown can be as magical as a hawk on an inner city playground. Books do that individually or aggregated into a library.

There’s always the chance for magic. Theatrical booksellers aside, that’s what was magical about Hay-on-Wye. It was undiscovered country. It was full of undiscovered countries. They lurked behind every cover.