A Writer’s Life Considered

A writer’s life, like any life, should be well-considered. We should take stock periodically and ask ourselves what we’re doing, where we’re going, and if we’re on course. Is there a better route we might be taking? Do we have exactly the things we need in our packs? Should we be walking faster? — slower?

A comment came in yesterday by regular contributor jhagman that encourages just such an assessment. It was written in response to my previous post, “Durbin Finishes Reading a Book!” You can read the original comment there, and I’m going to quote it here in its entirety, but the gist is that jhagman takes me to task for my slow reading speed.

Let me preface this by saying I in no way intend this as a “counterattack.” All civil, legitimate expressions of opinion are welcome here. And I’m fully aware that the commenter meant it constructively, implying that s/he’s waiting for my next book and calling me one of jhagman’s “favorite writers.” So, thank you, jhagman! I do appreciate the thoughts! I offer this post in a friendly spirit, as the self-reflection they triggered. Here’s the comment:

Fred, reading this post made me sad! I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, “It takes a half of a library to make one book.” At your rate of reading, it might be a lifetime of 100 years before we see another book! While reading ESL papers of students does constitute “reading,” unless they are like Joseph Conrad, you spend the bulk of your year not reading literature . . . ugghh! Can they pay a person enough to live like that? When I was at Fort Benning (paratrooper school) I got through two books — The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and the school I was in was for me no picnic. If I can do it, you can do a lot better with your reading! Lecture over, but when one of my favorite writers reads a book a year. . . . Enough said.

First, jhagman, you know from this blog that I’m the first to lament my slow reading pace. Two or three times I’ve studied books on speed-reading techniques and have tried to master them, but it’s never worked out for me. Fiction is just too precious to me to zoom through without looking back. I agree with you that I should be reading more. If I knew a way to do so, I would.

But consider this: I have a friend, also a writer, who reads tons of books — book after book after book — and she feels she should be reading more. We could all be doing better. You should be reading more, jhagman! Why didn’t you read ten books in paratrooper school, you slacker? Think of all that time you have before pulling the rip cord, when you’re just twiddling your thumbs in freefall — what, may I ask, were you doing then?!  🙂 There are uncountable great stories and characters out there, waiting for us on the shelves, that will be waiting forever. We’ll never have the pleasure of most of them. We are limited creatures. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King acknowledges this. He allows himself time to read for pleasure in the evenings, but he says that at his age, he’s had to become much choosier about what he reads, because he doesn’t have time to read it all. (I “read” King’s book on cassette tape while walking, jhagman — do I get some points for that? :-))

I love the Samuel Johnson quote! — half a library to make one book. Richard Peck said, “We write by the light of every book we’ve ever read.” And Tolkien, of course: “A book like The Lord of the Rings grows like a seed in the dark, out of the leaf-mould of the mind.” Oh, I do not doubt that we become better writers the more we read.

But I would caution that that’s not everything. There was a joke (I think it was a joke) I heard about an aspiring violinist who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t more successful, because he went to symphony concerts every night and sat in the front row. See the point? Reading books is fine — it’s necessary — it would be hard to be a concert violinist without ever having attended a concert as a listener. But sadly, there are aspiring writers who have read a hundred times more than I’ve read, but who never seem to get the pen to the paper, who never seem to finish a story of their own.

Another good friend, also a reader of this blog, once said to me that she feels she doesn’t have exceptional musical talent, but that she has the gift of truly enjoying music. Some people listen to a lot. Some people read a lot of books. Some go through whole DVD stores seeing every film that catches their interest.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s about reading volume. There’s this famous advice to writers: “Don’t read 100 books. Instead, read your 10 favorite books 10 times each.” I don’t reach that goal, either. But when I do read a book, I digest it pretty thoroughly. I study nuances and structure, and I think about it carefully, while I’m reading and for weeks afterward. I often sigh with momentary envy at friends who are not writers, who can read without their crafter’s eye and mind automatically engaging — who can read irresponsibly, just dashing through the book. But my envy is momentary. (It’s like those times in the years we played Dungeons & Dragons, when now and then I’d want to enjoy the wild abandon of playing as a player-character, not running the show from behind the DM’s screen; so I’d beg some other member of the group to launch an original, separate campaign, and I’d play as a character for a meeting or two, swinging my sword and puzzling over riddles, finding delight in exploring the unknown — but then I couldn’t wait to get back into the DM’s seat.) In the end, what I love to do is write books. If that means the sacrifice is that I can’t read like a 12-year-old, barefoot and carefree — so be it. Heaven is coming in four or five decades at the most, and I’ll catch up on reading then. For now, I’ve got writing to do.

There was a year when I worked full-time at a Japanese company. It was ostensibly a “school,” a senmongakkou, but it was a company: the management’s only goal was extracting money from the students. Still, there were some dedicated teachers there trying to teach between a rock and a hard place, and I did my best to be one of them. That year, I was so physically and emotionally drained every day that there was no way I could write. That’s the one year I did quite a bit of reading. I read like a normal person — almost every night, and on the weekends. I finished reading quite a few books that year, and doing so was very nice — very calming and anchoring.

But it’s a tradeoff. For me, I think it’s possible either to read regularly or to write regularly. Reading is “for me” — it’s fun, and it feeds me. But writing is a calling. Writing is what leaves something behind in the world, something that I hope others may enjoy and benefit from. When I have to choose, I choose writing. Is anyone out there inclined to blame me? [Achilles: “Is there no one else?!”]

I was happy to hear Barbara Hambly at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary say that when she’s writing, she has no time to do any reading; and she’s writing constantly — has been for decades — so she confesses that her knowledge of the genre is almost entirely from the books she read in her youth. So I figure if I’ve got Garth Nix on my side regarding character creation, and Barbara Hambly on my side concerning reading, I’m not alone.

Next, about the issue of day jobs: back in college, two of my closest friends and I made a promise to one another that we would never in life work long-term at jobs “just to make money” — that whatever we set our hands to in life, it would have merit, it would be worth doing. It would somehow glorify God, use our talents, and serve humanity. Except for a very few brief transitional jobs that enabled us to get from one situation to another, all three of us have kept that oath. (And that’s by God’s grace, of course — I can see now that there was youthful idealism and impetuousness in the vow, and there are plenty of people in this world who have no control over what they must do to keep food on the table. The three of us have been blessed that we were able to keep our rash vow.)

So, no, jhagman: at the senmongakkou, they couldn’t pay me enough to not-write. Once my contract was up, I was out of there, and I had a wonderful time explaining in great detail to my bosses why I didn’t want their juicy contract renewed. I took my soul and left. But now, at Niigata University, it’s my privilege to have classes full of excellent students who are, for the most part, eager to learn. I’m able to give them something. I know now what my gifts of perception, language, sensitivity, patience, flexibility, tomfoolery, clarity of explanation, compassion, organization, and dramatic performance are for. When I’m teaching writing, I’m teaching something very dear and real to me; and when I see the students’ final drafts, I know why it’s okay that I’ve labored over their rough drafts and answered their questions.

What value, you may ask, is there in English conversation? Well, I won’t get into the usefulness of communication in English in today’s world, but I will simply say that a university classroom is an overall experience. Some of the best things I got from classes in college had little to do with the content of the courses (and some did). When I was a student, I took notes on my favorite professors’ personal stories and philosophies just as eagerly as I took notes on what we were there to study. It might be said that my college major was “Froehlich and Lettermann” with a minor in “Sorensen.”

I’d like to believe that I’m helping my students a little farther along the path of learning “how to suck all the marrow out of life” . . . helping them to figure out what it’s all about, and how best to spend their time on this spinning rock.

Can you pay a person enough to do that? Well, no. I’m glad they do pay me something, because I have to pay bills. And I’m glad I’m doing the job.

But the story doesn’t end there. A university job allows more free time and autonomy of mind and spirit than any other job I’m aware of. I was able to write The Sacred Woods — a full-blown novel — during my first semester this year. As to whether or not you’ll have wait “a lifetime of 100 years” for the next book — well, I’m writing them, but I can’t control what publishers buy. Writing the books is the only thing I have any degree of control over. (And we do know that The Star Shard is still scheduled for Fall 2011 — so put that on your calendar!)

So, jhagman, shake my hand before we go away this week: we’re friends, you’re among friends here, and your comment is well-taken. You are not wrong. I will try to do better. Let’s all try to do better, each in our own vocations. As dear Professor Lettermann said (which probably had no direct connection to the class at hand): “One of the best things about our theology is that we don’t have to be what we’ve been.”

Or, as Scarlett O’Hara says, “Tomorrow is another day.” (But that’s in some book I haven’t read.)

But at the same time, I’ll go on making the decisions I have to make. Time is limited, and as I see it, the books I’m waiting to read are friends I can depend on. They’ll be waiting for me, whether I live long enough to open them or not. Their words and their writers, some long dead themselves, are cheering me on in my own task.

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (Whitman, quoted in Dead Poets Society.)

The books that need me most are the ones waiting to be born.


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66 Responses to “A Writer’s Life Considered”

  1. Michelle Muenzler Says:

    My husband is also a paced reader (I think I prefer this term to “slow” reader as there is such a negative connotation surrounding “slow”), and I am a speed reader. What I have noticed between us is that while I may finish more books, I will barely remember what I have read, instead only grasping the level of joy the book gave me. My husband, however, with his methodical pace, devours the book in its entirety. He remembers far more details, far more of the marrow.

    Just some thoughts to add to the discussion.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      “Paced reader” — very nice term! Now we have a politically correct term for us speed-challenged readers!

      I’ve also noticed that phenomenon among my high-speed reading friends. They tend not to retain many of the particulars. HOWEVER, when a few years have passed, I’m not sure that I retain too many of the particulars. I once found a copy of Michael Moorcock’s Count Brass on my desk back in Illinois, and I thought, “Hmm, this looks interesting — I’d like to read it.” I happened to glance inside the front cover, and to my chagrin, I saw my notes there about when I’d started and finished it! I’d read it during a band tour in college. I had no recollection of even having read it — and to this day, I couldn’t tell you a thing about the book. So . . . fast or slow, I’m not sure there’s ultimately too much difference in the long run. But maybe there is. Maybe it depends on the book.

      Anyway, Michelle, I’m really happy to know that you’re still here, looking in on the blog! (I keep track of yours, too, but it’s a little harder to leave comments there — I have to look up my LJ password.) I hope your writing is going well, and that I’ll see you in Ohio next fall!

  2. Lizzie Borden Says:

    I don’t read as much as I’d like to. Even though I’m essentially a “Homemaker” and should have all the time in the day, I don’t. I only manage 30-45 minutes a day if that. Fortunately, I’m a really fast reader so I can blaze through things if I want.

    When I was writing, I didn’t read at all- because I found that it influenced the moods I was writing under- and that would shape the story in ways that weren’t necessarily what I would have done on my own.

    -Now that I’m an artist, unlike most other artists I know, I’m not a member of any online artist’s communities- no deviant art, no LJ art/photography communities, and am only a friend with one or two artists of completely different styles because, again, I realize that I’m easily influenced, and I want my work to be my own- because I hate finishing something and having that small thought in the back of my head “have I seen this -distinctly- somewhere before??”

    I think it’s all just a matter of how you work, what influences you, and what you have time for. Your priorities and abilities might not match up to someone else’s, mine certainly don’t match up to yours on the writing level- and I’d venture to say that when YOU are spending all of your free time working and writing- it’s obvious that you don’t have time to read as much as you’d like to- because you’re toiling night and day on your craft.

    –Fred, you’re one of the more well read people I’ve ever met- and dear goodness, you have absorbed literature FAR better than I have for all of my speed reading- so I’d also say it’s quantity versus quality because you can out quote me til the cows come home.

    Please don’t tell the writers not to write, without their books, WE would have nothing to read.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thank you, Lizzie! In support of jhagman, s/he certainly wasn’t telling me not to write: but I think the assumption that number of books read translates directly into number of books written is a dangerous assumption.

      I may be odd in that I don’t worry about being influenced by what I see (movies) or read (books) when I’m writing. Sometimes when I read something of mine, I’ll come to a part and I’ll think, “Oh, yeah, that’s in there because I was reading so-and-so at the time.” Of course we don’t want to borrow too much, but it seems to me that a certain amount of influence is inevitable and even healthy.

      So when you were writing, you didn’t read, either — thanks for telling me! So now there are three of us in that corner! “We are small but we are many. We are many; we are small.” (If anyone can identify that line — which is from a book — you win the Grand Prize.)

      • Jedibabe Says:

        Wasn’t that line from Coraline?

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        YES!!! You win the Grand Prize, Jedibabe! You got my Coraline reference! Thank you, and congratulations! (I’m not sure what the Grand Prize is. . . . in the present economy, I fear it’s a strictly honorary award . . . but it IS highly honorary!)

  3. fsdthreshold Says:

    I added a line into the post just now about how my true college major was “Lettermann and Froehlich” with a minor in “Sorensen.” Any RF Concordians out there will appreciate that.

    Also, movie report: I just got back from seeing The Lovely Bones, and I really liked it. It’s beautifully done — haunting — and it brought tears to my eyes more than once. Of course, the LOTR movie team is behind it: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens — so it ought to be good. Has anyone out there read Alice Sebold’s book? How is it? Any opinions about how the movie stacks up compared with the book? (Am I going to get in trouble with Marquee Movies for asking a question like that?)

    • Gabe Dybing Says:

      Hey, Fred! Sorry it’s been so long since I lurked around these pages. I wish I could say I had been writing! 😉

      Anyway, yes, I have read Sebold’s _The Lovely Bones_ (a few years ago now) and have been raving about it ever since. I have not seen Jackson’s movie yet, but because of your enthusiasm I am likewise excited.

      Perhaps I’ll get to it this week. Then I can tell you how the two forms stack up one against the other.

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Hey, Gabe! It’s good to see you lurking around here!

        Based on what you said (and on my enthusiasm for the movie), I’m tempted to run out and buy a copy of The Lovely Bones (book). But . . . I still haven’t read my new copy of Let the Right One In (book).

        But yes, I really did enjoy the movie, and I recommend it. Would love to hear your reactions when you’ve seen it.

        Have you been up to any writing of any kind? Poetry, maybe? We need to catch up. . . .

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    There have been times — not every time, mind you — when I have gone to the bookstore and searched the shelves for a new book to read. I can’t put my finger on what I want, but nothing there seems to excite me. I grow more frustrated and melancholy, until finally it strikes me that I am looking for my own book on the shelf. Then I know it’s time to go home and write, because only my story is going to bring me any pleasure.

    That being said, I do enjoy reading. I’m a speed reader, like Michelle, and so often I don’t remember the smaller details, or even secondary characters names! But perhaps it is not the books we read, or the speed at which we read, but the impressions, emotions and feelings they leave us with that is most important.

    A final note: Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With The Wind when she was laid up with a broken leg. Her husband came home from the library and told her there was simply nothing to be done. She had read all the books there, and if she wanted anything new she was going to have to write it herself! She was a “paced writer,” lacking speed and her self-confidence was anemic, but she still produced Gone With The Wind.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Wow! Excellent stories, Elizabeth! Thank you! That’s great about Margaret Mitchell!

      And you at the bookstore — that sounds like Tolkien and Lewis: “We just have to write them, Tollers.”

      Oh, I definitely enoy reading, too! I always feel better when I’m reading — better about life, better about everything. Life seems more manageable when I am reading. It keeps life in perspective.

  5. jhagman Says:

    Wow! A whole post from a favorite writer, Thank You. I have always detested speed reading, I once told a speed reader that it was like bolting an excellent meal. How does one speed read Kant’s “Critique Of Pure Reason”? A book that does not lend itself to reflection is not worth reading- or to quote John Ruskin “A book not worth reading more than once is not worth reading at all”. I have read “Dragonfly” twice. Now to respond to “paced reading”. Durbin Sensei, wouldn’t a better word for your reading pace be “glacial”? You don’t graduate Summa Cum Laude reading a book every two years. Oh yeah- Static Line and to borrow from your major “Via Media”. Barbara Hambly!!?? Bulwer-Lytton!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I’ve used “glacial” more than once to describe my reading pace.

      “You don’t graduate summa cum laude reading a book every two years” — well, I’m living proof that you can. I read a lot more slowly then, because I was a whole lot busier.

  6. John R. Fultz Says:

    Great post! I like that quote about reading your favorite 10 books over and over. There are certain books in my life that have been SO important and influential and inspiring that I feel compelled to re-read them every five to ten years. Sometimes I don’t have time to do that, but I’m happy to say that last summer I was able finally re-read Tanith Lee’s NIGHT’S MASTER and DEATH’S MASTER. (I also managed to squeeze in Tanith’s BOOKS OF PARADYS, which I had never read–totally different flavor than the FLAT EARTH books, but just brilliant) Plus, in keep with the “10 favorites” I also went back and re-read Robert Silverberg’s masterpiece NIGHTWINGS. It’s a real balancing act: Finding fresh new authors to read that are brilliant and inspiring, while not negelcting the “tent poles” of the literature that inspired my writing life. And the more I read, the more “tent poles” I discover!

    I made a comment to a friend a few years back (which was largely ignored) that as writers we OWE it to ourselves, and our talent, to only read the very BEST works. I have this everpresent fear of reading something really bad that will “rub off” into my work. That’s just being paranoid (probably), but I know the reverse is true: Reading a brilliant piece of fiction DOES influence your own writing. There is no avoiding it. We are all, in the end, a blend of our favorite authors’ styles and voices…and we call that an original voice. As every English teacher knows, reading is one of the best ways to become a better writer.

    I also understand and sympathize with your “slow” reading speed, Fred. When I read a book that I’m relishing, I can’t help but relish it as a WRITER…so I find myself examining figurative language, structure (sentence and narrative), and a thousand other things. Writers simply don’t read like non-writers…it’s exactly like how they way you listen to music CHANGES FOREVER once you become a musician. You can’t help it… Sometimes it helps to read a writer or genre that is totally different from your own. For example, two summers ago I went through a phase where I was obsessed with reading all the Hard Case Crime books I could get my hands on, since I love film noir, crime comics, and hard-boiled storytelling. I could absolutely FLY through those books because they weren’t written in the cerebral, largely figurative, image-laden style of most fantasy (my prime genre). Instead, the prose flows with supercharged muscle-power, like Hemingway on speed. No frills, just breakneck pacing, noirish moods, and snappy-as-hell dialogue. Lean and mean…that’s the way most crime writers do it. (James Ellroy is a genius!) However, the “lessons” I learned (subliminally, mostly) from these crime writers have unavoidably crept back into my fantasy writing (and sci-fi, and horror). And that’s a good thing–because everyone’s writing can always be a little more “lean and mean.”

    I think reading, for writers, is a way of recharging the creative batteries. As long as we continue to choose the very best of the field. You owe it to yourself–read for brilliance!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Great comment, John! (I haven’t forgotten that I owe you an actual e-message, too! I really liked Part 4 of SKULLS, by the way, which is readable by everyone commercial, commercial on Black Gate‘s website!)

      I once heard Madeleine L’Engle declare that “We need good trash sometimes!” — meaning that, yes, we should normally immerse ourselves in the best books we can find, the brilliant ones, the ones we truly love. But sometimes you just have to wolf down a burger and fries. Sometimes reading something really shoddy is refreshing — it keeps things in perspective. If nothing else, it reminds us of how much better we can do than that!

      I know what you mean about the crime books. Me, I love to read a good thriller now and then — a Michael Crichton, a Dan Brown, etc. — I read and enjoyed a couple of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries set in the Southwest. None of that is the type of thing I’d ever write, and the difference from one’s own material is liberating and rejuvenating, just as you say.

      Finally, I love your image of the “tent poles” of the genre! Yes, we dwell in a vast and ever-spreading tent, don’t we? It spreads on and on over the desert, an undulating sea of canvas when seen from above — and within, a labyrinth of rippling veils, smoky lamps, mists of incense, and dancing girls. [There have to be dancing girls, right?]

  7. John R. Fultz Says:

    [There have to be dancing girls, right?]

    God, I hope so. 🙂

    Guilty pleasure reading: I love the short stories of Lin Carter. He always gets criticized for doing pastiche work, but he had a raw sense of adventure and wonder that he managed to evoke with his Thongor and other fantasy tales. My favorite is probably “The Twelve Wizards of Ong.” So yeah, I get your point!

  8. I agree, I agree Says:

    Fred writes: time is limited, and as I see it, the books I’m waiting to read are friends I can depend on. They’ll be waiting for me, whether I live long enough to open them or not. Their words and their writers, some long dead themselves, are cheering me on in my own task.

    “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (Whitman, quoted in Dead Poets Society.)

    The books that need me most are the ones waiting to be born.”

    WOW! That is exactly as I see it. I would not consider my reading pace glacial, but it is not far removed. More lines from Whitman that represent Fred’s view (and mine): “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you…”

    I find myself to be the kind of person who can spend three hours in a great bookstore and yet leave with nothing purchased. I am the netflix member who takes two hours to complete five requests on his order list. I am a yearly reader of Watership Down, The Silmarillion, etc (and these are read through in massive gulps — a 3-4 day trip at most — while a new book might take a month to digest).

    Sometimes I smack myself upside the head for all the great books I may be missing, but I just cannot change the life-long pace. There will be time one day …

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Oh, I totally hear you! As I get older, I tend to buy fewer books, because I know what the fate of most of them will be: beautiful and tantalizing shelf decorations. But I still love to visit bookstores as much as I ever did! Yes, in a store large enough, I can easily spend half a day and never get bored.

      That’s so great that you re-read Watership Down and The Silmarillion every year!

  9. Chris Says:

    Might I ask why an artist should require the input of _any_ other artists? Isn’t the whole enterprise to reflect the artist’s unique view on the world?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing reading other people’s works. I love to read, albeit less time available for it as I grow older, but indeed why should any author feel the need to read the work of others in order to put out their unique take on the world?

    I know, I know, we are made richer by seeing how those around us see the world, but artists are different. I love certain musicians precisely when they are “new” to me. When I’m discovering their quirky new twist on the world around me. I like to see some of their influences, yes, but I also like to see _their voice_ (I just discovered “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by the Flaming Lips…if that helps calibrate the discussion.)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Chris, I don’t really see writing as a chance to broadcast my perspective or view on the world. Some writers might see it as such, and that’s fine. For me, it’s about stories. I love to hear (read) them, and I love to tell them. If I didn’t take any stories in, I don’t think I’d be very good at spewing them out. We “require the input of other artists” to keep focused on a sense of pacing, story arc, and to be constantly exposed to the richness of the language. Left to ourselves, we tend to shrink into our own vocabulary and thought patterns. It’s like when certain Ents become “treeish” and cease to move very much. Reading replenishes the cisterns. It makes us aware of things. It keeps us flexible.

      And besides all that, it entertains us. Writers are people, too, and people need stories. As Paul Darcy Boles said: “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.”

      And no, I don’t think exposure to other writers’ stories stifles our own individualism. It may arm us with some new vocabulary, but we’re still seeing the world through our lenses.

      • Chris Says:

        Oh don’t get me wrong! I have no problem with you reading other people’s works! 🙂 Heaven forbid! I was merely referring to the “need” to have half a library in you to come up with a book of your own.

        I don’t think any artist “needs” other artists other than as much as they personally see the need. The artist should gather his/her tools and populate their pallette ONLY as they see fit.

        I don’t think artists necessarily need to follow anyone but they surely need to lead those of us with less artistic insight.

        That was my point.

  10. Chris Says:

    “Books in Heaven”?

    One thing you mentioned in your post, Fred, the concept of taking time to catch up on your reading in heaven. The theological implications to that little toss-off line are enormous and since I’m light on work today I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

    First question: how can you enjoy books in heaven? If I recall my experience reading, part of the joy is the tension built up between protagonist and ANTAGONIST. If I enjoy the dynamic that drives the story then I must acquiesce to one being the antogonist. And I must, to some degree, dislike the character or motivations of the antogonist…or at least dislike the goal of the antagonist (otherwise he/she/it becomes my protagonist).

    How does one maintain an ANTAGONIST in heaven? Seems a very, shall we say, unheavenly view to hold.

    Further if Heaven is that point at which all pain is gone, then what fun is _any_ story? Isn’t writing writing about the human condition by and large? Even allegories are best enjoyed in light of the human condition which is “pain”, or at least requires pain to contrast with joy.

    (NOTE: This isn’t the first time I’ve bothered with this sort of thought…back in college my friend Grant and I decided that the song “Wot” by Captain Sensible was probably the only song allowed in heaven since it seemed to have no real “meaning” and hence would be the only thing allowed to be played in heaven. Similar reasoning.)

    So unless you are prepared to read nothing but super-duper happy (ie NO UNHAPPINESS) stories–which pretty much defeats the reason for reading a _story_– I am unsure what exactly you’ll be allowed to read in Heaven.

    And if you are kept from reading stuff in Heaven will it be “Heaven” for you?

    See where this is leading?

    OMG: I hope I haven’t turned you into a hardcore atheist by this simple thought experiment!

    But, then for every atheist I make I get a free toaster from Richard Dawkins.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Heh, heh! Chris, isn’t it ironic that Mr. Dawkins awards you with toasters for making atheist converts? Not much need for toasters in Hell–just hold the bread out at arm’s length until it’s as charred as you want it. 🙂

      Years ago, my parents and I accompanied Grandma Julia to a performance of a certain polka band she was into. (This is in keeping with our “Hell” theme.) They performed a song called “In Heaven There Is No Beer.” Mom snorted derisively and said, “There is, too! No beer! No beer in Heaven? Harumph!” I’d say the same about books. If there’s no reading in Heaven, it’s not Heaven. We got off on the wrong floor.

      But true–the Bible says all things will be made new, and the former Heaven and Earth will pass away, so we probably won’t have the same books we have now. LOTR as we know it won’t be there. But (as Tolkien explored in his “Leaf By Niggle”) in Heaven, J.R.R.T. will probably have completed the perfected LOTR, the one that’s unimaginably better–the version that the current LOTR is the merest shadow of.

      It’s an interesting question about the role of antagonists in stories. To take our analogy, again, from Tolkien: before the “fall of Satan” it was the music of the Ainur that “sang” Creation into being, right? Music involves harmony. Harmony at times involves discord. I think there will be the stuff of great stories there. Any sort of Heaven that was only harp-strumming on clouds wouldn’t be Heaven.

      It’s interesting that you refer more than once to what’s “allowed” in Heaven. In my experience, a hallmark of atheist perception is that faith is a set of restrictions; for the believer, it’s perfect freedom.

      • Chris Says:

        Good point on the “restictions” vs “freedom” line. For me that was precisely what religion was: restrictions (punishment for failings) as opposed to the spiritually uplifting “comfort” it appears to give many believers (cf my previous posts about Martin Luther and me).

        Frankly for me the thought of “nothingness” after death is really more comforting than just about anything. Oh sure I would _imagine_ I’d miss stuff, like the good books I’ve read or the music I’ve loved, but in reality I won’t be missing _anything_ if I don’t exist.

        The thought of a comforting place to wind up in is clearly the goal of all self-aware beings. For some it’s heaven with all the bells and whistles of “life on steriods”, for some of us it is oblivion and the lack of a need to care.

        The one thing a “lack of eternal life” misses for me is the idea that anything I’ve ever been or done or thought will simply disappear with me. But again here on earth the only folks who seem to attain anything like immortality are the great artists, writers and scientists who find fundamental truths or express fundamental truths that resonate across time.

        Not much hope of the latter for me now, and hopefully no eternity beyond this to have to process.

        I’ve seen some people who remained here physically but who seemed to “disappear” never to return. For me that helped evaporate the concept of a “soul” disparate from the body. It helped resolve the mind-body problem for me to some extent. The ghost was just the whirring of the gears of the machine. With all the harmony and discord attendent to the whirring gears.

        Ooops, seems like I’ve darkened this little cloud a bit. I’ll work on my harp playing. 🙂

  11. I agree, I agree Says:

    but am driven to long thought by your Chris’ comment.

    Here is what I think about Heaven: the people who put thoughts into your mind that are likely to serve as a distraction all day; i.e. no answer or one of 10,000 words, are not likely to be there.

    I pray, Chris, that I will see you there one day. Then again, considering I would likely revel in “told you so!” — and that would not be very Christian-like — maybe you will be there I will not …

  12. John R. Fultz Says:

    I like to think that in “heaven” you will BE all your favorite books…as you will be One with the entire Universe. Yet, perhaps that’s just my own non-denominational interpretation of the afterlife. 🙂

    • Chris Says:

      OOooh! You mean I can be P.W. Atkins’ 3rd Ed Physical Chemistry textbook! Or Ralph Iler’s “Chemistry of Silica”? Oooooh, to BE Brown,Lemay and Bursten’s “Chemistry the Central Science”.

      But, what if one of my favorite books is Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”? That would be ironic, no?

      (NOTE TO DAWKINS: send me another toaster and we can see what it’s like to BE “The God Delusion”)

  13. jhagman Says:

    Not being a religious man myself, I do remember a favorite story about the famous atheist Bertrand Russell. He was asked by Alfred North Whitehead how he knew there was no God, he replied that “he took it on faith”. A toaster from a man like Dawkins would probably be the size of a kitchen (or molecule), and not toast very well.

    • Chris Says:

      My favorite Bertrand Russell story is when he was asked what he would say to God should he die and find out there IS a God. Apparently Russell replied to the effect that he would tell God that He didn’t provide enough evidence. I have no idea how apocryphal this story is or not. But it sounds like a perfect retort.

      If I found myself in the same situation I don’t think I’d find it disrespectful in any way to say this. It is the way of the universe that some of us require different levels of assurity in decisions. And while people can preach forever about the beauty of “faith”, I see no reason to turn the “ultimate question” into a gamble at worst, or a guess at best.

      I see no reason for the fundamental truth of the universe to be anything but painfully, unavoidably obvious to all observers.

      Just as gravity tells me I can’t spontaneously float around the room here despite my most earnest wishes to the contrary.

      Oh and as for Dawkins’ Toasters (a great band name, imho), while I find Dawkins somewhat humorless and aggressive (we saw him speak here in San Diego last year), he’s a smart guy and I respect him. While I am not an aggressive atheist, I see no problem with a few “muscular atheists” out there to offset the muscular evangelism that I think we’ve all seen out in the world (although not here so much!) Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins do serve a role, albeit maybe not the way I would present it.

  14. I agree, I agree Says:

    I have not read Dawkins so I do not feel I can comment on his writings (will his works be in Heaven, too?)

    It has never been the atheists who bother me, rather, it is the wicked and silly among Christians who do the most damage to the world, for they mislead those who otherwise would find their way to Christ. I think in particular of the vicious untruth that is dispensationalism and pre-tribulation rapture theory (see Tim LaHaye and the “Left Behind: nonsense), Others perverting the truth include all the ‘health and wealth’ slicksters on TV: Osteen, Hagee, Jakes, Cerrillo, Dollar, Copeland, Roberts and so many others: they need to read 1 Peter 4:11 and understand.

    I have always considered an atheist a person who does not believe Truth, as a Christian would undertstand it, exists. The crooks and charlatans I named above acknowledge Truth but contort it to enrich themselves.

  15. Marquee Movies Says:

    Chris, what a fascinating question you pose, how books, or stories, which inherently contain some characters doing sinful things, can exist in heaven. (Fred, I think this concept warrants its own blog post – just my opinion.) While it may sound like a joke, I have seriously wondered if/how movies exist in heaven. Because of this, I have given the matter some thought – thankfully, I have the wonderful C.S. Lewis to fall back on. His story “The Great Divorce” does a wonderful job of illustrating the concept that believers will be perfected – by being in the presence of perfect love, there will be no more fear, no need or desire to indulge in the negative aspects of humanity. And yet – they are not empty-headed, spacily-grinning happy-happy-joy-joy people – they’re still individuals, who are capable of interacting with those who are unbelievers, who can tell stories, as well as hear them.
    The unbelievers in Lewis’ story have come to the very outskirts of heaven to question whether or not they should invest in faith. The outskirts of heaven are more REAL than any reality the unbelievers have ever known. The blades of grass are like diamonds to the unbelievers, while they are as soft as grass to the believers.
    So some of my thoughts on the matter are that stories will always be needed, enjoyed – after all, Christ was a great storyteller Himself – but the stories there will be richer, deeper, stronger (I sound like the opening of the Six Million Dollar Man) – if you love The Lord of the Rings, you may be able to love it even more so there, as well as encounter stories that are ten thousand times more exciting and moving. As for sinful activity in the stories, the reaction to it may be different, because believers will be different. Kind of like, When I was a child, I thought like a child – but now as a grownup, I put childish things away. As a perfected human in the presence of pure love, the stories I desire and love will grow along with me, and my ability to love them will be even greater – how exciting!
    I wrote this quickly, so I think I rambled, as well as repeated what Brown Snowflake and others have said – I believe that God is real, that God is love – I KNOW that my love for stories is real, is very powerful. Well – just some thoughts. (Shieldmaiden, hurry before Fred changes posts! I hope I didn’t step on any of your C.S. Lewis thoughts!)

    • Chris Says:

      That is a good point. (Although the “happy-happy-joy-joy” comment did make me smile a lot since I loved Ren and Stimpy!)

      In general, for me, reading a story is a visceral experience of “feeling” what the author intended (or in some cases maybe didn’t intend!) A well written story should put me in the mode of what the artist wanted from me.

      My only “definition” of art (based on an argument I had with a roommate about 25 years ago) is that “art is anything that is designed to make you ‘feel’ something.” That opens the doors but it helps clarify what art is and why some things people wouldn’t consider art are art.

      As such LotR would be distinctly UN-fun for me if Shelob wasn’t a scary spider (not unlike the size and ferocity of the spiders that surround my home here in SoCal). Mordor wouldn’t be interesting if it weren’t viscerally scary to think of such darkness and dread.

      “Waiting for Godot” wouldn’t be as frustrating if Godot showed up (that’s why I always like to think of WfG as an allegory for “faith”).

      People will tell you I prefer movies with sad endings mainly because those are the ones I walk away from _feeling_ something that sticks.

      My favorite Matthew Sweet album is “Altered Beast” since it seems the most frustrated and dark. The feelings are more raw and more compelling.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “anti-happiness”. But for me happiness would have no real value unless there was sadness (actual, visceral sadness) to contrast with it. Life would have no meaning without death to mark the end. To make it precious is to limit it.

      (I agree, Fred should jump in the deep end of the theology pool in his blog and deal with this as a separate blog post! He needs to whip out some of that theological training from his college days! Throw in some latin and greek for effect. Godzilla piscipum inimica est!)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Marquee Movies — if you’re not familiar with Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle,” it sounds as if you’d enjoy it. There are definite connections to the C.S. Lewis story you’re describing. “Leaf” can be found in The Tolkien Reader.

      Thank you for those thoughts. I think you’ve really said it (which is exactly what I was trying to say) when you point out that stories in Heaven will be on a whole new level that is incomprehensible to us now. What’s the oft-quoted Lewis phrase? — “Higher up, further in” or something like that. But like you, I can’t imagine anything involving God not involving story. Everything about the way He has revealed Himself to us thus far is steeped in Story.

      You’re asking me to write a blog post about how books involving conflict/dark threads can exist in Heaven? Wow. . . . Let me think about that. To quote the incredible and immortal Willow in Buffy: “Huh! That’s . . . that’s . . . huh!”

  16. jhagman Says:

    Judgement City in Al Brook’s film “Defending Your life” comes to mind from reading these interesting posts. All those hotels, restaurants, courthouses. Lewis seemed to like the Platonic approach in his theology, our world being shadows of ideal models. Remember his Heaven in “The Last Battle”? I’ve seen enough in life to know that we’re not even close to understanding what’s going on here- and some of the explanations of bio-chemistry, and physicalist philosophy become (forgive me scentist/philosophers) laughable.

  17. I agree, I agree Says:

    Forgive me, Chris, Marquee, et al if I ramble here …

    Wouldn’t at least the memory of bad things still exist in heaven? As a firm believer in the communion of saints, I feel the saints must recall the suffering and sorrow of this world in order to desire interceding (their prayers rise like incense before the altar of God … see Revelation) on behalf of those alive on earth.

    Lucifer’s pride was allowed to exist until it directly conflicted with God (but maybe that was a special case).

    I feel we will still recall sin, but not have it. We will know right/wrong and good/evil.

    We need a Jesuit to drop in on us and set us (me, at least) straight …

  18. Marquee Movies Says:

    Comments on these fascinating comments:
    Chris, I pretty much agree with your definition of art – in some ways, there is nothing, no entity that CAN’T be described as art – I love the silly story of John Lennon meeting Yoko Ono at her first art showing. There was a ladder leading to a hole in the ceiling, and after you climbed up, you found a tiny card with the word “yes” written on it. After climbing down, Lennon asked her why there was a card up there with “yes” on it. She replied, “Would you have preferred it said ‘No’?” The moment someone points at anything and says “That’s art,” it is. The big question is always, Will anyone else think so? (I’m reminded of the videotape in “American Beauty,” of the plastic bag that simply swirls around and around. The kid said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.)
    I always think of the most realistic comment on art I’ve ever heard whenever I hear people complain – “They call that a movie, it stunk!” Or, “Look at that painting – my five year old could do that!” And I always remember this quote – The trick is NOT doing the painting. The trick is getting YOUR painting into the museum.
    One more – I also like David Mamet’s explanation of the difference between entertainment and art – “Entertainment is when you see/read/hear anything that you already agree with. Art is when what you see/read/hear something that challenges what you think or believe or understand.” (His quote is much more succinct – I made it more inclusive.)
    Fred, I will definitely look for that Tolkien story – thanks!
    Jhagman – I LOVE Defending Your Life – it has a great premise, delivers on it – and it’s hysterical and touching. And I agree vehemently with the concept that it is fear that keeps us from doing much good in our lives. There’s the Irish expression that says, Fear is the enemy of love.
    And Brown Snowflake, I think your comments dovetail nicely with what Chris was saying – that in many ways, happiness exists because sadness exists – a happy time is particularly happy if we have come out of a bout of grieving or other suffering – how lovely and overwhelming is Spring after the long, gray, dreary winter? (And how beautiful is Winter after etc. etc.) (More C.S. Lewis ahead – hold on!) There’s a powerful moment in Shadowlands, the true story of C.S. Lewis and the one love of his life, the American woman named Joy. He realizes he will soon lose her, and she explains that the reason she’ll soon be gone is what makes the moment they’re currently in so beautiful.
    Movies like Total Recall and the brilliant Blade Runner deal with the importance of memories. (Thank you, Philip K. Dick!) I love how Roy in Blade Runner lists some of the memories that will soon be gone as he is dying – some of the things he lists sound like they might have been horrifying – and yet, as he will never have any more memories, it becomes something beautiful – much like one could say that anything could be art.
    And I think I’ve mentioned this in the past year, but I love the moment in “Interview With a Vampire” when Brad Pitt’s character is given the chance to erase his pain over losing the love of his life, and he turns it down, saying his regrets exist because of the love he had. So he chooses to ache (a negative sensation), to hold onto his great love – a positive sensation.
    All over the map – but this is so thought-provoking – thanks, everybody!
    God bless the storytellers, and those who love them.

  19. Chris Says:

    Lord of the Rings in Heaven!
    Thinking about stories in heaven I realized there’s a great parallel here using a book we all appear to have loved deeply in our lives: LotR.

    When I re-read LotR recently I intentionally skipped the Party Prep Scenes at the beginning. It sickens me with it’s pointless sweetness. Ugh. If I wasn’t sure there was a much better book beyond the abysmal party preparation scenes I would not be able to make it through to get to the good stuff.

    The good stuff starts when the darkness sets in. The whole point of the story is to make it through the dark. The descriptions of setting up a party pale in comparison to the descriptions of the machinery around Isengard, to the descriptions of Shelob, to the descriptions of the blasted Osgiliath.

    No amount of beautiful prose about Shadowfax can compare with descriptions of the Ring Wraiths.

    Maybe it’s the darkness in our “souls” that makes those descriptions much more “interesting”. That draws us into the pages. At least me. I can be repelled by the horrors, but it’s the horrors that make the pages fly by!

    And ironically enough we are here discussing this stuff on the blog of a “horror” genre author. It taps into that fundamental darkness in us all. That ineffible desire to look upon the evil, even if we don’t want to be in it, we want to be able to see it.

    And I have difficulty in understanding how that aspect of the human soul could continue to exist “unmolested” in Heaven.

  20. I agree, I agree Says:

    Chris: You are SO right about LOTR. I think the saccarhine Hobbiton scenes are their as a sop by JRR to his children as much as anything else.
    What make Moria so exhilirating is that is is MORIA, no Khazad-dum when we visit it. And how about the Dead Marshes, blasted Osgiliath and the tortured plain of Gorgoroth in Mordor?
    Marquee will correct me if I get the names/jobs wrong, but I think Jaimie Selkirk deserves oodles of credit for his photography and cinematogrophy in the movies. Actually seeing Isengard reduced to darkness, seeing the living despair of Mordor, the twisted ruination of former beauty that is Minas Morgul and the terrible attraction to the Ringwraiths — darkness does indeed have a certain lure.
    And that, Chris (Fred: we have talked about this before) may be why I am so enthralled with The Silmarillion and the Elves (who I have little in common with): it is the loss of the light, the loss of wisdom in the ensuing rage and pain, the recovery but eventual loss (again) of the light that intrigues me: it is the long fall, the long sorrow, the hurt that is never quite healed …
    As Frodo said to Gandalf (Olorin, a Maiar of Lorien, remember, who was sympathetic to the grief of the Noldor) “I am wounded with knife, sting, tooth and a heavy burden. Where can I finally find rest?”

  21. jhagman Says:

    I think some of you miss the point of those “saccarhine” scenes in LOTR. Those are the essential things the heroes are going to defend. Remember, Tolkien was a war vet, and if I remember correctly, it was when he was recovering in a war hospital that he invented Middle-Earth. Ask to see the wallet of any soldier, and you will see photos of “saccarhine” scenes. You will see photsos huge parties. Have any of you been in situations where the ending was in doubt? If you have I bet you thought like Bilbo, about a comfortable chair and saccarhine library that you might not see again.

    • Chris Says:

      I wholeheartedly agree. The pain is just pain unless there is something good to look forward to. The vet isn’t fighting just to fight but to _protect_ something he or she loves! I concur totally on that.

      However, my point is that light is nothing without the dark and life is nothing with death. It’s like positive without negative. What’s the point?

      And that, indeed, is my point altogether. In heaven is pleasure really meaningful without a firm feeling for the real possibility of pain? Is love meaningful without hate? Is it possible to really get anything out of love if it is the only thing surrounding you? And I’m not just talking about the memory of pain (which in itself would seem to be corrosive to the entire enterprise of heaven), but the actual appreciation of how that pain shapes our lives and informs our every single minute of existence.

      I have no doubt there are suggestions of “possible mechanisms by which this works in heaven”, but those are usually ill-formed and amount to “We don’t know yet but we will!” which is nice but uninformative to any degree. A “placeholder” of an idea. Not an idea.

      Interesting that no one writing here in defense of heaven will say “Yeah, I’m looking forward to a bland happy-happy-joy-joy eternity filled with vapid harp playing while staring off blankly into space like a zombie while contemplating love of god, in other words; nothing that looks or feels like regular existence today.” In almost all cases they seem to be envisioning an unending mortal life “on steroids” without any “bad stuff” but with the ability to understand and “feel” bad stuff but without it causing any problems.

      And I can certainly understand that! I understand the drive to envision heaven as “LIFE PLUS”, but I’m not sure I understand the mechanisms even on a fundamental level.

      Of course I’m one to talk.

  22. I agree, I agree Says:

    I get your point, jhagman, and do not disagree. I should have stated made my point more clear, which is that the Shire scenes are almost like a separate part of the tale.

    As we discover in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ someone must lose something in order for that thing to be saved for others. With that in mind, the ‘set-up’ scenes in Fellowship are necessary.

    All I was trying (poorly) to say was that I could have done with a much shorter version so that we might more quickly get to “The Shadow of Mordor” but I am not about to argue with the master and his work…

  23. jhagman Says:

    I always loved the description of Bilbo’s 111th birthday, I think it is a party Tolkien would have loved to attended. Remember ,Tolkien lived through 2 World Wars. One he fought in, the other his son Christopher had to fight in. I can’t even imagine how his soul (and stomach) ached for peace and plenty. I think that is why he loved to write about Hobbits. Oh yeah Chris, I grew on a horse farms here in SoCal, I’ve met a horse named Shadowfax, and I know of a horse farm named Shadowfax Farms, but I can’t say I’ve met a horse named Nazgul, I not sure I would want to.

    • Chris Says:

      If I owned a horse I would probably name it Nazgul, now that you’ve put that image in my head.

      My dog, Fleshy, is an american hairless terrier but we didn’t know he was going to grow up to be a crabby little terrier. As much as I love the name “Fleshy” (because of the Robotman cartoon, that’s why we gave him the name), lately I’ve become more enamored of calling him “Aleister Growley” since at times he can be a beast.

      My next dog will be chosen to be a mild-mannered, lovey dog and I’ll name him “The Witch King of Angmar” just to mess with people. And I’ll go out in the evening and call him in loudly: “Here Witch King of Angmar! Come on in and have puppy-dog dinner! Here Witch king of Angmar!”

  24. jhagman Says:

    You will only confuse the dog and your neighbors. In “the Return Of The King”, isn’t there something about choosing names that “wear well”? Years later you will say to yourself why didn’t I choose the name Spot!

  25. fsdthreshold Says:

    Chris, you might also consider as dog names “The Mouth of Sauron,” “Gothmog,” and “Khamul, Flame of the East.”

    But seriously: I frequently say, and mean, that I would never get tired of perfect summer days — those “Fred days” of summer when the sky is cloudless, when the sun is blazing and melting the tar on the road, when shade is deep and cool (but not too cool). If I were locked in an eternity of that, I’m as sure as a limited mortal can be that I would never, ever get tired of the weather. Think about it: even in our mortal life here and now, pleasure is always pleasurable. Assuming our bodies are free of pain, it always feels good to be warm and clean. It always feels good to get into bed. It always feels good to browse in a bookstore or an office supply store. We don’t need contrast to feel the pleasure of these things.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that no one here who believes in Heaven expects it to be a place of sitting around on clouds and strumming harps. Nowhere does the Bible describe Heaven like that, and I don’t think many people would come up with that as a picture of Paradise. (So where does that stereotype come from, I wonder. . . .?) I’d guess that for most of us, the days we’re happiest in this life are when we’re in what Lisa Snellings calls “the zone” — when our minds are fully engaged in something engrossing and stimulating. For many of us, that’s when we’re producing something. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that “a day in my toolshop” would be closer to Heaven than the unnatural situation of sitting on a cloud with an awkward halo, which none of us has experienced? Heaven is an eternal baseball game (if you’re a ballplayer) — if you’re a writer, it likely involves blazing out thousands of words a day as you near the end of the draft of what you’re sure will be the most amazing book ever written — an experience punctuated by times of communing with others who have read your books and been touched by them.

    But yes, after a lot of thought, I think I do have to disappoint Marquee Movies in that I don’t see how I can write a post defending the existence of books in Heaven. Anyone who loves books already knows they’ll be there — how could they not be? — and anyone who wants to raise an objection will say, “But the Bible doesn’t say ‘There will be books in Heaven.'”

    Has anyone seen The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? I thought it was VERY interesting how the film puts forth the idea that the world is sustained by the act of telling stories.

    I think everyone in this room is already sold on the power of Story.

  26. I agree, I agree Says:

    Just because “the Bible doesn’t say ‘there will be books in Heaven'”. Well, the bible doesn’t say ‘Trinity’ either, yet all Christians accept the idea. Just one more of the dozens of easy refutations of sola scriptura.

    I think in Heaven we will be occupied by glorifying God in large part by achieving, at a perfect level, whatever it is we have been gifted to do: chemists will chem, masons will mase, athletes will athleticize, etc…

    Chris: love the notes about your dog and futue dog. I am in the K of C with a guy who has a basset hound that, as a puppy, was frightened of everything. The dog was originally to be named “baron” but after three weeks of being a wimp, he was renamed “Sir Robin.”

    • Chris Says:

      The “Trinity” thing is fascinating. A few years back I read about the “Johannine Comma” (1 John 5:7-8) and the hassles that Erasmus had to go through in relation to it’s exclusion or inclusion in the Textus Receptus. Very interesting as to the fundamental aspects of trinitarianism in Christianity.

      As for Baron vs Sir Robin, I really liked that! What a great name for a wussy dog!

  27. Marquee Movies Says:

    To Brown Snowflake – I knew the name Jamie Selkirk, but I’m not SO good that I knew what he did – I had to look him up – he was the editor of “Return of the King,” and Andrew Lesnie was the cinematographer of all three films. And to Mr. Snowflake and to Chris, I was sad to read of your dismissal of the Party Planning Scene in “Fellowship.” I agree very much with Jhagman that Mr. Tolkien is establishing many important elements in that chapter, not the least of which is WHY people fight at all. Just as Ray Kinsella hears that Heaven is where your dreams come true, and he sees his wife and child sitting on the porch swing in the setting sun – Hobbiton is Heaven on earth to Mr. Tolkien – as King Thorin said on his deathbed, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Chris and Snowflake, I’ve been reading this blog long enough to know that you both have terribly happy memories of holing up in Fred’s parent’s bookstore, playing D and D for hours on end – is that dark and forboding? No, unless you count the bugs. (Joke.) But it was fun, you were with your best friends in the world –
    You may say, Yes, but if I were writing an autobiography, I wouldn’t go on and on about ONE single game –
    Well, what if it was a last game before all four of you were to leave forever? I went back and reread much of the chapter in question, and yes, it has a light, frivolous feel, but that’s well-written frivolity, and yet there is also an undercurrent of unease. Much like in a horror film, where the director intentionally normalizes a scene, and goes into GREAT detail of an ordinary day – sure enough, something’s going to happen soon.
    When someone you love dies, every single one of the last words said to you, the last notes, the last gifts – suddenly take on a meaning that you never knew was there. Mr. Tolkien LOVES this land and these people – he knew it would all be over soon.
    That first chapter is crucial – in establishing the world Bilbo is leaving, and Frodo loves, in establishing Gandalf’s questions and unease, and establishing a happy, simple place that helps put the rest of Middle Earth into perspective. Without that whole chapter, the darkness wouldn’t seem as dark – the losses wouldn’t be as profound. Very, very few people would have been interested in this book if it was only about the darkness. I know it seems like I’m going overboard, but words like “pointless sweetness” and “abysmal” and “sop” really made me want to share my thoughts. In a way, it’s a bit like the New Coke experience – many people thought, Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a try – but no one had ever considered asking those same people how they’d feel if the old Coke was forever taken away.
    If you took the sweet scenes out of LOTR, you rob the book of its heart. There will be deaths, and sadness, but the scenes of near-heaven on earth (which again, are infused with shades of ominous rumblings) put all of the story into a context that helped make this story the masterpiece that it is.
    I know Jhagman said much of this (and more succinctly and politely!), but we can never, ever underestimate the desire for peace. Chris, I admire your love of dark themes and storylines – but surely you don’t want to be in darkness ALL the time? I just watched Ingrid Bergman in “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” and she lives a terribly difficult life as a missionary in one of the poorest villages in China. (Based on a real woman.) But she is extraordinarily happy – she works very hard, and is able to help many people, poor that they are. When word comes that the Japanese are planning to attack, she breaks down and sobs, because of what she knows will be lost – perhaps forever.
    Without the parties, and the descriptions thereof, without the times to spend with dear, close friends, without the chance to eat good food and drink good drinks, life becomes nothing but darkness.
    And yet, you both aren’t completely wrong – once again, I go to Mr. Tolkien – I love his comment in The Hobbit, when he says something like, It’s true that happy times don’t make for the best stories, and dark and dangerous times do – so two happy weeks passed with the Elves, and then they got going again. But in LOTR, he was right to go into such detail with the party – it’s the long, deep breath before it all changes, forever, and we carry the oxygen of that time with us through all the rest of the story.

    • Shieldmaiden Says:

      Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling, anyway. —J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit

      Great comments on the party everyone, and Marquee Movies I agree 100%. I also love A Long-expected Party. There is so much story in that first chapter and the contrast from An Unexpected Party in The Hobbit is just purely wonderful. I am glad I got to spend Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday with him because he wasn’t in The Fellowship much. As Bilbo planned his party to the very last detail I could see the hold the ring had taken on him, he was not the same Hobbit wrestling with his Tookish side. I found him a more selfish Hobbit sorely in need of a holiday. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book happened in chapter one when Gandolf helped Bilbo give up the ring and leave it behind. This is great story telling, the kind I never want to end.

      And so I say, “Good morning!” (and I am wishing you a good morning) I am not wishing you a good morning whether you want it or not, I do however feel good this morning, and it IS a morning to be good on, the sun is shining and the grass is green! (Well, it is actually snowing here, but you get the idea, and still a very good morning)

    • Chris Says:

      Marquee, you are correct. The happiness is the oxygen to get through the dark times, and I don’t want it always to be dark, but I went out of my way to skip it last time I re-read it because it seemed so “unnecessary” at that length. Not that the concept wasn’t unnecessary.

      As for holing up in the back of the Book Center, well indeed that was wonderful…except for the occasional attacks by the Morlocks who lived in the back of the basement where it was always dark. But once the victims’ screams subsided we could relax and forget about it for a while.

      But if you expect me to carry a cursed ring across Mordor to defend the beauty of Taylorville, well, I’m afraid it’ll take more than a party to do that.

  28. I agree, I agree Says:

    Let me try one more time, this time after the well-argued and passionate arguments in favor of the opening chapter…

    I like it. I do. It is just that I like what quickly follows better. I simply like the scene of Gandalf giving all the back history of the Ring more than the desciptions of it ‘snwoing food and raining drink.’ And as much as it fills in a necessary role (what are we fighting for?) I still receive more enjoyment over the description of the chance meeting with Gildor more …

    I agree with Marquee that, without the party, many readers may have put the book down. Again, I am not saying it is a waste of time, all I am saying is that it is not my favorite part.

    The same thing goes for The Silmarillion. I love the depiction of the beauty of Valinor under the light of the Two Trees, but is the loss of that light that makes for the better reading, if only because we now know what has been taken from us … (did I just shoot my own argument in the foot? ha ha)

  29. fsdthreshold Says:

    Jedibabe identified the Coraline reference! Congratulations to her!

    And thank you all for this great discussion of Bilbo’s party preparations! There’s also a point to be made about the structural balance of the book. Professor Tolkien was very wise to begin and end the book locally, as gateways into and out of the grand, magnificent adventure. It’s often been noted how hobbits are the “access” characters, the people who are the “most like us.” When we set off with them, it might be us walking down the road, putting one (hairy) foot in front of another. The hobbits get spread out as the story expands across Middle-earth: two to Mordor, one to Gondor, one to Rohan — which helps to keep us grounded: no matter what spectacular, dire, and world-shaping events are unfolding, it’s still a story about “us,” with our memories of what’s happening back in the Shire and our longing to go back there.

    And then the bleak, terrible picture of what the Shire has become while “we” were away . . . even the Party Tree cut down, and we, with Sam, weep. Those tears have their weight because of the Party that we experienced under that Tree so much earlier, back at the beginning of it all . . . the Party that we’ve wanted the whole time to get back to.

    Remember the enlightened “theory about the brontosaurus” expressed by the learned scientist in the old Monty Python sketch? “The brontosaurus is thin at one end, gets very thick in the middle, and gets thin again at the other end.” That, it seems to me, is a good way to structure a book. Start small and intimate; go to the heights and depths; then come back to the small and intimate.

    Marquee, your points about the dearness of a world soon-to-be-lost reminded me of a line that’s directly there, somewhere in Tolkien’s works. Looking back through the mists of the years, I’m not sure if it’s a thought of Bilbo’s early in FOTR, or if it’s a thought of the main character’s in “Leaf by Niggle” — but somewhere, a character is aware of how the old familiar paths and settings of everyday life, these places that we see a hundred times a day and think nothing of, suddenly become immeasurably precious when we know we must leave them soon.

  30. Chris Says:

    Oh you wusses! I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t like the party scene! There, I said it! In fact I will go so far as to say it is easily the worst part of the book in my “not-so-humble opinion”. And you should trust me…I’m a DOCTOR (albeit not a medical one).

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get the need to establish the gateway and lay the groundwork for “why we fight” or what the ultimate goal is (“home, safety, happiness”), but the party prep and party scenes go on so long I feel like I’m living it in real-time (kinda like the beginning of the “Deer Hunter”, I started to feel like I was a steelworker in Pittsburgh and stuck at a wedding _in real time_!)

    I think JRRT could have dispensed with about 3/4 of it. I mean, how many folks “need” to reminded that feeling good feels good?

    So I’m planting my flag firmly in the “I dislike the party section” section! Take that! All you namby-pambies can take it up with Chuck Norris. He doesn’t need to know why he fights. He just fights because that is what feels good. The only reason a fight should end is so another one can commence!


  31. I agree, I agree Says:

    After all, Chuck Norris doesn’t sleep, he lies in wait …

    I will side with Chris about the namby-pamby comment: too many people like to downplay the darkness, to limit it as a somewhat removed danger that never really has a chance at victory.

    That is one reason why so many LOTR fans do not care for The Silmarillion, because, although Morgoth falls in the end, his lieutenant Sauron escapes. And most of the book is a tale of sorrow and fruitless victories by the Noldor.

    Chris and I agree on The Deer Hunter as far as the beginning goes, but, good doctor, tell us you like the Nam-forward part of the movie!

  32. fsdthreshold Says:

    Do I have to point out that calling defenders of the party scene “wusses” and “namby-pambies” is illogical? No one who has written in favor of the Shire moments (or hours) has suggested any downplaying of the later darkness. We would defend it just as vehemently if someone came along and said s/he detested the dark, painful, harrowing parts of the book. And do you really want to say that there’s a “worst part” of LOTR?

    In honor of Willow Rosenberg, I propose an addition to the canon of cyber-acronyms such as “LOL,” “ROTFLOL,” etc. My proposed new one is: “HTTH,” to be used when someone says something utterly bewildering. It stands for, “Huh! That’s . . . that’s . . . huh!”

    • Chris Says:

      I was referring to those folks as “namby pambies” who won’t come out firmly in defense of one side or the other.

      Neville Chamberlains all!

      This is a war! And in the end the Party Scene People will be crushed, destroyed! Annhilated! Ushering in a dark new world of unending horror and strife!

      Oh, almost forgot; “bwahahahahahaha.”

  33. Marquee Movies Says:

    Goodness, such passion, such fervor! Such guts! (Jack Benny joke.) Oh – some people wear Superman pajamas – Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas.
    Thanks to Shieldmaiden for getting the Hobbit quote that I mangled, and you also made an EXCELLENT point – We’re about to lose Bilbo forever – I’m happy for any extra time to spend with him being so Bilbo-ish, fussing about and such. (And Good Morning to you as well – all day, every day!)
    When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.
    Chris, I didn’t know about the Morlocks in the bookstore. I’m certainly glad the screaming didn’t interfere too much with the game! You wouldn’t carry a cursed ring for Taylorville – who or what would you carry it for? Not trying to be confrontational – just wondering who or what you DO love that much. (It’s a personal question – you don’t have to answer.)
    Chuck Norris’s tears can cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried. Ever.
    And thanks, Mr. Snowflake, for clarifying. That you prefer one section over another is of course just fine – I just love it all so much that when anyone puts any of it down, I feel the need to stand at arms. Hope I didn’t offend you or Chris!
    Chuck Norris doesn’t breathe – he holds air hostage.
    But wait a moment! Suddenly, as all our backs were turned, Chris has jumped up from the ground! He flings “DOCTOR” at us! He hurls “namby-pambies” at us! We duck, but at that moment, he low-flings an oversimplification of feeling good that smacks us right in the face! We stagger over to Brown Snowflake, only to -SLO-MO LOOK OF SHOCK ON OUR FACES – have him pile on with his agreement of the “namby-pamby” line! They then both distract us with a 1978 Michael Cimino Vietnam film, then walk off into the sunset, shaking the dust of this crummy line of comments off their heels, and sharing a not-so-quiet laugh over a Chuck Norrisism.
    On his birthday, Chuck Norris randomly selects one lucky kid to be thrown into the sun.
    We gaze up, our vision blurry, gravel stuck to our lips, our eyes puffy, our cheeks streaked with dirt – and Fred is holding out his hand, and picking us up. He mentions something being illogical, and we nod softly, not ready for any quick movements. He mentions acronyms, reminding us of one of many, many great lines from the beloved (and sometimes feared) Willow Rosenberg – HTTH. He leads us to his backyard, where it’s sunny and warm, where there’s a pile of books next to some blankets. I complain that I really hate sitting on the ground, and Fred rolls his eyes and goes and gets me a chair. Then the others say, “I wouldn’t mind a chair, either.” Fred grimaces while trying to look like he’s smiling, and heads back to the house for more chairs.
    I pick up a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and begin reading. Someone compares it to The Deer Hunter, and I say, HTTH.
    There are no steroids in baseball – only players that Chuck Norris has breathed on.

    • Chris Says:

      That post is “made largely of ‘win'”.

      As for what I would carry a cursed ring for: Boston. Yup. Boston was my “spiritual home” despite my not being born there and only getting to spend a few brief wonderful years there doing my second postdoc and first job in industry.

      As for the morlocks in the basement of the Book Center; I must admit I was pre-D&D in the “Fred-o-Verse”. I only played D&D once with Fred when we had both just discovered it in the late, late 70’s/early 80’s. I had moved away from T-ville by that time.

      Memories of the basement of the Book Center are largely around just sitting around there talking and wandering about.

      I did play D&D a lot with my peeps from unnergrad in Charleston.

      Chuck Norris was an only child….eventually.
      Chuck Norris has counted to infinity. Twice.

  34. I agree, I agree Says:

    And then Mr. Snowflake appears, tells you all of his deep reverie for LOTR and that he was just being a sarcastic smart-ass — at least part of the time — and warns you that Chris almost certainly was as well, as they share a common love to stirring the pot ere the gnip coagulates into gnop.

    Chuck Norris sued NBC because Law & Order are the names of his fists.

    Right about then Fred calls for peace and hints that we may just be moments away from “The Big R” which, on heavenly occasions at the Durbin homestead, involves MADDOG’s acclaimed sassafrass tea.

    Chuck Norris does not do push ups … he pushes the earth down.

    Marquee smiles and looks wistfully past the chicken shed and through the clothes lines toward the old (name deleted for privacy concerns) house, where Chris once lived. Snowflake assures those gathered he hated everything about Apacolypse Now and that Full Metal Jacket is his favorite Vietnam film.

    And Chuck Norris never runs westward for fear he will speed up the rotation of the earth.

  35. Marquee Movies Says:

    To quote Lucilla in the brilliant Gladiator, “This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?”
    It’s nice here in Fred’s backyard – I like hearing stories of old times, especially from the people who lived it and loved it. I’m curious about the sassafrass tea, and…..
    Wait a minute…..WHAT?!?
    You mean someone somewhere on Earth doesn’t like Apocalypse Now?!? The slow motion helicopters, with the hypnotic WHUP, WHUP, WHUP, Brando’s entrance, the waterskiing scene, the….
    (The others slowly walk away, but Marquee doesn’t notice, as the froth and foam coming out of his mouth has obscured his vision.)
    America is not a democracy, it is a Chucktatorship.
    (Have to sneak this one in, too.)
    Some people ask for a Kleenex when they sneeze. Chuck Norris asks for a body bag.

  36. I agree, I agree Says:

    Well, since we are here in Fred’s backyard and time was spun backwards, let us all grab our sleeping bags and head down to the pond, where Fred can transfix us with tales of his epic battles with Genghis Khan, catfish king of the pond.

    And here is Hooper (Snowflake weeps with joy at seeing his old friend). Hooper runs up to Snowflake for the requisite petting and love. He looks expectantly up at Marquee — you going to the pond, too? Want to chase frogs and bark at fish with me?

    Snowflake smiles and slips Hooper a fig newton. Hooper, knowing Snowflake was always slipping him goodies under the table during Dn’D meetings, decides to tag along rather than run ahead just in case another cookie should magically appear.

    Wouldn’t you know it? We are in luck, because Joe promises to drive the old truck down and check in on us later. Fred’s dad, you see, is not really a ‘parent’ … he is one of the guys, and where we go he is always, always welcome.

    Now, if we just had an old 8mm camera to film the our adventure …

  37. Marquee Movies Says:

    That was great…..thanks for having me along…..I really, really do consider that place to be special, even though I didn’t grow up there. It’s wonderful to think of Hooper and Mr. Durbin, that pond, and that bus. When the sun sets, I’d like to get a fire going – then we can tell scary stories…..

  38. fsdthreshold Says:

    They were going to ask Chuck Norris to play a Spartan in the movie 300, but then they would have had to change the title to 1.

  39. I agree, I agree Says:

    Marquee thought ahead and brought a big can of OFF, so that, plus the big fire, will help keep the skeeters off us.

    The fishing is not good tonight, but it doesn’t need to be, because we are young, we are outdoors, we are surrounded with friends, we have a good fire, we are never going to get old, never move away, never stop spending hours doing nothing …

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