Off the Shelf

January 22, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

To begin with, thanks to everyone who sent book recommendations last week. I have already placed several orders and should have enough material to keep me occupied for the rest of the winter and into the spring. I have compiled a list with all of the recommended titles on it and will use that as a guideline for additional book purchases later in the year.

One off-shoot of the topic was that several readers were interested in a more complete catalog of books I have enjoyed and/or found meaningful over the years (those that fit into my "immersive" category). So I figured I would use today's column to provide a thumbnail look at my life as a reader. For those hoping for some of my trademark "negativity," you won't find it here. Come back later in the week when I let loose on Sundance with both barrels.

I have been a reader for longer than I have been a movie-lover. I saw my first theatrical movie in late 1976 at the age of nine. To be fair, I had watched a lot of (monster) movies on TV before that, but December 1976 was my first experience sitting in a theater. My adoration of films didn't come until 1991, after I graduated from college. It wasn't that I didn't see movies in my teens and early twenties, but I didn't see a lot of them. Ten per year would be about right. (Although, starting in 1985 when I got my first VCR, I ramped up on home video viewing. I can remember summers when a friend and I would watch two movies per night.)

I can't recall how old I was when I started reading books. Probably age five. I had four main interests at the time: dinosaurs, space, human anatomy, and (believe it or not) the American Revolution. There is an explanation for that last one. This was approximately 1972 or 1973 and the pre-Bicentennial hype was in full swing. I can't explain the human anatomy fascination. Dinosaurs and outer space are pretty normal interests for five year old boys.

By age seven, I was reading the Hardy Boys (and, in an admission I am embarrassed to make, I also read a few Nancy Drews - only when I ran out of Hardy Boys, of course). I was a few years early with these; by the time Shawn Cassidy, Parker Stevenson, and Pamela Sue Anderson made it to TV, I had moved on. I began reading "grown up books" a.k.a. novels at age eight or nine. I can't remember what my first one was but the first novels to impact me were the volumes of Winston Graham's Poldark Saga. At the time I started these, in 1977 at age nine, there were four available. That number jumped to seven in 1978. Three additional books were published in the '80s with two more in the '90s. I have copies of all twelve. They are among the best in historical fiction I have read (tracing the lives of the members of a Cornwall mine-owning family between 1780 and 1820), although I never would have discovered them without the two season, 29 episode BBC-TV production.

I became acquainted with fantasy in 1979 when a friend introduced me to that Satanic game, Dungeons and Dragons. I started, as might be expected, with The Lord of the Rings. I have a curiously vivid memory of reading The Two Towers while sitting in a dermatologist's office waiting to have a mole removed. I was twelve at the time. I followed this up with several of the Conan books and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. (Recommended by my seventh grade English teacher!) Donaldson introduced me to dark, depressing fantasy, although the first Chronicles were lighthearted compared to the follow-up trilogy. I know people who gave up on The Wounded Land, The One Tree, or White Gold Wielder because they couldn't cope with how hopeless the books had become. It didn't bother me. If you're going to have evil in a book, make it real evil - evil that desecrates, destroys, maims, and brutalizes. Anything less is pretend evil.

During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I read a lot of disposable books, the titles of which I don't remember. Then I discovered Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment remains one of my all-time favorites, with The Idiot there as well. I was not as impressed with The Brothers Karamazov and I never finished The Possessed despite two tries. I moved on to Tolstoy, but only read his two big novels: Anna Karenina and War and Peace. At the time I was reading the latter tome, I wondered how many sixteen year olds voluntarily tackled War and Peace. My review at the time: an excellent first half then it dragged during the last 600 pages - lots of detailed battle descriptions when I was more interested in what happened to the characters.

By my senior year in high school, I had switched to Dickens, but I had a love/hate relationship with him. I found some of his books - Great Expectations, David Copperfield - to be exceptional. Others, especially Bleak House, bored me to distraction. After finishing A Tale of Two Cities, I moved to other random classics, including Dracula (which I had read many years earlier) and Frankenstein (which I had not).

Fantasy became a source of comfort during my early months in college. This is when I read David Eddings' five-volume The Belgariad, which remains my favorite "light" fantasy. As I have previously written, the plot is unremarkable but the characters are developed with flair and precision. I came to care for them enough that it didn't matter how familiar their circumstances were. Eddings wrote an ill-advised sequel series to The Belgariad called The Mallorean. Published during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became a tedious exercise in waiting a few years until the next mediocre volume was released. Maybe it works better when read all at once, but my impression of The Mallorean over about the eight years it took me to read it remains negative.

The smartest fantasy writer I discovered while at college was Katherine Kurtz, whose Deryni books spin together history and magic. Including her latest (published last month), which I am currently reading, she has written fifteen books in the series, which is mostly divided into trilogies. A lot of her books are dark and almost all of them emphasize political and religious intrigue over traditional fantasy elements. Two of the more obvious inspirations for my The Price of the Crown were Kurtz and I, Claudius/Claudius the God (Robert Graves).

Having grown tired of fantasy, I began reading mysteries. I started with Dorothy Sayers (having long ago been unimpressed by Agatha Christie, who I tried out after reading all the Hardy Boys capers). It took less than four months to read all the Lord Peter Wimsey editions (old, worn paperbacks printed in the 1960s supplied by my grandmother). Sayers led me down a two-pronged road. One branch led to Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone, The Woman in White (my favorite of Collins' books), No Name, Blind Love, Armadale, and others. The other branch led to P.D. James, who I have come to regard as my favorite living author. No one writes a mystery like James, and no one has done more to legitimatize the genre than her. Born in 1920, she is approaching her 87th birthday and still publishes a new novel about every third year. I treat each new book like a treasure, recognizing that it could be her last. Incidentally, for those who appreciate the movie Children of Men, I recommend James' book, written in the early 1990s. It gives a vastly different view of a story that is similar only in its underlying premise and use of the same names.

Other books on my shelf, picked up and kept along the way: Melanie Rawn's six-book Dragon Prince/Dragon Star series, George R.R. Martin's as-yet unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series (coming soon to HBO), Len Deighton's massive spy saga featuring Bernard Samson(Game/Set/Match/Hook/Line/Sinker/Hope/Faith/Charity), and a smattering of Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries. There are also J.B. Priestley's Lost Empires, Lloyd Alexander's The Prydain Chronicles, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, and Robert Jordan's neverending The Wheel of Time (only the first two books are worth reading). My wife has stolen a shelf for Neal Gaiman graphic novels and the Harry Potter series.

Those are just a smattering of the hundreds of books I have read over the past thirty years, but they're the ones that have stayed with me as I have moved from house to dorm to apartment to townhouse to another house. Hopefully, for those who expressed interest, this has provided a more full exploration of my forays into literature. With the exception of The Mallorean and The Wheel of Time, I recommend everything I have mentioned, although individual tastes will shape how much you enjoy those books. (My wife, for example, loves P.D. James but was bored by The Belgariad. She would sample Len Deighton only on pain of death.) As I finish each book read as a result of a reader recommendation, I'll post my thoughts in this space.