Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reading Habits I: In Which I Reveal Guilty Pleasures Gone Bad

Until last evening, I have found myself at a standstill, reading-wise, for the past several weeks. I thought it was because of extraneous stuff in my life, distractions that kept me from one of the most calming pursuits invented by human beings - ruminating with a good book in one's hand. Picking something at random last night, in an attempt to jumpstart my reading, I finally landed on terra firma as it were (to which I shall return in the second of these little meditations). I realized, last night as I eagerly gobbled sentences, paragraphs, and pages that what was missing was simple - I had exhausted my brain not on something deep and profound, but had, in fact, emptied it on what a former colleague of mine in another job and another time called "brain candy". The truth is, since early November I have been engaged in my second attempt to read through all of Robert Jordan's fantasy series The Wheel of Time. I did the same thing almost exactly a year ago, and managed to get one volume farther along this time - I am close to finishing volume 8, The Path of Daggers. Yet, I just cannot bring myself to finish it.

I think Jordan's attempt is admirable, yet with each volume, the pace slows until one reaches crawling speed. There is endless repetition of plot points and thematic material that seems to pad what are already over-long works of increasing complexity. Characters are introduced in one volume, disappear for one or two or even three, then reappear, and the reader is given little hint as to who this person is, or what role he or she is supposed to play. Even leads drop out - one of the main characters does not appear at all in, I believe, volume 5. I am two-thirds through 8 and another main character while mentioned has yet to show up.

The books themselves certainly deserve the label "massive". The first volume, The Eye of the World (I have always imagined Jordan sitting and listening to The Grateful Dead as he conceived and wrote that one), comes in at just under 900 pages. To put this in perspective, the entire Lord of the Rings feaux-trilogy comes in at just over a thousand pages of text, excluding the appendices. Subsequent volumes of Jordan are equally lengthy; the shortest (so far) is nearly seven hundred, with most of the rest coming in well over 800 and one or two nearing the 1,000 page mark. They could have used some judicious editing and lost much of their bulk by focusing more closely on the story.

On the other hand, Jordan is creating a realistic world - there are warring nation-states; religious, ethnic, gender, and class strife and struggle; the end-game of the entire series, the final battle with evil is complicated by the scheming and plotting of various characters, said scheming and plotting always overthrown in the end through the wonderful plot device of the lead characters having the ability to mold events around themselves (thus depriving such schemes and plots of serious consideration as threats; the device, like much else in Jordan's series, is overused) - and is taking great care to present events as realistically as possible. Realistic, that is, should one suspend disbelief long enough to accept a sexual division of magic, an endless cycle of passing away and coming again of the same persons and events (Jordan seems to be imbuing a certain Nietzschean quality to his world - this is a presentation of the eternal recurrence). Schooled at The Citadel, South Carolina's military undergraduate college, he writes of battles with an attention to detail and understanding that is both unusual among authors and a bit daunting. It is also refreshing, especially after having read some of Tom Clancy's work, waiting for a grasp of tactics, strategy, or a realistic understanding of either military life or the methods of modern warfare.

I think I can honestly say that I am just not cut out to read epic fantasy. I can suspend disbelief long enough to accept the events I am reading. I can enjoy the humanity of characters who live in a universe where magic is real, horrid, nightmarish creatures who do the bidding of the Prince of Darkness form armies that always threaten to overwhelm the world, and it lies with one man, endowed with the ability to do magic, but the omnipresent threat of eventual insanity always hanging over his head, to lead the world in a final assault on the forces of evil. What I cannot do is sustain that suspension long enough to wend my way through so much unedited stuff, the endlessly repeated invocations of this or that or the other plot point that was clear early in the first volume, yet appears again and again in each subsequent volume.

I have turned, happily enough, to Gary Giddins Weather Bird: Jazz At The Dawn Of Its Second Century, and will write some thoughts on it tomorrow.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More