MIND MELD: Sentenced to Read One Author for Life
Your crime? You know what you did! Your sentence? A lifetime reading only one author. Sure, prison is great for catching up on your reading, but…
My initial instinct was to choose George R.R. Martin because I’ve reread those Ice & Fire books a number of times, and not only do I never get tired of them and not only is each one incredibly long, but the books are so layered that I always manage to pick out new details with each reading that leave me shaking my head in appreciation. These are all highly attractive features. However, a life sentence is rather lengthy for someone in their thirties, and George doesn’t have a particularly lengthy bibliography. So if I’m going to be super-practical about this, the best answer would be Stephen King. Not only does he have a ridiculously long bibliography, but many of those books are very long, and there is a lot of variety to choose from. Horror. Suspense. Fantasy. Science fiction. Novels. Short story collections. Even some nonfiction about genre fiction. He’s published what? Fifty books or so? Even if I spent every free moment reading Stephen King, it would take a significant chunk of time to work through his entire bibliography just once. If I’m going to spend the next 50+ years of my life limited to one author, I need quality, quantity (both in terms of bibliography and page counts for individual books), and variety. Anything less and I’ll get sick of reading the same things over and over in a very short time. In Stephen King I get all three …and given that he’s co-authored some books, this means I can also mix in a little reading by some other genre heavyweights, like Peter Straub and Joe Hill (assuming my slightly deranged warden permits it). I’m sure at some point I’d get sick and tired of rereading King over and over (as I would with any author), but going with his bibliography seems like the safest play to ward off the boredom/frustration of reading the same rotation of genre books for as long as humanly possible.
If I could only choose one author, I’d definitely want someone prolific — I have no objection to re-reading books (in fact, I recently talked about some of my favorite comfort reads at Novelocity ) — but I can’t imagine reading only the same ten or fifteen books for the rest of my life. This rules out some of my favorite authors: Octavia Butler and Connie Willis come to mind as examples of authors I love that I wouldn’t be able to pick, given the circumstances.
I suppose my answer depends on how my genre-loving warden enforces the rules. If the warden will allow anything that our selected author has written, I’d probably choose Isaac Asimov, purely for the quantity and variety of books. In addition to science fiction, he also wrote mysteries and non-fiction — hundreds of books all told. I’ve read a fair number of his science fiction novels, including the Foundation Series, but the real draw would be access to all of his science essays.
If, on the other hand, the warden will only allow me to read the genre books from my selected author, I would probably choose Anne McCaffrey. I love her Pern books, but I haven’t read much of her work outside that series, so at least the first time through they would be fresh.
No matter which author I chose, I’d likely have to ration the books. A book a week would work if I had hundreds of Asimov titles to choose from — I’d get through them all in less than a decade, but after several years’ time I could start the cycle again. McCaffrey wrote fewer books, I’m not sure the exact number, but even reading only one a week, I suspect I’d find myself rereading them while they were still overly familiar. I might need to find something else to occupy my time. . . Will the genre-loving warden object if I scribble fiction of my own on the prison walls?
My first thought was to choose someone whose bibliography included at least twelve big, fat, thick books that would allow me to cut out the center and ferret away tools for my great escape. There are plenty of SF/F authors’ bibliographies that would fit the bill: Robert Jordan, David Brin, Brandon Sanderson, even L. Ron Hubbard.
But probably, I’m expected to answer this question sincerely.
There are three genre authors whose work I’d find most elevating in an atmosphere of captivity: Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury. King and Card are born from Bradbury, with direct stylistic and thematic lineages. Bradbury would be the author whose bibliography I’d choose to have in prison with me. Bradbury’s prose doesn’t just describe — it evokes. It is at once simplistic and deep, so that a work is never read the same way twice, but the reading of it isn’t tiresome, and no special knowledge is necessary to decode it. And he’s prolific — stories, songs, plays, poems, novels, collections of novels, anthologies, television series… The man did it all. If I were stuck in a prison, Bradbury would be the guy whose prose would be the best escape for me.
Phillip K. Dick. That was my immediate answer and even after careful thought I can’t think of any better choice. My tastes are pretty eclectic, but he’s the one with the largest selection and largest percentage of work that I really dig. He had a lot of interesting ideas, but what I like best about his work is that he didn’t hesitate to dig into deep philosophical stuff. What it means to be human, alteration of perception and cognition, the debate of determinism vs free will, etc.
When I say “Phillip K. Dick,” most people will probably assume the reason for that particular choice is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (the story that spawned the movie Bladerunner), but that’s not the case. I don’t hate the book/movie, but I seem to be the only SF fan I know who isn’t enamored with it. My favorite PKD story is another one about androids titled “The Electric Ant.” After a car crash, a man discovers for the first time that he is really an android whose subjective reality is fed into his processor via a micropunched tape in his chest. After he realizes this, he decides to start experimenting with the tape to see how it affects his experience in life. One of the reasons I really love this story is that it mixes determinism and free will in an interesting way. His actions are predetermined because they’re on the tape, but if he can alter the tape that is a sort of free will, except that that action too must have been on the tape… right? It all gets very surreal by the time the story is over. Drabblecast did a great production of it last year if you’d like to listen.
My other favorite of PKD’s is A Scanner Darkly, about a deep cover drug agent who lives in a house with drug users that he is trying to gather evidence against, even as he lives among them. At night he reviews the tapes recorded in the house, but between the drugs and the double life, even he’s not really sure whose side he’s on. Paranoid, possibly dystopic, mind-bending in the best PKDickian fashion. It was made into a cel-animated film in 2006, one of the few Phillip K. Dick movies that had a script that was quite faithful to the original. (A lot of movies have been based on Dick’s stories, and many of them are unfaithful suck-fests.)
I haven’t even read all of Dick’s stories, including Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said that got a lot of award attention at the time, as well as many others, so I’d have plenty of new material to dig through while held captive. And if I got tired of re-reading the existing PKD stories, and pining over the vast SF library that I wasn’t allowed to read, then maybe I could take some pointers from “The Electric Ant” and could systematically figure out how to alter the micropunch tape that defines every part of my experience of the world, and I’d find a way to alter experiential reality so that I could read the rest of the library. It would all be illusion, of course, just an artifact of the micropunch tape feeding through the reader in my chest, but that wouldn’t matter to me since I could read all those stories. Even better, perhaps I could alter my experience of reality so that I could read all of the stories that Dick would’ve written if he had lived and written a few more decades.
Trapped in prison for the rest of my life? Away from my prankster friends (who double as my prankees) and my family? I mean, we all know I didn’t do it. And to only be able to choose ONE author? Madness. Yet there was a time when I was trapped, away from my friends and family, and yes, a certain author’s book helped get me through it.
About a year and a half ago, I went on a trip to receive a writing award. I planned on being gone four days — the longest I had ever been away from my autistic son. While I knew he had a lot of anxiety about my leaving, we talked about it, and he knew I would be home on Sunday. I promised. On Sunday, he would see me, and he had nothing to worry about.
Well…While I was away in Seattle, Hurricane Sandy struck back at home. My flight was canceled, and no one knew when the planes there would be running again. “Multiple days,” the airline told me when I was finally able to get through.
Anyone who knows me knows I am very level-headed and logical in an emergency. I’m the one everyone else usually turns to, from flaming kitchens to blood and guts. But when I learned I couldn’t go home — and who knew when I COULD go home — I was literally sick. My son was already having separation anxiety issues, and I knew he would be a mess. I never felt so helpless and trapped. I ended up bawling so badly in a public restroom that a stranger hugged me and made sure I was OK.
After making sure I had food and shelter for the next few days, I did what I always do in my darkest times. I sought comfort in a book. I didn’t want anything too dark, yet I wasn’t exactly in a cheery mood. I noticed a book had come out a few weeks before by an author whose previous series I had found entertaining, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Besides, there was a gargoyle on the cover. I never could resist gargoyles.
The book was called Alchemystic. The author: Anton Strout.
When I sat down on my friend’s couch to read that book, I was in the depths of despair, sick with worry. Yet by the time I was through with a couple short chapters, I was enchanted by a gargoyle and on an adventure with characters who clicked with me like friends. Not only was there action and the snarky humor that I loved so much in Strout’s other books, but the way the characters helped each other and stood by one another even as they teased made the book feel like home (some of my most loving relationships have a firm basis in verbal abuse ). These were people I enjoyed being around, in a situation that made me forget about my own.
Sure, Strout’s books aren’t deep reading or high literature. But if they could help me get through that horrible time, I’m sure they could get me through another. Perhaps he’s the type to send a poor misunderstood felon his latest books. His career is just getting started, and I’ll bet his best is yet to come. It’ll give me something to look forward to between my three square meals and bed.
Heck, he might even be the type to slip a file between the pages.
I think the spirit of this question is that I should choose a writer who is truly protean: someone whose bibliography is so sprawling, and so fascinating, that it seems to contain the entirety of the world that I will never again get to see. There are two obvious choices here: Tolstoy and Dickens. They are both excellent writers who wrote millions of words and attempt, in their own way, to encompass as much of the human experience as possible. With Tolstoy, I’d get the bonus of his nonfiction writings, which directly address the question of how a person can bear to continue living in a world (like a prison) where everything seems to be meaningless and superficial.
However, both of those writers are a bit heavy. They both use words delicately (or, well, in the case of Tolstoy, his translators use them delicately), but the overall effect tends to be that of a bludgeon. And there’s a heaviness to both of their worldviews, too. Tolstoy believes that most of civilization is false and evil. And Dickens, though he contains plenty of humor, has an essential heaviness to his worldview: the pall of oppression and misfortune hangs over even the most joyous moments. In Dickens, happiness only comes at the end. And that happiness seems so dull and so static — a lifetime of taking tea and discussing inconsequentialities with your beloved wife — that it’s almost indistinguishable from misery.
So I think that for my lifetime behind bars, I’d want something that was a bit lighter and a bit more joyous. After mentally flipping through several of my favorite writers, I finally settled on Willa Cather. Not only did she write some of my favorite books (My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and The Professor’s House), she also ranges so widely. She’s got city books (Alexander’s Bridge) and town books (A Lost Lady) and plains books (O Pioneers!) and desert books (Death Comes for the Archbishop). She’s got stories about heroes (The Professor’s House) and stories about everyman types (A Lost Lady). She’s even got a war novel (One of Ours) and an artistic-awakening novel (The Song of the Lark).
She treats with very American themes (individualism, the frontier, the death of the West), but there’s a dynamism and an optimism to Willa Cather’s work that’s missing from most American writers. In a Cather novel, it is possible to live a good life, and it is possible to win out in the end. Nor does she have a simplistic view of the point of life. Some people fulfill their destiny by being inventors, others by being opera singers, and others by moving to the town and opening a dress shop. She looks at life in an honest way — sometimes you get cheated by your partner and sometimes your youthful vivacity is ground down by an awful marriage and sometimes you live your entire life for an ideal that you never attain — but there’s so much happiness in Cather. You feel it when you’re in her landscapes. For me, I think the most vivid moment in her work is in the middle section of The Professor’s House, where a student and his buddy go up to the top of a mesa and spend the summer excavating a lost city. That’s it. All they do for many pages is tool around on this mesa. And through it all, I could feel their joy at simply being present in the world.
It doesn’t come to anything in the end. The student falls out with his friend, and then he dies during the Great War. But that doesn’t destroy what we just read. Those moments atop the mountain still happened, and that joy was still real.
In many ways, that’s the opposite of an ordinary novel, where 300 pages of soul-wracking struggle is redeemed by 20 pages of euphoric triumph.
And I think that if I was living a life where triumph was impossible, then I’d want to read a writer who could remind me that there is a joy to be found even in the midst of struggle.
My first impulse is to name my favorite author, Thomas Ligotti. But the more I think about the actual scenario that’s been presented, the less I think Ligotti is the right answer for me. I love his work, but could I read it day after day? While incarcerated? Somehow, I don’t think that would bode too well for my mental health.
Moreover, Ligotti’s body of work isn’t huge and tends to be strongly focused on the short story. If I was stuck in prison for the rest of my life, I’d want a couple of longer works in the mix, too. Something a little longer, at least, than Ligotti’s long novella (or short novel) My Work Is Not Yet Done.
So there are two other authors who come to mind as selections: Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe. My brain tells me the logical choice would be Jackson. She excelled at both novels and short stories, and even wrote memoirs and fiction for children, too. So, if I asked the warden to grant me access to Shirley Jackson books, I would probably never get bored (and I’d be reading some of the best horror fiction ever written).
But as the warden would begin to waddle off to gather the books, I would feel my heart race. I would have second thoughts. I would start to panic.
Yes, Shirley Jackson would be the logical choice. But choices like these aren’t matters of logic. They’re matters of emotion. Jackson’s work is breathtaking, of course. But could it bring me solace? Am I admitting too much if I tell you that the most grisly, disturbing Poe stories make me feel relaxed, content, and…well, I hesitate to write this but…soothed? And there is a lot of Poe I haven’t read yet. I have the Library of America volume of his essays and reviews, for example, and have just scratched its surface. That, alone, is a 1500 page volume that would keep me busy for a couple of weeks. And he did write one novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. And he wrote the odd philosophical piece, Eureka and detective stories, along with the tales and poetry we normally think of when we think of him. So his work would offer some variety.
Moreover, I know I would enjoy re-reading Poe, and re-readability is an important consideration here. (You’d have to re-read the same material hundreds of times). I know Poe stands up to frequent re-readings because re-reading him is something I do a lot, already. I’ve probably re-read Poe more than I’ve re-read anyone else.
So just as the warden would turn the corner to the prison library, I’d call out to him. “I’ve changed my mind,” I’d say. “I’ve decided against Shirley Jackson.”
He’d grunt to let me know he’d heard me.
“Give me access to Poe, instead.”
“You certain? Once I get the books, there’s no going back.”
I’d listen to my gut and end up saying that, yes, I was certain. He’d go to the prison library, and come back holding a huge, unsteady stack of dusty old Poe volumes. Mold would have grown on the ratty covers. Pages would be falling out. The warden would carelessly toss them to me, in between the steel bars at the front of my cell.
I’d pick up one of the books and rest on my cot. I’d hear mice squeaking, and I’d hear my stomach start to rumble with hunger. But all would be made well when I read the first lines of the “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
I’m tempted to say Stephen King, namely because the depth and diversity of his work is unrivaled; but I think if I were imprisoned for life I’d be more interested in whatever comforts I could find, and Koontz is my literary comfort food, my all-time favorite author. Plus his work is rarely as depressing as King’s often is. Koontz is an idealist, and that comes through in his work (sometimes a little too much). I imagine a life of imprisonment is a fairly dispiriting existence, so those happy endings (no pun intended) will come in handy.
Then again, maybe that would be the most depressing thing of all.
I’ve been vacillating between Connie Willis and Ursula K. Le Guin, and I think I’m going to go with Le Guin. Willis might cheer me up a bit, but she brings me to higher highs and lower lows. I emotionally connect more with her work, but for breadth and intellectual engagement I’m going to need to go with Le Guin.
For starters, I’ve already read almost everything Willis has to offer, but I know there are a lot of Le Guin works I haven’t gotten to yet. There’d be a nice mix of familiar works worth rereading and books that are new to me.
With Le Guin, I’d get a range of genres to choose from. Science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, essays. I’d get the music that came along with my copy of Always Coming Home. I’d have a range of lengths, from short story to novella to novel series. I’d have children’s books and young adult books and books written for adults. Maybe I’d learn better appreciation for poetry.
If I’m reading works from Le Guin’s bibliography, I’d argue that “bibliography” includes the book itself, right? So Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthology includes Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution,” but I’d have access to the other amazing stories in the book as well. And the same for Nebula Showcase anthologies and Hugo Winner anthologies and year’s end anthologies. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” alone would get me access to dozens of wonderful anthologies and collections, and short stories by hundreds of other authors.
My relationship with Le Guin’s work hasn’t always been a smooth one, which is also a point in her favor. I have distinct memories I can tie into her work that might carry me through despair at my strange incarceration. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” reminds me of my favorite teacher. The Earthsea series recalls trips to the libraries of the Upper West Side with my mother as a child. I struggled with The Left Hand of Darkness, but every summer as a teenager I walked to our town’s one room library and took it out again; I remember reading it on the beach and curled on bed with rain falling on the tin roof, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I was thirty. When I pick up The Lathe of Heaven I can think about the day my high school newspaper sent me to report on a Le Guin lecture, and I asked her a question so obnoxious I was afraid she wouldn’t sign my copy of the book (she did). My relationship with most of her books has changed over time. They mean different things to me at different ages.
Lastly, there’s the quality of the prose. She’s a master. Every word belongs, every sentence is perfectly crafted, everything is true in the way fiction should be true. The horses of Omelas “flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own.” I would be a much better writer for studying sentences like that. Plus, I’ll miss horses in prison, but that sentence is as close to conjuring a horse as anything I’ve seen in fiction. And if I get to missing house pets, I can request copies of her recent blog posts, which talk about her cat.
I have to fight against my instinct when answering this kind of “desert island” style question, which is to find a pithy, sarcastic response which flouts the actual question while pretending to answer it (“Anonymous.”), a nerdy librarian joke (“Asimov, because he has books in most areas of the Dewey Decimal classification system.”), or a super-nerdy literary theory in-joke (“Derrida, because maybe after a lifetime of reading him he’d finally make sense.”).
As a librarian, I also feel compelled to point out that real life prisons either have libraries or are served by nearby public and academic libraries. Indeed, the American Library Association has published a statement asserting that prisoners have a right to read. Although, of course, there are nods to security and other “challenged materials” probably not suitable in prisons.
Sarcasm and soapboxes aside, here are my serious considerations in roughly chronological order:
- Mori Ogai – A major author of Modern Japanese literature. Ogai’s stories, poems, translations, and essays would give me a much-needed escape from my dreary prisoner’s experience. He would also enable me to sneakily request more books on Japanese language and literature so I could properly appreciate them. (Take that, deranged warden!)
- Kawabata Yasunari – 1968 Nobel winner, and an excellent teller of tales. Particularly noteworthy for his “palm-of-the-hand stories,” which — as a writer of flash myself — I find fascinating. Kawabata’s works, for me, are somewhat escapist, as I’ve long been mildly obsessed with Japanalia, and his settings and prose are exquisite.
- Jorge Luis Borges – If you’re not familiar with Borges, do yourself a favour and grab a collection or two of his short stories. Borges was a poet, essay writer, and short story author whose tales lie at the intersection of absurdism and profundity. My personal favourite is “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” but almost all of Borges’ stories are eminently re-readable — there’s enough in his pages to keep you examining his words and worlds, yourself, and the universe from fresh perspectives at least until the end of your life. He was also a librarian. (Just sayin’!) Downside here: stories like “The Secret Miracle” may be a little uncomfortable if you yourself are condemned.
- Ursula K. Le Guin – I’ve been on a Le Guin kick lately, with her Oregon Book Award win and my finding a collection of her short stories at the local library. Previously, I’d only read a few of her novels. Like Borges, she surpasses expectations in a number of forms, being an essayist and a poet as well as a spec-fic author. Also like Borges, her work is regularly breathtaking, stunning, beautiful, and shocks you out of your complacency with your surroundings.
- Kij Johnson – Writer, poet, educator and all-around awesome person, Kij’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” had a strong effect on me when I first read it as a neophyte would-be-fictioneer. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from her since, and her heady mixture of meta-fiction and richly-developed fictive worlds would give me variety depending on whether I was looking for escape or something to engage my mind.
- Leslie What – Leslie What is a newish discovery for me. Like Kij, her works often bend and push my mind into uncomfortable new places. I’m familiar with her short story work from the excellent annual publication Unstuck (which I’d likely pick for my answer here were I not limited to a specific author), but she’s also a novelist and editor of Phantom Drift, a similarly excellent magazine.
A few others on my long-list, in no particular order: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ted Chiang, Terry Pratchett, William Faulkner, Matsuo Basho, Masaoka Shiki, Mishima Yukio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Angela Carter, Michel Foucault.
In a real-world situation, which author I eventually chose would depend on why I’d been incarcerated. Am I guilty? Am I innocent? Did I kill somebody I loved (or hated), and am I regretting it? Was I arrested by a corrupt state for egging people on to disobey their dastardly dictates?
My situation in this hypothetical jail would play a large part in determining whether I wanted to escape, to surpass, or to fight against where life has placed me.
But, in a pinch, and without context, I’ll go on record as officially choosing Borges, whose work often deals with the prisons we make for ourselves, as well as those external institutions of iron, and stone, and scorn.
- I have a soft-spot for epic fantasy. When I was eight, a teacher read The Hobbit aloud in class for us. Within a week, I’d found the book in the library, finished it, and begged my mother to buy me the Lord of the Rings trilogy for my birthday — which I reread so often that she had to buy me the trilogy again for Christmas as the pages were falling out. Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga was another favourite. As an adult, I’ve really enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s the First Law series and, of course, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire.
- I’ve thought a few times that I would like to reread them from the start but I don’t have enough time to read all the new and exciting books being released, let alone revisit old ones. So in prison would be the perfect chance to start over. There’s enough depth and story-telling that I’m sure that I could reread the initial books one more time after each later volume in order to re-experience the earlier scenes with knowledge gained later in the series.
- Martin will clearly be writing this series for some time. He started in 1991 and said that he initially envisioned it as a trilogy but it just kept growing. I have faith that it will continue to expand as he writes. Then there’s the fact that the Game of Thrones television series and the Fire and Ice books aren’t in synch any more, so he’ll be able to explore various permutations and consequences which should be entertaining (do I get television access?).
- I expect to have quite some time before the final book of the series is released, which means that I’ll have something tangible to look forward to no matter how long my sentence is.
Tagged with: Caroline M. Yoachim • David Steffen • Douglas Cohen • K. Allen Wood • Melanie R. Meadors • Nicole Cushing • Rahul Kanakia • Sarah Pinsker • Scott M. Roberts • Stewart C Baker • Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Filed under: Mind Meld
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