Jun 18 2012
We’re launching a new segment here on our blog, wherein we pose some questions to our loyal regulars, the good folk who make bookselling fun and keep us in business. We stole the idea from the New York Times Book Review, and we hope they don’t mind. We’ll commence with Paul Friswold: RFT staff writer, lover of all things arcane and Celtic, prodigious reader, wise friend.
What’s the last truly great book you read?
A: The Sea Kingdoms, by Alistair Moffat. It’s a history of the Celtic people, but as seen through the lens of the modern UK. Moffat goes to those places where custom and culture linger (Padstow in Cornwall, the Isle of Lewis, the Isle of Man) and shows that the passage of thousands of years are incapable of stripping away the essential nature of a people. The clothes may change, but the soul remains the same. It’s a huge story well told, with the biases of the author (a proud Scotsman) on full display. It simultaneously made the world seem older and fresher, and human life smaller and vaster. I was sad to finish it, which is the surest sign I know that I just read a great book.
What book changed your life?
A: My heart says The Hobbit; my gut says the Ace paperback version of Conan with the Frank Frazetta cover of Conesy battling Thak the Man-Ape. My mom gave me The Hobbit when I was 7 or 8 — I was confused by all the songs in the first few chapters, and then I really got into it when Thorin & Co. get to Mirkwood. That was it for me — we meet the elves in Thranduil’s dark kingdom and I knew I’d found my people.
Conan, however, I found on my own when I was 11 or 12. It was dark, gritty, full of sex and violence — very far from Tolkien and all the things I loved about Middle Earth. I hid the book from my parents because I was certain I’d get grounded for bringing this filth into the house. And of course, my mother caught me reading it and was unfazed. She was very cool about it, which I know now is because she did not (and does not) think there’s anything dangerous about any book. She trusted me to know the difference between fantasy and reality, and she trusted me.
So Conan was the first book I bought with my own money that was clearly an adult book. I think that’s the book where the world changed for me.
How old were you when you read it? And what changed?
A: See above.
What were your favorite books as a child?
A: The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, the first four Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Warlord of Mars also by ERB, Carola Oman’s retelling of the Robin Hood legends, D’Aulaires Book of Norse Myths, John Steinbeck’s version of Le Morte d’Arthur, and if we’re being completely honest, the Dungeon Master’s Guide by Gary Gygax. I read that thing like I was going to be tested on it. Incidentally, Appendix N in the DMG was a bibliography of books that influenced Gary and Dave Arneson in creating Dungeons & Dragons; I began hunting down as many of those titles as I could find. And there began my love affair with a well-composed bibliography.
If the cut-off age for “child” is twelve, it pains me to leave Harlan Ellison off this list. But I found him in my teen years, and that curmudgeonly genius ruled my life for the next decade. I didn’t eat for two days when The Essential Ellison was published because I couldn’t put it down, and because I’d spent all the money I had at that time to buy it. I met him a few years later at the Chicago Comic Convention and he signed it, and he was a total sweetheart. Harlan, please don’t die — losing Ray Bradbury this week almost broke my back.
What are your favorite books at this stage of your life?
A: I’d have to say all of the books from Question 4 above. I try to read The Lord of the Rings every December (I missed last year, which stopped the streak at six consecutive years) and I find still find as much joy in it as I did the first time I read it. I still dearly love the Weird Tales crew of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and even Talbot Mundy. I also read a steady stream of Dark Ages/Medieval histories — right now I’m picking up quite a few books on the Anglo-Saxon era, although Rob did just talk me into a new history of the Crusades.
And then when I want to break that stuff up I read how-to books about teaching yourself foreign languages. I love trying to memorize lists of introductory vocabulary in a foreign language. I bought an old book on Cornish that was written by a very proper English gentleman who revealed every nasty bias and racist thought of his era in between his lessons on fishing terminology. You wanna see into someone’s mind without them knowing? Have ’em explain a second language to you — the very bones of their thoughts and being are exposed.
Also, William Shakespeare is still the funniest guy in the room as far as I’m concerned.
Oh, and then Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, George Mackay Brown and Yeats. I tend to read more poetry in the winter, not so much in the summer. If you asked me this in November, they’d have been at the start of the list. There’s something about digging into Hughes’ “Crow” series when it’s cold out — I can’t explain it, but I recommend you try it for yourself.
What famous book have you read that you were excited to start, but ended up disliking?
A: The Catcher in the Rye. It didn’t take long, either. Twenty pages of Holden whining put me off Salinger for life. If that’s his best work, I’d hate to read his also-rans.
Is there a genre you categorically refuse to read?
A: I recognize that this answer reveals me as a huge asshole, but the people should be told: I despise the entirety of the New York Review of Books crowd. Franzen, Chabon, Foster Wallace? Hate ’em. I don’t know that they’re in the same genre, or even if they fit in any accepted genre. But to me, they’re all lumped under the “Highly Educated White Guy Using His Life and Neuroses to Explain Your Life to You, You Simpletons” rubric. I’m a moderately educated white guy with a whole host of emotional/psychological problems, so I fear that this is what I sound like every time I open my mouth in public.
Additionally, any book subtitled “A Novel” makes my guts churn. If I see that on the front of a book, chances are I’ll never read it. I will mock it mercilessly though.
What is your #1 favorite short story?
A: Writing this the day after Ray Bradbury died is probably influencing this decision, but I’m gonna go with “The Toynbee Convector.” It’s about a guy who claims to travel to the future and comes back to his own time (the 1980s) to tell everyone life is amazing in the future. The world’s cleaner, safer, people are happier, there are all these amazing technologies that have lifted us out of the muck of the 20th century, etc. He has videos to prove what he’s seen and everything.
And then the day arrives in the far future where our hero is supposed to appear from the past, and the world is all the things he said it would be. And of course, he was lying about all of it. He faked it all and told a great story and people fell in love with the ideas. He realized that if people are inspired to believe in something bigger than themselves and are convinced it will happen, they’ll work towards that goal. It’s pretty much the story of Ray Bradbury, or any writer who dabbles in futurism and optimism. Ray was a TITAN when he was on, and I miss him already.
What is your all-time favorite book?
A: Moby-Dick. I had to read parts of it in high school, and I loved it so much I read the whole thing. Then I read it again ten years later, and I found a whole new appreciation for it. I read it again after another ten years had passed, and it was like I was reading an entirely new book — the older I get, the better it gets. What I initially read as just a thrilling adventure story I came to see as the story of a man trying to find a place in the world, and it then became the story of a man learning that life is uncontrollable and sudden loss broken up by madness. At the end all you have left is incomprehension about why these things happen.
And that final line! “On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” Jesus. That’s it right there. That’s everybody in the world, making friends, making a family and then having them just disappear. Where do they go? Why did they go? Why I am here when they’re gone? Every time I read that line I have to go lay down and drink until it gets light out.
I’m scheduled to read it in another four or so years, and I can’t wait. What am I going to find this time? What if that’s not what it’s really about? My last reading of it has always been disproven by the next reading, so what is is it all about? Ah, I may start it when I get home.
No, no. No. I’ll wait the next four years out. I want to be fully prepared for Melville’s big finish the next time he springs it on me.
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