Guest Post: Second Annual Serious Reader Christmas Gift Guide

From Chris Chalderon:  a Reading List for 2015 — all the books you won’t get for Christmas (and wouldn’t have wanted to give away…). Thank you, Chris!

Another HogwartsProfessor Christmas Gift and 2015 New Years Reading List

I admit it, I don’t have an original thought in my head.  Every time around this year it’s always the same.  You find yourself in the position of having to choose something to give to either the kids, husband or wife.  Let’s face it, it’s been more than 50 something years of holiday gift giving, and apparently this job is never going to get any easier.  All those whose gift lists currently include new sweaters, sign in and let me know!

I wish I had some words of wisdom about this sort of thing, but each heart is a very intricate and individual thing, and finding what really makes each one happy is task for several lifetimes.  Instead, all I got is a bunch of measly suggestions for books I thought others might get a kick out of.  However, like I said, each heart is intricate, and because of that, each book is listed under a heading designed for certain groups of readers, from those who like to delve all the way into literature, to those who’d just a like a good story.

The best that can happen with these gifts – for others or for oneself – is that they might awake the two things that matter most for a child, curiosity and imagination.  Enjoy!

From the library of C.S. Lewis:

Image and Imagination by C.S. Lewis.

This collection of essays is notable for the number of books Lewis reviewed in his time as an academic.  It’s value lies in the fact that it gives the reader a chance to see not just the a handful of books Lewis read, but what he thought about them, and why some he regarded as important or useful.  The reader is also treated to some valuable insights into the writings of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, along with several lesser known Inklings, such as Charles Williams and Owen Barfield.  We also get a humorous look at what happens when Lewis encounter a young Harold Bloom, as well as insightful thoughts about the work of Dorothy L. Sayers and George Steiner.

Comic Books: Good and Bad

Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life by Michael Schumacher, Winsor Mccay: His Life and Art by John Canemaker, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Charles M. Schulze.

In some ways, I think it helps any fan of comic books to read any one of the other books listed, say, the Eisner and Mccay biographies, alongside Jones chronicle of the creation and rise of the now dominant Super Hero comic.  I think it’s important to square Jones’ useful text against the life and art of other artists in the medium because it helps to level the playing field by making modern audiences realize that all comics don’t have to be about third rate knock-offs of Greek mythology going around speaking stilted dialogue and punching one another.

Comics can also be a medium for exploring the nature of dreams and fantasy (Mccay), or for tackling the challenges of life itself (Eisner, Schulze).  These are all aspects of the comic book medium that tends to be forgotten in an era dedicated to streamlining one form of story at the expense of others.  I’ll admit, what I worry about is the effect this streamlining process will have on people is not just in terms of their expectations about such basic elements like plot, character, etc., but that they may forget that there are in fact other ways of telling a story aside from just cookie cutter Saturday Morning type fair.  For me, it’s that there’s a problem with starting out at Saturday, it’s just it’s important to progress beyond that point without leaving behind whatever is valuable.

Fandom and Romanticism: Good and Bad

While this just conjecture, I think it can be argue that the terms Fandom and Romanticism refer to the same interconnected phenomena, or that at least the Romanticism of the one creates the fans of the other.  This can only come about through those who respond to the natural, yet poetic effects of Imagination.  So far, all well and good.

The problems arise when you realize there are both good and bad responses to Imagination, something that writers like Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and in particular Charles Lamb and Percy Shelly discovered for themselves. Simply put, there comes a point where make-believe can cross over from the creative to the delusional and the decadent.

In The Elfish GeneDungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange, author Mark Barrowcliffe details the less savory side of Sword and Sorcery Fandom in going over his years as a D&D/Fantasy Fan.  It’s not a pretty picture, and one of the sad fallouts appears to be that the bad experiences may have soured the author on the positives of Imagination.  This can actually be considered part of a bigger problem, and it’s one that the Modernist poet Roy Campbell, and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien knew well.

In Unafraid of Virginia Woolf, Tolkien biographer Joseph Pearce chronicles Campbell’s struggles, both in fiction, non-fiction criticism, and real life with the kind of Romantic “Wasteland Mentality” responsible for such movements as the “Bloomsbury Literary Group” and, perhaps by the eventual transference of the same mindset from one genre of fiction to another, our own current day fan cultures.

Please understand, I don’t write this to say that fandom in itself is bad.  I care a great deal about the value of fiction and creative writing, however personal experience has taught me that Imagination does have to be tempered by Reason and basic down-to-earth, commonsense judgment.  As J.K. Rowling has said through the character of Lockheart, “Books can be misleading”, and a loss of both historic and literary knowledge can have price tag all its own.

With that in mind, two books that do show the positives of Imagination when used properly are Theresa Freda Nicolay’s Tolkien and the ModernistsLiterary Responses to the Dark New Days of the 20th Century,  The Sword of Imagination by Russell Kirk, and T.S. Eliot’s After Strange Gods.  The thematic element that binds these three different texts together is the idea of the “Moral Imagination”, not in the sense of cookie cutter pedantic “instruction”, but rather of an overall idea of order behind even the most seemingly dark flights of fancy.

To give an example: it does seem like these days most stories rely on the simplistic idea of anti-romantic poser nihilism, where the focus is on anti-heroes of various shades of gray.  The real trick in this type of setting isn’t to cluck one’s tongue and give a shake of the head, but rather to see if it’s possible to either find or create a work that uses these anti-romantic tropes against themselves, thus creating an original work using an vocabulary geared toward chaos to say something that at least points toward the possibility of order.  As a matter of fact, I could be argued that Rowling has done this very thing in her Cormoran Strike mystery series.

That’s all a mouthful, of course, and I’ll admit the ratio of middling to good writing out there probably means the majority of authors will go for the cookie cutter more often than not, which is more the sign of a lack of creative confidence than anything. Also, I don’t know what kind of advice could be given to avoid “Selling your story for a plot full of “Message” (Robert Bloch).  I can, however, point to at least a good starting place for people to oriented and introduced to the “Moral Imagination” as a concept.  As it happens, Russell Kirk provided an overview for Eliot’s (very short, though useful) book in the pages of Touchstone Magazine, an online version of which can be found here.

Mystery and Detective Fiction:

Speaking of Cormoran Strike, there is at least one other author Mrs. Rowling can be grouped with, alongside both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  That writer is Dorothy L. Sayers, and author of both detective fiction, and an acknowledged Dante Scholar in her own right.  It’s her fiction that Sayers is best remembered for (if at all), however. She even, in the vein of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, created a fictional detective of her own; Lord Peter Wimsey, Peer in Waiting to the House of Denver and part time attaché to the British Foreign Office.  In his spare time, which he has a lot of, he either likes to solve mysteries, or else has the most incredible luck in the world, because he keeps stumbling upon a murder every moment he turns around.

Rowling’s work on the Strike novels bears some interesting connections to Sayers work on Wimsey.  Both authors write of traumatized veterans of war (WWI-Sayers, Afghan War-Rowling) who take on cases of murder (Wimsey by circumstance, Strike by choice).  Both detectives receive assistance from intellectually brilliant women with troubled pasts (Harriet Vane, Robin Ellacott).  One difference between the two series is that Harriet’s character is a mystery novelist, while Robin is interested in becoming a private detective.

Yet even here, there is some overlap between the two. Many have speculated that Harriet Vane is an author stand-in for Sayers herself, much like the identification of Robin with Rowling.  I reckon if there’s any possible connection between Sayer’s novels and those of Mrs. R., the line of descent from Harriet to Robin is as good a place to start as any.

The two Sayers novels that are worth exploring in particular are Strong Poison, where the reader is introduced to Harriet as a young Oxford graduate whom Wimsey must save from the gallows (and you thought Harvard was strict), and the penultimate Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night. Without giving too much away, Night obliquely raises an important question.  What does literature and learning mean to the working classes, and is there a point at which both institutions might become alienating to the average man, rather than a help? Sayers, like Tolkien, provides no easy answers.

Some related “Elementary” offerings include Father BrownThe Essential Tales by G.K. Chesterton, and The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams1930 – 1935 edited by Jared Lobdell.  Also on offering is a biography of the Master of Mystery himself, On Conan Doyle by Washington Times columnist Michael Dirda. To grasp the charms of Dirda’s text, I present the following sample:

“When young, these doctors, lawyers, and businessmen had studied with longing the corner drugstores racks gaudy with issues of Weird TalesBlack MaskThe Shadow, and Thrilling Wonder Stories.  Now retired, these old men – and a few women – yearned to feel again some flicker of youth’s incomparable freshness when every magazine and cheap paperback proffered a vision of how exciting life was going to be.  And somehow never was (Dirda, 1)”.

If that sentence doesn’t grab you on some fundamental level, then there’s just no talking you on the subject of the original Pulp Magazine stories.

Old Time Pulp

If there’s any good reason for trying to interest people in a bunch of old genre stories published in magazines almost a hundred years ago, it’s simply in helping future generations that there is a history to their favorite genres, and to understand the changes in the various conventions and tropes over the decades.  Also, there is a literal laundry list of authors besides Tolkien and Lewis, some still famous, most of them forgotten or never even discovered, who paved the way for Mrs Rowling, and others like her.

The best place to start is with an author who has at least some name recognition even this day and age.  Therefore I heartily recommend Sam Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles and Bradbury An Illustrated LifeA Journey to Far Metaphor by Jerry Weist and Chip Kidd.  The latter in particular is a visual goldmine for a lot of things Bradbury and SF Pulp related, and both contain contributions Bradbury himself.

Edging further into the forest, there’s Richard A. Lupoff’s Master of AdventureThe Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The best defense Burroughs has going for him is that of pioneer.  Fantasy had existed long before ERB ever wrote his first sentence in school, but his contribution seems to lie being one of a handful who was able to take a lot of old tropes and make them popular to 20th century audiences whose industrial life made the very idea of fiction and history a luxury (as they mostly still are).  For that reason, he deserves credit for helping fantasy/science fiction to stay afloat during times that were known for almost nothing but rapid change, and where a great deal of history fell into cracks.  For that reason, if no other, Lupoff’s book deserves a look. Besides, Burroughs helped revive the romantic idea of Mars in popular fiction.

Carrying on from individual authors to a general overview, a good source I’ve discovered is a book devoted to one of those old, outworn magazines, Galaxy MagazineThe Dark and Light Years by David L. Rosheim.  If Burroughs helped keep fantastic literature alive during the modern age, it could be argued that editor and author Horace L. Gold was one of the people who made the case for the fantastic as genre that deserves to be taken seriously as literature.  Through his publication, Galaxy, Gold brought out a satirical (sometimes Allegorical) edge to his publication with stories like The Demolished ManA Case of Conscience, and others.  Rosheim’s text details the ups and downs of one of the magazines that helped grant the fantastic genre and honest legitimacy, and it doesn’t help to forget the giants whose shoulders we stand upon.  More than that, the other value of Rosheim’s book is that it can perhaps alert modern sci-fi fans to the fact that there is more to the genre than any given “blockbuster” formula.

Next to last is a coffee table tome, once more penned by Lupoff, entitled The Great American PaperbackAn Illustrated Tribute to Legends of the Book.  Ostensibly a publishing history of the creation and rise of the paperback pocket book, the book is also an illustrated catalogue of more than a half of the covers that went with these drugstore editions.  This is really a guilty pleasure offering for die hard bookworms really, but it’s got to be seen to be believed.  I mean this book is a treasure trove of names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammet, David Goodis, James Joyce, and Jack Kerouac.  The list is amazing and so is the artwork done for these paperbacks.  Like the book says, it is “a precious archive of American Culture”.

The final offering in this section is perhaps a bit more hard going than the others, if only because it was written back in the days of the Inklings, an is a work of literary historical criticism.  Nonetheless, The English Novel by Walter Raleigh (the 19th – early 20th century critic and poet, not the Renaissance statesman) is book that was touted by both C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and after even brief perusal the reasons why begin to show themselves.  Raleigh’s contention is simple, and it’s an argument advanced by both Lewis and Tolkien.  Namely, that Romance is the genre out of which all modern fiction, in particular the novel, had its origin.  Also like Tolkien and Lewis, Raleigh uses the word Romance in its literary, rather than relational meaning.  Basically the Romance mode was the dominant form of storytelling as far back as Chaucer.  In essence, it was the pulp fiction of its day.  So it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to to say that the dominant form of all fiction, more or less, has been pulp.

Myth and Theology

This final section is devoted to those works that touch on the main theme of Inklings writings, Mythopoeia.  Specifically, it focuses on the two subjects of myth and Christian theology, and the points where they intersect.  The first item on the list includes the third category of Eschatology as well as the other two.  Inklings of Heaven: C.S. Lewis and Eschatology by Michael Connolly, with a Foreword by Walter Hooper, more or less successfully proves that Lewis’s thinking amounted to an idea of what is called “The Last Things”.

Basically, Connolly’s book is following in the footsteps of the work of Rev. Austin Farrer, a friend of both Lewis and Tolkien, whose exegesis of the Book of Revelation had a huge influence on the thinking of both.  Connolly’s book is solid for the most part.  If there is any criticism to be leveled against it, it’s that he obviously lacks several critical keys to Lewis’s thinking, including his reliance on the thought Coleridge, Aquinas, and George Berkeley.  The flaws often put Connolly at awkward odds with both Lewis and Farrer, and yet on the whole, it makes for an enlightening read, as long as one comes at the book with what Lewis called “A Mind Awake”.

Our penultimate offering is True Myth by James Menzies.  What Menzies offers to readers is a simple compare and contrast of two views or ways of looking at the subject of Myth: the mythopoeic understanding of Lewis, and the more popularized thought of Joseph Campbell.  What’s so valuable about this study is that it is the first book that does the valuable service of examining the thinking of two influential critics side by side so that fans of either Campbell, Lewis, or both can get a helpful overview of how each viewed the role of stories and storytelling in modern culture.

While giving all due respects to Campbell, Menzies ultimately sides with Lewis as offering the better understanding of the purpose of myth in both life and culture, making this, perhaps, an future essential for students wishing to better understand the nature of and relation of Myth to Christianity.

The final book to discuss is The Bible as Literature by T.R. Henn.  In order to make sense of both the title, and the book itself, it helps to bring up the work of scholar Northrup Frye.  In his 1982 work The Great CodeThe Bible and Literature, Frye posits that it is the Bible that is in fact the matrix out of which both the imagery and inspiration for most of the great works literature through the ages, including myth. Like Frye, Henn’s book makes the same claim.

From that starting point, both books branch off in different directions.  Frye’s book, for all his skill, is ultimately marred by a Unitarian materialist position that seems to rely more on a modern ideology that owes more to politics than it does religious belief.  As Frye stated in Anatomy of Criticism, he will explore the “Iconological” thinking and criticism of writers like Dante or John Ruskin, yet he does so, quoting Falstaff, “so I do, against my will (Frye, Anatomy, 19)”.

This is an irony, as it means Frye is much more at odds with his subject than Connolly ever was with Lewis.  I don’t know how possible it is to factually treat a religious subject, at least, if the writer isn’t at least in some kind of philosophic sympathy with his or her topic.  Such is Frye’s major failing as a writer, or at least that’s how it seems to me.

Unlike Frye, Henn never makes this critical misstep.  He treats both the Bible and fiction with what I think is their proper due respect while citing passages from various works of art and comparing them with similar writings in various books from Genesis to Revelation.  In doing so, Henn makes a valuable case semi-platonic idea of Biblical History as the Original of which various myths, stories, and paintings are the Copies.  A final thing to note about the book is the influence that Lewis himself had on it.  The Narnian Don was friends and acquaintances with Henn through reviewing one of his earlier books, and later went on to shape his later thinking, culminating in the book I have to recommend here.

I don’t know how this list can or even if it will hold up to the holiday pressure of the perfect gift.  All I know is that the best any of us can do during this season is try our best, for better or worse.  I think the thing that needs to be kept in mind is just that, in the end, family actually does count for a lot more than any possession.  After all, possessions come and go, you never really choose those who care about you.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to HogwartsProfessor readers!

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