Yesterday, The Awl published a story about the books that make authors cringe.
It wasn’t about the new works lining today’s best-seller lists; it was about the books those authors loved as kids, the books that held special places in their adolescent hearts that, in retrospect, probably weren’t so good. In fact, they were pretty lousy. Ayn Rand was mentioned more than once.
Last fall, I built a series of bookshelves around our house to store the hundreds of paperbacks, hardbacks, and no-backs that Jonno and I have collected over the years. And while doing so, I spent a lot of time thinking about those kinds of books — the books that I read and re-read back in junior high and high school, the books that really kind of suck.
The worst of all was the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. If you haven’t had the displeasure, Anthony’s novels take place in a fictional realm called — you guessed it — Xanth. I was a huge, huge, huge D&D/Monty Python nerd back then, and the Xanth novels were tailor-made for my demographic. There were swords and magicians and dragons and all the stuff you’d expect to find in fantasy works, but there was also plenty of sex and naughtiness to satisfy Anthony’s horny, geeky teenage readers. You know, like me.
There were also a lot of puns. Seriously: a lot. Anthony was from the South, so place names like “Lake Ogre-chobee” and the “Swan Knee River” popped up all over the place. Even “Xanth” was a pun (or something), alluding to the author’s own name. Say “Piers Anthony” kind of fast and you’ll see what I mean.
I tried to re-read one of those novels not long ago, and honestly, it was terrible. Like, holy-crap-I-can’t-get-past-the-first-chapter awful. But once upon a time, I ate them up like candy.
I was also a big fan of the Narnia series, which I didn’t cop to until recently. All that Christian symbolism and twee dialogue? So embarrassing.
But you know what? There’s something to the Narnia novels. I can remember their plots in vivid detail (which is more than I can say for the Xanth series). And there’s an odd maturity to them, too, a heartbreaking kernel of truth that resonates, no matter your age or what religious beliefs you hold, if any.
I thought a lot about that recently while galloping through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King, which are like a combination of Narnia and Harry Potter, but made explicitly for adults. They’re far from perfect, but they managed to recreate something that C.S. Lewis also made palpable every time one of the Pevensie kids was sent home from Narnia, never to return: a profound understanding of loss and the inevitability of change.
I’m proud to say that I managed to keep those novels by Anthony and Lewis right where they should be — in alphabetical order, along with the rest of the junk on our shelves. If I learned anything from C.S. Lewis, it’s that change may come, but that doesn’t mean you have to forget the past entirely.