Wow, What a book #2

To continue with the 10 books that have most influenced my life.

My second choice is The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.

Image result for the lord of the rings book cover

I suspect that very few readers are unaware of the story of The Lord of the Rings, having either read the book, seen the film, or both. And at this point, it might be a good idea to just make it clear that I am talking about the book here, and not the Peter Jackson films, or even the ill-fated attempt at animating the entire book in 1978, an attempt that got as far as the first book, and was, to be honest, rather dreadful. Let me content myself by just saying it was a bit ‘Disney’. I’m not that mad on the Peter Jackson films either, to be honest, but back to the book.

So, I’m not going into any great detail about the story, but, in a nutshell, it involves a quest to destroy a ring that gives great power to the wearer, but inevitably corrupts and destroys them. It’s maker, Sauron, is attempting to find it, and the free peoples of the world must not only keep it from him, for if he recovers it it he will then have power to enslave the entire world, but also take it to the fiery mountain, Mount Doom, where it had been forged, to cast it into the flames and destroy it.

Mount Doom is, inconveniently, inside Sauron’s heavily fortified and guarded kingdom.

Elves, dwarves, men, wizards, hobbits, orcs…you all know it, don’t you?

As readers, we are all different. Some of us like a plot that gallops along so fast that we can barely keep up, with writing that limits itself to the action and no more than the minimum descriptions necessary.

Others, like me, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the described world almost as much as the plot itself – join the Slow Book Movement now! Just send a completed application form to…sorry, wrong place. Where was I? Oh yes, most readers like a mixture of the two, of course.

But as one of these Slow Readers, there is a massive amount in this book that appeals to me. When I read descriptions of the hobbits setting off to walk through woods and fields as the sun comes up through early autumn mists, I might have been reading a description of a morning when I had done just that whilst wild camping in the countryside in my part of England. I have always loved walking on footpaths and through fields and woods, and disliked roads and towns.

The countryside Tolkien described around the Shire – the home of the hobbits – might have been my countryside. there were chalk downs and woods and streams, even one or two names (for example Michel Delving) that could have been local.

There were other woodlands in the book, and if they were described as magical, then that was little more than I naturally felt about woodlands anyway. Aren’t they all magical?

And, on top of all that, there were mountains. Today, I love mountains! But I had never seen one at this point, and suddenly I wanted to go and climb one. There were inns and beer, adventure and song, friendship and dangers. What was not to like?

The whole book is really made up of three books, and the first book, which has always been my favourite, is the one which is mainly set in this land that I could almost identify. This was not the first fantasy book that I had read, but it was, and still is, the one whose descriptions have the greatest power to draw me in. It is the one that, to me, seems the most real.

All of this, with the themes of courage and friendship, self sacrifice and loyalty, and the message that good will eventually triumph over evil, come together in a mixture that is in just the right proportions to appeal to me.

But how has it actually influenced me?

For a start, when I began to write, everything that I wrote seemed to be influenced by that book. This was not actually a good thing, because other than The Lord of the Rings, I don’t really enjoy fantasy! But I wrote that way for a long while.

Today, though, what remains is the descriptive writing. I wonder whether I might otherwise have been a very different reader and writer, since before I read LOTR, I read mainly detective stories and adventure novels.

And I explored a lot of the Middle English literature that influenced Tolkien, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I suppose not too many people do today.

I visited mountains because of that book.

And a measure of how strong this appeal was (and remains) is that I have probably read the book about twenty times. The last but one time, though, was around twenty years ago. When I decided to re-read it last year, I did wonder whether I would be disappointed. I strongly suspected that I might have ‘grown out of it’.

I needn’t have worried.

I enjoyed it just as much as I ever had; I noticed one or two details I had either forgotten or never really noticed in the first place, and I found myself drawn in every bit as strongly as I had been before.

I loved it.

The Slow Book Movement

The original slow book manifesto (November 2009) declared that the movement:

aims to inspire a reawakening to the act of reading. As we enter an era with more and more people “reading” books on digital screens, getting news headlines online, escaping through the flat screen at home, the time is ripe for people to be reminded, or introduced for the first time, to the joys of reading. 

Then in March 2012, Maura Kelly also called for a slow book movement, arguing that In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature—to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else. They’ll help us unwind better than any electronic device—and they’ll pleasurably sharpen our minds and identities, too.

And then added: Slow Books will have standards about what kinds of reading materials count towards your daily quota. Blog posts won’t, of course, but neither will newspaper pieces or even magazine articles.

Also excluded: non-literary books.

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated.

Phew!

Then the splendid Writers’ Village Blog discussed the subject at length earlier this year http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/how-to-fall-in-love-again

An article in the Guardian newspaper in July 2010: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/15/slow-reading Suggested that the problem was that with our modern, frenetic, habits, we are losing the ability to concentrate for long enough to read books. Actually, it says a lot more than that; I paraphrase.

I think that we have now come to a sort of consensus on the subject, in that when we refer to something called the Slow Book Movement, we are referring to the idea of reading writing that is leisurely, rich and intelligent. Writing that doesn’t attempt to hustle you, but takes as much time as it needs to adequately describe what it wants to describe. We used to do it all the time, of course. For example:

In the broad old-fashioned window-seat—as capacious as many modern sofas, and cushioned to serve the purpose of a luxurious settee—in the broad old-fashioned window-seat of a roomy chamber, Mr Chester lounged, very much at his ease, over a well-furnished breakfast-table. He had exchanged his riding-coat for a handsome morning-gown, his boots for slippers; had been at great pains to atone for the having been obliged to make his toilet when he rose without the aid of dressing-case and tiring equipage; and, having gradually forgotten through these means the discomforts of an indifferent night and an early ride, was in a state of perfect complacency, indolence, and satisfaction.

From ‘Barnaby Rudge’ by Charles Dickens.

Of course, we weren’t all being driven to distraction by texts and emails and phone calls and all the other demands for our attention that we have to put up with now. And there are still plenty of writers who can write this way:

‘During the hot afternoon the air shimmered with heat, the long white-walled house and the straight ranks of trees swam in an hallucinatory mirage, their wavering images quivering in rainbow-hued waves across which suddenly a parakeet darted. In one of the inner rooms of the house, Sathiah lay asleep on a mat. Outside, in the grove, the palmyrah palms enclosed the restless shadow of the child in his endless games. The house constantly projected itself before his consciousness, his black, leaping shadow imprinted on the white wall as he reared up suddenly against it, an elongated blind shade, as blind as the shadows of close-growing, dark trees.’

From ‘Peacocks and Dreams’ by Jean Arasanayagam, the Sri Lankan writer.

It is a three course meal with carefully chosen wines, brought to the table and served at leisure, rather than burger and fries on the run, which fills but rarely satisfies. It is a string quartet in an intimate space, rather than a strident ringtone next to you on a crowded train. It is a test match rather than a T20 fixture (any one from a non-cricket playing nation, please feel free to request an explanation).

Because a story is far more than its ending. Every author will attempt to pace their story appropriately, and even in a fast-paced thriller they need those slower segments for the reader to draw breath, and to build the tension. And surely in any story the construction of the world of the story is integral, so that the reader can visualise where the drama is taking place.

Writers now are frequently advised to cut out any word, phrase, sentence, paragraph or even chapter which their work can do without. To cut and pare down to the bare minimum. There should be nothing superfluous, otherwise our readers will get bored and put down the book, never to pick it up again. But, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, a lot of the attraction of the book for me was the colourful, and leisurely, descriptions of the journey, as much as the action. I am also an avid reader of travel books, and imagine a travel book where we are not told enough to be able to visualise the journey. Would that work? It seems most unlikely.

All of this is why the majority of my short stories are not, in fact, very short.

What do you think? Do you agree? Please let me know your thoughts.