Apr. 3rd, 2017

sartorias: (JRRT)
So I was going to do this for the BVC blog, but then I thought, no way could I read the books and stretched out posts every two weeks. So maybe I'll switch around.

But when I took the books out . . . well, feel free to skip the before-the-book blather. I guess the equivalent of travel stories starting with the hassle of getting to the airport and all the kerfuffle and missed connections and impedimenta before one gets anywhere. Most of the time I skip that and start reading at touchdown, so I certainly understand giving this the go-bye.

Lord of the Rings has been a part of my life since I was fourteen on the verge of fifteen.

Warning: I’m a visual reader, so when I reread a favorite, I’m likely to experience palimpsest images—memories of the circumstances of the first read, and connected subsequent experience, overlain on the images from the book.

So the first image begins in May 1966, when a writing friend and I (for reasons that made sense to young teens) avoided her lovely bedroom that she didn't have to share with anyone in favor of climbing up into their hot, stuffy attic with no furniture. We lay on a narrow area of planks nailed together, under which we hid our stories in the crevice between the boards and the drywall of the ceiling of the room below.

I remember I was deep in the throes of composition on my ninth notebook when my friend began reading Lord of the Rings, which she had recently checked out from the library.

We shared writing and reading, and were both picky about fantasy. I hated whimsy, she hated romance. Of the portal fantasies available to kids in those days, the ones we both loathed were the most common: it was all a dream endings, and even worse were those that brought the adventuring kids back with their memories wiped, to fit the thematic hammer of "There is no place like home." Small comfort when home wasn’t safe, or a person fit so ill into the social climate of the time. We wanted escape and consolation, as Tolkien later said in his essay "On Fairy Stories."

So there we were, breathing asbestos and stuffy air in that attic as one read and the other wrote. She had recently cruised the adult section of her library and stumbled on Fellowship of the Ring; deeply into it, she kept exclaiming and muttering as I scribbled. When she let out an exclamation of grief and said one of the best characters had died, I thought, Not reading that one, ugh!

A day or so later, she met me at school at usual, and the first thing she said to me was, "You have to read these books. It's about another world, and it's written by a grown-up, who believes in his worlds just like us, and the ending is NOT stupid. But first you have to read the first book, The Hobbit."

I’d been seeing The Hobbit on the shelves at my local branch library for years. But I’d never touched it—I’d assumed it was whimsy about dressed-up animals.

She promised no dressed-up animals. She said that it had a really stupid ending—but the ending made sense when you started LOTR.

So I went straight to my branch library after school, and checked out The Hobbit — which turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I had expected; the awkward and talking-down parts were standard for a lot of books on the library shelves in those days. Still, I have to admit now that I have never reread it. I will! Just waiting for the right time.

The Hobbit being done, I was ready for the real thing, but my branch didn't have it. On Saturday I walked the three miles to her house, and her mother took us to the main library. There it was, on the adult fiction shelf, three dingy fifties-era volumes. We checked out all three, my friend warning me that as soon as I finished one I would want the next one right away. Hoo boy was she right.

As soon as I got home, I settled in to read. When I first opened that book and saw the title page with the runes all along the top, and the Elvish all along the bottom and the foldout map, my nerves thrilled so intensely I can still remember the shock of wonder.

Right there was not only a book portal to another world, but also evidence that adults wrote about other worlds. They were not crazy. They were not full of weird drugs. All of the dire warnings from the adults around me about indulging in fantasy, which I had been resisting with passionate loathing, had been proved to be as wrong as I had always believed.

That was Memorial Day weekend, 1966. I read pretty much non-stop. I was finished with all three books by the Tuesday, at which time I had to take them along to school and give them to my friend to return to her library.

Segue up a few months into summer. Unknown to me, the Tolkien craze had started up; that summer a Tolkien picnic was held in central LA. The Los Angeles Times did an article on it, of course depicting the fans as a bunch of wild hippies. But at the end of the article they included an address for the Tolkien Society, run by Dick Plotz out of somewhere in New York. For fifty cents, you could join. My babysitting money extended to that much. Within a week, I received three mimeographed fanzines which I read and reread.

Another time jump, to December of that year. I had begun to regret that super-fast reading, and longed to reread LOTR, but by then the copies had vanished from the main branch. I had no idea that the books had suddenly taken off in popularity, and apparently copies were being swiped from libraries all over.

My parents always dropped us off on our local main street to shop for holiday gifts for the family. There was a tiny bookstore off a stationery store, and to my astonishment I found LOTR in paperback in a box set. But it cost a walloping three and a half bucks! I remember agonizing over that huge expense, when my accumulated babysitting money was probably about twenty bucks max. I had to get presents for the entire family!

I made it work by combining cash with sibs for parental gifts, and guiltily sneaked that box set in and under my bed. The day after Christmas, we drove up to Lake Arrowhead for Christmas vacation to a cottage we shared with another family, in hopes of seeing snow. I brought those paperbacks. I still remember opening them up, and the smell of that print. I studied the cover art, which made no sense whatever, but that did not interfere with the deep pleasure of owning my own copies. I went out and sat under the whispering pines to read the trilogy again, this time more slowly. It was even better the second time.

For years after, I faithfully carried that box set from crummy apartment to crummy apartment. But as the decades passed, the paperbacks, which I had reread so many times, began to fall apart. The pages, which once smelled so fresh and new, had become so yellowed they were difficult to read.

So I kept them as mementos, and began reading the hardcovers—Houghton Mifflin second edition, fifth printing— which I got as a birthday present in 1970, and had kept pristine. The excellent paper is still smooth and cream-colored. The dust jackets have fallen apart, sad to say, but the book covers are still smooth in black cloth with the ring and the ring poem in Elvish and the Eye of Sauron embossed on the cover in gold and silver.

And every time I open them, I remember that initial thrill.

If you've made it this far, want to share your experience?

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