Being a geeky fan has enriched my life beyond measure, and I mean that sincerely. I never had the experience of reading a graphic novel or playing a video game that suddenly opened my eyes to the narrative possibilities of the medium, because I was never told and never thought that those mediums didn’t have narrative possibilities. (Yet another thing I attribute to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I feel is the example of a marvelous story that can only be told as a video game.) It’s also taught me that everything, really, is worth literary analysis, and in order to truly love something, you must acknowledge its faults. Imagine my delight when I came across two books this week that exemplified these lessons- one about how a fan’s love grows, and one about the viability of video games as an art form.
The Magician’s Book by Sarah Miller
The Magician’s Book is the story of one reader’s long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, Laura Miller read and re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequels countless times, and wanted nothing more than to find her own way to Narnia. In her skeptical teens, a casual reference to the Chronicles’s Christian themes left her feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust. Years later, convinced that “the first book we fall in love with shapes us every bit as much as the first person we fall in love with,” Miller returns to Lewis’ classic fantasies to see what mysteries Narnia still holds for adult eyes—and is captured in an entirely new way.
In her search to uncover the source of these small books’ mysterious power, Miller looks to their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a man who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation—scarred by a tragic and troubled childhood, Oxford educated, a staunch Christian, and a social conservative, armed with deep prejudices.
The Magician’s Book is an intellectual adventure story, in which Miller travels to Lewis’s childhood home in Ireland, the possible inspiration for Narnia’s landscape; unfolds his intense friendship with J.R.R.Tolkien, a bond that led the two of them to create the greatest myth-worlds of modern times; and explores Lewis’ influence on writers like Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, and Philip Pullman. Finally reclaiming Narnia “for the rest of us,” Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination. Erudite, wide-ranging, and playful, The Magician’s Book is for all who live in thrall to the magic of books.
I’ve never finished The Chronicles of Narnia, I have to admit, but, as a literary nerd, I hear about readings and analysis of it in passing–the matter of Susan, the Christian allegories, and the like. I’m quite pleased to find that some of the earlier Inkling fantasies are starting to be viewed as worthy of literary analysis, as well they should, since I tend to apply my training in places my professors would probably frown on. (But there’s just so much material about the concept of the sacred feminine slowly being overtaken in The Legend of Zelda!) An actual literary critic going forth where fans have been sounds fascinating.
I found out about this book through Nymeth’s wonderful review at things mean a lot, where she praises Miller’s organization, as well as her concept of reading and enjoying while understanding and accepting the flaws and unfortunate implications of a work. Bermuda Onion, over at her pad, does find it a bit dense and that a knowledge of The Chronicles of Narnia definitely helps. I think once I finally get through The Chronicles of Narnia, I’ll dive right in here.
The Magician’s Book was published on December 3, 2008.
Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
Tom Bissell is a prizewinning writer who published three widely acclaimed books before the age of thirty-four. He is also an obsessive gamer who has spent untold hours in front of his various video game consoles, playing titles such as Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead, BioShock, and Oblivion for, literally, days. If you are reading this flap copy, the same thing can probably be said of you, or of someone you know.
Until recently, Bissell was somewhat reluctant to admit to his passion for games. In this, he is not alone. Millions of adults spend hours every week playing video games, and the industry itself now reliably outearns Hollywood. But the wider culture seems to regard video games as, at best, well designed if mindless entertainment.
Extra Lives is an impassioned defense of this assailed and misunderstood art form. Bissell argues that we are in a golden age of gaming—but he also believes games could be even better. He offers a fascinating and often hilarious critique of the ways video games dazzle and, just as often, frustrate. Along the way, we get firsthand portraits of some of the best minds (Jonathan Blow, Clint Hocking, Cliff Bleszinski, Peter Molyneux) at work in video game design today, as well as a shattering and deeply moving final chapter that describes, in searing detail, Bissell’s descent into the world of Grand Theft Auto IV, a game whose themes mirror his own increasingly self-destructive compulsions.
Blending memoir, criticism, and first-rate reportage, Extra Lives is like no other book on the subject ever published. Whether you love video games, loathe video games, or are merely curious about why they are becoming the dominant popular art form of our time, Extra Lives is required reading.
I always feel a twinge of shame whenever I cite The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the definitive fictional work of my childhood. But that doesn’t change the fact that I find it to be a beautiful, even tragic story (especially in light of more recent comments by the development team) that can only really be told as a video game. So when I saw this as I read The New York Times Sunday Book Review (on a Friday), I pumped my fist in the air–finally, one of us is standing up and declaring it the art form we know it can be. I’m a little ‘eh’ about the fact that Bissell focuses more on first-person shooters that often lack the narrative structure of role-playing games, despite VALVe’s amazing methods of storytelling (not a cutscene to be seen, folks!), but beggars can’t be choosers. I’ve started playing Team Fortress 2, so we’ll see how connected I feel once I get my hands on this book.
As previously stated, I ran across this in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. That review reveals Bissell’s focus on some games that aren’t very good stories, another thing that makes me a bit tentative, but praises it as a wonderful account of the love gamers feel for their games. Michael Abbot from Brainy Gamer not only praises the warts and all view of Bissell’s book, but also the accessibility for people who aren’t gamers. I don’t have that problem, so I look forward to digging into Extra Lives sometime soon.
Extra Lives was published on June 8.