LEGO, A Love Story by Jonathan Bender
As Jonathan Bender points out at the beginning of LEGO, a Love Story, adult fans of LEGO (more commonly known by the abbreviation AFOLs) have a name for the period of time between playing with LEGO as a kid and playing with LEGO as an adult: the Dark Ages. I ditched LEGO fairly early on in my childhood, mostly because, despite my best efforts, you could not actually eat the damn things. (I moved onto eating glue.) But I emerged from my Dark Ages when LEGO picked up the The Lord of the Rings license. So far, I’ve just organized my LEGO bricks and started collecting female minifigures, but I’ve been looking for a way to start building with the damn things. When I saw LEGO, a Love Story at the library, I thought Bender’s experience getting back into it might help me along my own journey.
While he and his wife are trying (and failing) to conceive, Bender finds himself emerging out of his own LEGO Dark Ages, inspired by a memory of building (and spray-painting! The horror!) a Sears Tower out of LEGO bricks with his father. He leaps into the hobby headfirst, buying increasingly expensive sets, attending conventions, participating in building contests, and traveling to LEGO headquarters. As he explores the history of the AFOLs, the LEGO Group, and the relationship between the two, he starts to wonder if he’s not simply trying to fill the space in his life where he wants a child to be.
That description makes LEGO, a Love Story sound more like a memoir than it actually is. Bender is a journalist above everything else, which, I assume, leads to the use of present tense in the memoir (after starting out in past tense and jarringly switching) and the downplaying of his personal life. The couple’s attempts to conceive are present but dormant until a tense scene in a K-mart, and even Bender’s improv experience—which he thinks influences his building—is barely mentioned. (I have massive difficulty with improv, since it requires trusting other human beings, so I’m utterly fascinated by it.) Instead, for the most part, LEGO, a Love Story is composed of light, short chapters focusing on one element or one experience in the world of AFOLs. Information is repeated between chapters in such a way that it makes me think he may have originally intended to pitch this as a series of articles, which would necessitate said repetition.
Since I’ve been dipping in and out of adult LEGO fandom on and off for the last year, some of Bender’s research is old hat to me. But there’s plenty of material for both someone like me and someone new to the subculture: the conventions, the contests, the customs, and the community. Bender finds himself welcomed with open arms as AFOLs share their resources and their work with him. Some of his new friends give him building advice that I think everybody could stand to hear, such as “If you can boil down a building or a car or a sculpture to a series of small, recognizable pieces, then you can create something that is dramatically better than you expected when you start” (105). It’s clearly a tight-knit community, although Bender focuses more on the American contingent versus the online or international communities. Bender himself can be a competitive, nervous wreck when he’s interacting with the community, constantly comparing himself to better builders: it’s mildly unpleasant.
The LEGO community is extraordinarily male-dominated. Bender occasionally touches on this; nothing as in-depth as I would like, but as he’s not digging terribly deep in general, I wasn’t expecting it. He posits that it might be because AFOLs are usually in math and science fields, which are already male-dominated. While the book was published before the advent of LEGO Friends, a line aimed at girls (and usually shelved away from the other LEGO sets wherever toys are sold), he does briefly discuss how LEGO bricks, once the ultimate unisex toy, ended up almost entirely for boys, which means that some women don’t even have Dark Ages to emerge out of. Still, Bender comments on a LEGO minifigure beauty pageant, rolls his eyes at using a Belville set (the girly sets when I was a wee lass), and doesn’t say anything when a few gentlemen who run LEGO fanzines discuss doing “swimsuit issues” to boost readership, so it’s pretty uneven.
Rather, the main narrative that emerges out of LEGO, A Love Story is the complex relationship between AFOLs and the LEGO Group. AFOLs compose only five percent of LEGO’s consumers, but they’re also the most vocal. (There’s hardly anything more nostalgic for those of us from fandom than reading Internet posts from the nineties about how LEGO changed the colors without consulting the AFOLs and now it sucks. It’s like looking at your parents’ prom photos.) The LEGO Group now has a liasion, as well as an ambassador system to communicate with the community. However, it’s interesting to note that fans rarely become LEGO model builders and other key LEGO personnel. While Bender posits that AFOLs want to keep their creations PG in an attempt to protect their childhood innocence, there’s a definite tension between what AFOLs want and what children want, leaving the LEGO Group the difficult task of striking a happy medium.
During the book, Bender travels to LEGO headquarters and visits the secret LEGO archives, where a copy of every single set ever produced is kept. It’s enough to make you writhe in jealousy, so I’ll link you to Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz’s video of his trip to the archives. And while I found this be an uneven and almost too light read, it still inspired me to pull out my bricks and make something.
Talk to me about your own LEGO experiences! I want to hear them.
Bottom line: An uneven and almost too light read, but the world of adult fans of LEGO (or AFOLs) is so interesting that there’s still something here. You’ll come out of it itching for some bricks.
I rented this book from the public library.