My 2016 in Books

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No, I haven’t read all the books in this pile; that’s my haul from one of several library sales I hit this year (I have read a couple of these, so far, though). I really can’t help it: this year I continued to collect books at a rate faster than I could read them (a common problem, I’m afraid), but I did make an effort to read books that were already on my shelf. Other books I got from the library when I could, including most of the graphic novels listed below. (I debated whether to include trade paperback collections of monthly comics, but in the case of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I decided what the heck: they’re some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months, and for the record The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is a graphic novel in the traditional, standalone sense.)

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In addition to filling some gaps in my comics reading, I followed through on my promise from last year to read more of the pulp and genre novels that have been crowding my shelves for years. Most are quick reads, and some of them tied into other projects I was involved in. Reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was part of my preparation to watch the Buck Rogers serial for a feature in The Solute last spring; novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey (my first Grey!) continued my exploration of the traditional Western.

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And what about those covers! I love the lush cover paintings Ballantine commissioned for its “Adult Fantasy” line back in the late ’60s, and Ron Walotsky’s cover for Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star in particular is a great example, intensely colorful and reminiscent of Weird Tales great Hannes Bok and Dungeons & Dragons icon Erol Otus. (The book itself was less psychedelic than the art might suggest, an early example of “parallel world” fantasy whose only speculative element was the presence of psychic witches. The Blue Star was originally published in 1952, early enough that Pratt included a prologue setting up the events of the novel as a dream, unable as he was to assume that contemporary audiences would automatically understand the concept of a secondary world.)

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Then there’s this one, an ironic bit of spy-fi, found in a used bookstore. I only recently found out that The Bamboo Saucer was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. The book was okay. (High Road to China, an aviation adventure set in the interwar years, is another one that was made into a movie; the copy I read is even a tie-in edition with a photo insert of star Tom Selleck, but I have absolutely no memory of the film.)

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Other Highlights:

It was a good year for non-fiction for me, and the books on Gary Gygax, Nancy Drew, and Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer were especially fascinating looks into the publishing industry and the creative process. (The Man From Mars also confirmed that the scientist alter ego of superhero The Atom was named after the Ray Palmer, something I had wondered about.) Another fascinating read was A Kim Jong-Il Production, about the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, who were pressed into service making movies for the North Korean dictator, a noted film buff.

I also read quite a few (mostly short) novels, including books by Jack Vance, the last book of Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions (a series I enjoyed very much), and a pair of contemporary (ca. 1970) gothic romances by Susan Howatch (another library sale find: how could I resist a cover like this?).

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Aside from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics and graphic novels that I found rewarding were Planetary (I had read the first few issues several years ago, but the Omnibus edition from the library caught me up on the entire series), All-Star Superman (as good as everyone says), and V for Vendetta (unfortunately timely).

Here’s the complete list:

January
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
All the Wrong Questions: “Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”, Lemony Snicket
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, Paul Fischer
League of Somebodies, Samuel Sattin

February
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, ed. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu
Bulldog Drummond, Sapper
Halting State, Charles Stross

March
Mission to the Head-Hunters, Frank and Marie Drown
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Fighting Tenderfoot, William MacLeod Raine
Cowboys & Aliens, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, et al
Al Williamson Adventures, Al Williamson et al
The Planetary Omnibus, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

April
Heroes of Bear Creek, Robert E. Howard
Big Planet, Jack Vance
The Blue World, Jack Vance

May
The Dragon Masters & Other Stories, Jack Vance
The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Philippe Druillet
Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, Adam and Dustin Koski
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Michael Witwer

June
The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt
Lone Sloane: Delirius, Jacques Lob and Philippe Druillet
Camelot 3000, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
The Flight of the Bamboo Saucer, Fritz Gordon
Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson

July
High Road to China, Jon Cleary
Three Weeks, Elinor Glyn
Last of the Duanes, Zane Grey
Marvelman Classic Vol. 2, Mick Anglo et al

August
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, Teresa Jordan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne

September
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak
This Business of Bomfog, Madelaine Duke
Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis
A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju, Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling and Shawn Pryor
The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons

October
Monster, 1959, David Maine
Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, Jacques Futrelle, ed. E. F. Bleiler
The Waiting Sands, Susan Howatch

November
The Devil on Lammas Night, Susan Howatch
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. One: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, North and Henderson
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem (2nd ed.), Myrick Land
Howard the Duck Vol. 0: What the Duck, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones et al
The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, Roseanne Cheng
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

December
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Two: Squirrel, You Know It’s True, North and Henderson
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Tony Cliff
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Three: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, North and Henderson

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Adages, Aphorisms, and Analects

“One machine may do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” –Elbert Hubbard

According to conventional wisdom, newspapers are in a fix because instead of reading them, everyone is getting their news from the Internet. One attempt to make the newspaper experience more interactive is the “Opinion Line,” a section of the editorial page made up of short, anonymous comments provided by readers who send them in or (ironically enough) leave their comments on the newspaper’s website. No longer is the writer required to lick a stamp or even sign their name to have their view printed, and the Opinion Line often becomes a partisan tug-of-war, full of snide put-downs of the Other Side.

There are many to reasons to be dismayed by the comments of the Opinion Line, but one that never fails to vex me is reading a joke or aphorism that has already gone around Facebook or Twitter days or weeks before, and is more than likely already played out, gone from original to viral to cliché, with the Opinion Line—a paper Twitter feed for the elderly and out of touch—as the final, senescent stage of its life cycle.

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Memes have always been around, even in the pre-Internet days when pictures, signs, and jokes would circulate like chain letters in offices and schools. Classics like the mouse flipping off a hawk, its outlines fuzzy through multiple generations of photocopying, or signage reading, “I can only make one person happy per day; today isn’t your day, and tomorrow isn’t looking so good either,” were ubiquitous, a lingua franca of the workplace, a passive-aggressive way of saying, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here . . . but it helps!” Although the passing around of in-jokes has largely migrated to the electronic ether, first through the e-mail forwards that you likely still receive from a few older friends or relatives, and then to Facebook and Twitter, such slogans can still be seen on coffee mugs and other gift items in actual physical space. Memes will find a way.

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I was reminded of those old photocopied proto-memes when I uncovered a copy of Baxter Lane’s Scrapbook of Famous Quips & Quotes that I had purchased as a kid. The contents of this 64-page booklet are exactly what the title promises: a collection of pithy sayings, some attributed and some anonymous, on such universal subjects as work, marriage, and politics (the latter without much of a partisan edge beyond “How about those clowns in Congress?”). Although Famous Quips & Quotes is slim, it was of a piece with the dictionaries, trivia collections, and other miscellanies I could spend hours flipping through as a young reader. Along with such classics of browsing as The Guinness Book of World Records and Tom Burnam’s immortal Dictionary of Misinformation, collections of aphorisms were a favorite pastime. You just never knew what tidbit you might find, and many of the sayings and factoids I read back then have stuck with me.

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Such collections are still published, of course, including standbys like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. In fact, the Baxter Lane Company is still in business, at least according to the online Yellow Pages: they don’t appear to have a web site of their own. Good for them. Located in Amarillo, Texas, Baxter Lane is listed as a “souvenir” or “gift shop” business: I’m sure I picked up my copy of Famous Quips & Quotes at a Stuckey’s or Nickerson Farms, and I could probably still find a Baxter Lane edition at my local Cracker Barrel. The back cover of the booklet even has “FROM” and “TO” address spaces and a square for third class postage, so you can send it in the mail as a postcard. “IT ISN’T NECESSARY BUT YOU CAN SEAL HERE WITH SCOTCH OR GUMMED TAPE IF YOU WANT TO,” reads a helpful caption along the edge.

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“You can make the people follow the Way, but you can’t make them understand it.” –Confucius

In looking for online traces of Baxter Lane, I uncovered evidence of other booklets they have published over the years: many are cookbooks, but collections of aphorisms and folk wisdom are prominent (including a second volume of Famous Quips & Quotes). One of them, Honorable Confucius Says by Herb Walker, was published in 1977; also 64 pages in length, it is said to contain “authentic Confucianisms as well as words of wisdom from other sources,” so it is, in other words, probably not too different in character from Famous Quips & Quotes.

Needless to say, almost any clever-sounding or cryptic aphorism you could think of has been or could be attributed to the Chinese sage K’ung Fu-Tzu; some of them, such as the famous curse “May you live in interesting times,” are as recent as the twentieth century. That’s not even mentioning the many uses of Confucius to set up a pun or dirty joke (there’s a lot more where this one came from), a tradition predating the Internet:

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Jokes aside, Confucius and his sayings are the subject of The Analects, a volume I discovered a little later in life but recognized immediately as a more sophisticated example of the browsable collections I had grown up with, comparable in its significance to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, a similarly deep collection of teachings and sayings. In the words of scholar and translator Lin Yutang,

The Analects is generally regarded as the Confucian Bible, being a miscellaneous, unclassified and unedited collection of the remarks of Confucius on various occasions, mostly without any suggestion as to the circumstances in which the remarks were made, and certainly torn from their context. (Yutang, The Wisdom of Confucius)

Given my tastes, how could I resist such a collection? The lack of context was both a pro and a con: the book is easy to dip into, but there are many head-scratchers. For every clear and simple lesson, there is another tangled in history or symbolic meaning. On the subject of context, Yutang continues:

It is illuminating, for instance, to read in the Analects the remark by Confucius that “I have never seen people attracted by virtuous scholars as they are by beautiful women,” and then to learn from Szema Ch’ien that he made this remark after he had paraded the streets of Wei in a carriage with a beautiful queen, and found the people looked at the queen but did not look at him. The text of the Analects itself does not mention the circumstance, and actually puts it in the form of a more abstract remark: “I haven’t yet seen people who love virtue as they love beauty.”

That is a favorite example of mine, not because it deflates Confucius, but because it humanizes him; it teaches us something about vanity, although perhaps not the lesson Confucius thought he was imparting.

A little healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing when reading such sayings. The best aphorisms provoke thought; memes substitute for it and are deployed to shut down arguments. One of the worst offenders in this regard is the “Condescending Willy Wonka” meme, its popularity based on Wonka’s well-known views in favor of Second Amendment rights:

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Or wait, was Wonka in favor of gun control?

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Like Confucius, Willy Wonka is now merely a vessel, a mouthpiece for whatever views we choose to attribute to him. The only difference is the speed at which memes can be generated.

My Library, Such As It Is

I’m not really the kind of book collector who fusses about rare items or first editions; it’s nice to find those sorts of things, and I can appreciate a beautifully-bound book as a work of art in itself, but I mostly think of collecting books as building a library for reference or enjoyment.  When I was younger, and mostly reading science fiction and other genre material, I would pursue books and authors that connected with one another in some way: the Cthulhu Mythos and the Weird Tales school; or the books listed by Gary Gygax as influences on Dungeons & Dragons; and, later on, steampunk and the nineteenth-century authors who influenced it.  When I became a graduate student and teacher, my library of music books–theory, history, and other kinds of reference–burgeoned. Along the way, I’ve picked up books of art, criticism, and aesthetics that caught my interest.

Space is always an issue, of course, for the private library as much as the public (even if it’s on a smaller scale).  Although my rate of accumulation has slowed a great deal over the last several years–I no longer have the time, space, or funds to simply buy anything of interest that I come across–I still have more books than the shelf space to accommodate them, and choices must be made.  I have tried to prioritize books that I expect to refer to, or which I haven’t read yet but would like to, but one never really knows. That’s part of the point of keeping a library, isn’t it?  (I’ve never been able to keep a strict reading list and stick to it, simply because most of the books I read suggest the next book to me: I don’t know what it will be until I’ve finished the last one.)

In one house I lived in, I had a bookshelf in the living room full of classics, some of which I had read and others I hoped to get to, lumped together by the single commonality of their supposed importance.  In the guest bedroom, however, were the books I really read, the Stephen King and Philip K. Dick, the reprints from the pulp era and the books on UFOs and unexplained mysteries.  The house I’m in now I’ve been in a little more than a year, and while the display of my books is a little less showy and two-faced, it’s still the result of practical compromises, so while much of my library looks like this:

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. . . a lot of it looks like this:

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. . . and even more of it looks like this:

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There are different motivations for collecting, and my motivations have changed over the years.  One of the first impulses is simply to have a collection as a form of mastery: the completist urge, to have a matched set, to have at your fingertips anything you might want to experience or refer to.  This notably affects record collectors in particular, but any kind of collector can fall prey to the need to fill in gaps, to have a satisfyingly whole body of work to dive into or simply stand back and regard.

Not unrelated is what we might call the scholarly impulse: as I’ve been discovering over the last ten months, since I started writing this blog, you can only write off the top of your head for so long before you need to pull in an apposite quote or factoid for support.  In my case, I’m blessed with a decent memory, good enough to recall something I read years or decades ago that bears on my present topic, but cursed in that it isn’t a photographic memory, and if I want to get a quote right I have to remember where I read it and dig up a copy to refresh my memory and ensure accuracy.  The internet and the public and university libraries have all helped, of course, and I’m not too proud to admit that more than once I’ve borrowed a book from the library that I already owned because it was faster to do that than hunt down my own copy.

Lately, I’ve been digging into those boxes more frequently in search of specific books that I know I’ve got, if I can just remember which box I packed it in.  Doing so makes me feel less like a librarian and more like a hoarder, but it’s vindicating when I find what I was looking for, especially when it’s something I remember not by name but by the picture on the cover, or by a general sense of “I’ll know it when I find it.”

Henry Petroski’s absorbing book The Book on the Bookshelf (which, ironically enough, I don’t have at my fingertips right now) goes into both the history and methodology of organizing books and discusses the problems I’ve alluded to here. In addition to such well-known systems as the Dewey Decimal and alphabetization by author’s last name, Petroski points out that there are many other ways of ordering libraries, some of which sound far-fetched but aren’t that crazy, at least for private collections. While we don’t organize public library books by size or color, for example, my own searches indicate those are just as useful for finding half-remembered books as titles or authors (books that are packed in boxes are often packed together based on size and shape rather than complementary subject matter!).

All of this comes to mind after another round of shifting and unpacking boxes to find a few supplementary books for my ongoing series on motion picture serials, but I went through something similar last fall when writing a series on anthologies of different kinds (both are listed on my Series page, for those wanting to catch up).  I’ll probably never have everything I own all out in the open, at least not until such time as I’m able to move into a house with shelves on every wall.  It doesn’t help that I’m not a specialist, limiting my work to a core collection of volumes on a single subject.  For now, at least, I’ll make due with a rotating collection, following my fickle muse.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part One

Maybe it starts with being a bookhound: from a young age I grew up in a house piled high with books, the collection of my college professor father and classical musician mother.  It’s no surprise that the collecting bug bit me early, and books are a natural item to accumulate: they’re mostly cheap; they can be status symbols, external signs of one’s intellectual achievement (unlike, say, comic books, which I have also collected, but which even now seem to demand a certain amount of explanation to the uninitiated); and they provide more entertainment or useful information for their price and weight than almost anything else.  I was accustomed to having old things around from a young age, so that didn’t bother me either.  As much as I enjoy brand new books and the big, luxurious bookstores that have (mostly) disappeared from the landscape, used bookstores and book sales are more interesting to me, because of that chance of being surprised by something rare, weird, or simply new to me.  I like to browse new books to see what’s out there, but I’m rarely moved to buy something I could get anywhere; but for an old, possibly out-of-print book, who knows if I’ll find it again?  I could go on about the smell of old books, or the thrill of the hunt, or the prospect of finding something really valuable, but to tell the truth those aren’t really motivating factors for me. (Seriously: for every old book you find that has that ideal scent of rich, old paper, there’s another one that smells of mildew or cigarette smoke. Gross.)

No, what fascinates me the most when scouring stacks of old books is the chance to fill in gaps in my knowledge, make connections between things I might not expect, and appreciate the many different kinds of publications (the styles of writing, the topics, and genres that were once popular, not to mention trends in printing, binding, and cover art) that can open windows to the past.

In many ways, a good anthology can offer the same pleasures in microcosm.  Reading a collection of stories or articles by a good editor is like being guided through a used book market by an expert hand, someone who knows where the good stuff is hidden, and is ideally a sympathetic soul able to handpick just the sort of thing you’re looking for.  Such a guide can offer a balanced combination of the familiar but well-loved, a few new items that continue in a straight line from where the familiar leaves off, and maybe something really mind-bending or challenging, something you didn’t know you needed to read until you found it.

If you read enough, the name of the editor alone might be enough to pique your interest, and these come in several flavors: many of the editors whose names I learned were publishing-industry lifers like Peter Haining and Martin H. Greenberg (compiler of an astounding 1,298 anthologies!).  Sometimes the editor is a well-known writer in their own right, their choices reflecting their influences, early favorites that inspired their own writing or informed their stylistic choices.  The book might be a chance to promote their friends’ work or expose readers to like-minded authors who are part of the same scene as the editor but not as widely known.  Or it could be an opportunity for the established writer to shine a light on up and coming talent, putting their seal of approval on the young writers’ work.

Sometimes, however, one gets the impression the famous writer’s name is simply on the cover to sell books, as when they are hired to write a short introduction and the name of the actual (less well-known) editor is in smaller type. If the word “presents” is in the title, chances are the famous author is a figurehead (as in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, a series Hubbard never actually edited and that has carried on under his name long after his death).  I don’t mean to be cynical: it’s the quality of the stories inside that count, and I’ve been known to purchase and keep books with stories I already have copies of for the sake of the insights in the introduction (which are sometimes sizeable essays in their own right).

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A subgenre is the anthology of the “best of” the previous year, selections either made from published work (as is the case for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American series), contest winners (the aforementioned L. Ron Hubbard Presents), or editorial fiat.  The Best American series has been published continuously since 1915, first as a showcase for short stories, expanded in recent decades to include topics such as mystery stories, sports writing, and even comics (since 2006).  One of the most popular titles in the series has been The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited since its introduction in 2002 by Dave Eggers.  Filled with lists, humor, and random nuggets culled from real life (“Best American Lawsuits,” for example), it injects the McSweeney’s founder’s “clever . . . too clever” aesthetic into the hoary old “bathroom reader” format, like Harper’s Index on steroids.

In retrospect, these annual volumes can provide perspective on both the individual authors included in them and the genre (whatever it may be) as a whole.  It is interesting, for example, to see the name Stephen Baxter (for the story “Gossamer”) in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF, a 1996 anthology (and beginning of an ongoing series) published with the goal of supporting actual science fiction (“Not fantasy.  Not science fantasy,” according to Hartwell’s introduction).  Baxter had garnered praise for his 1995 novel The Time Ships, an authorized sequel to H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, but was as yet a new enough name that Hartwell felt the need to introduce him as a writer “in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward.”  Since then, he has won numerous awards and collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke; it’s unlikely a science fiction audience would be unfamiliar with him.

In contrast, one can examine volumes of the Best SF series edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss from 1967 to 1975 to see the rising tide of confrontational, psychedelic “New Wave” science fiction championed by J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock.  Even allowing for the difference in time, no one would confuse this series with Hartwell’s!

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One finds connections everywhere: one can read Sam Moskowitz’s biographical sketch of editor Alden H. Norton in the latter’s Award Science Fiction Reader, and immediately turn to Norton’s introduction to his own Horror Times Ten, wherein he recounts,

At lunch with an old friend, Sam Moskowitz, I happened to mention my problem [a paucity of decent horror stories for his planned anthology] and said: “Too bad you’re not an authority on the horror and terror tale as you are on science fiction.  If you were, you might be of some help to me.”  He choked a moment, wiped some sauce from eggplant parmigiana from his lips with a napkin, swallowed a glass of water, and finally managed to come up: “Oh, but I am!”

Not only did the authors and editors know each other, they could make their readers feel like one of the club by letting them in on these backstage dramas in introductory notes, in the letters pages of magazines, and in the newsletters and fanzines put together by amateur press associations and fan clubs.  An anthology could be much more than just the stories!

In Part Two, I’ll look more closely at one of my favorite anthologies, and the legacy of the magazine Weird Tales.