Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Do I Read Fantasy?

The question of why I read fantasy literature has been on my mind a lot lately. This may have something to do with my curent grad school situation; much of the time I feel like, for whatever reason, I should be reading more of the works in my field of academic interest than fantasy. Why read the new Brandon Sanderson novel when I should be reading Chaucer? Why read A Dance With Dragons when I should be trying to figure out how to get the Song of Roland on my reading list for my exams? Why do I spend so much time on a genre of literature that is only just barely acknowledged by the average English department?

I think a lot of it has to do with my personality and the way that I grew up. When I was a young boy, my family moved around a lot; by the time I was 13, I had lived in 3 U.S. states and 3 European countries. This sounds great, for those of you who envy my European travels, but when I first moved to England, I was all of 8 years old, and we lived no more than a year or so per country. By age 11, I had moved four times, and would move again in two years. Now, many readers know me (yes, it is foolish to hope that I have many readers, but I can hope), but if you don't know me, I am quiet, bookish, and painfully shy. I've lived in St. Louis for almost ten years now, and I don't think I have done anything with fellow grad students that was not part of a school activity. Now, imagine someone that shy at 8 years old, knowing nobody in a new country, then repeating the process for several years.

For a lot of that time, books were my only friends - sadly, there was no internet yet in 1987, at least not for the general public. I think my first fantasy novels were the original Dragonlance trilogy, and for a long time, those characters felt like close friends. I felt a kinship with lonely Tanis, sickly Raistlin, the honorable Sturm. Their successes and failures were real to me, moreso than most real people were. I felt proud whe they did well, sad when they failed, pain when they hurt.

A few years and moves later, there were the Dark Elf book by R.A. Salvatore, with Drizzt the loner elf, outcast from his people, alone in a world that hated him. I identified with him, because I felt the same; I was a smart kid just hitting that time when smart kids become the enemy in school, when more assertive boys pick on nerds to show how cool they are. Sooner or later, I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and wondered how we could make a world where evil no longer existed.

Now, years later, I have a small, close circle of friends, but I live near none of them. I try to get close to my felow grad students, but I have never been very good at it, so I find myself turning to old friends in the form of books. Not the books I read for class, but the fantasy and science fiction books I read to relax and enjoy myself. I no longer read Salvatore, but now I read Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, Steven Erikson and Jim Butcher, but the idea is the same; each good book is a new old friend, one I can unshelf when I feel lonely, stressed, depressed, or just out of sorts.

I wish sometimes that I could make fantasy literature a greater part of my academic career, but that seems unlikely to happen, so it will remain a guilty pleasure amidst discussions of Old English verse, Greek epics, and other medieval literature.

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