Thursday, September 29, 2011

Drop That Book!

Yesterday (28 September 2011), I had the honor of reading publicly in the lobby of the San Diego Public Library as part of Banned Books Week. Starting about 1430, I began reading, and did so for about an hour. I was one of several people who agreed to read on a schedule, though anyone was welcome to read a book from the "banned books book cart" present, or a book of their own choosing.

My book of choice was the infamous The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. To me, this is the ultimate banned book. When we think of banned books, we think of actions by governments, and while there were many countries that did -- and still do -- ban this book, government action represents only the tip of the iceberg. Muslims all over the world took to the streets in protest of the book and its author, even before the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on 14 February 1989, which decreed death not only for Salman Rushdie but for anyone associated with the publication, translation or distribution of the book. The author, with the assistance of Scotland Yard, went into hiding, and even though he issued an apology, the death sentence remained in effect until the Ayatollah died himself; even the revocation of the fatwa did not stop the violence: the Japanese translator was murdered; its Italian translator barely escaped death; its Turkish translator also escaped being murdered, but 32 others died in ensuing riots.

I am quite happy to report I survived my reading of the forbidden tome. There were no attacks, no demonstrations, no demands for apologies from the local CAIR chapter, though in the past it and its director, Edgar Hopida, tried to shut down free speech by pressuring the library to intervene when someone with an opposing viewpoint reserved the public auditorium for a presentation. No signs, no shouts, no swords; however, there were definitely scowls and stares from some library patrons, but they did not linger, did not listen...they did not ban the books for others, but they did ban it for themselves, and that's the only type of banning that should occur in this country, and even that's pretty sad, for no one should be afraid to read anything.

Even the the US does not engage in nationwide book banning -- the last book to receive that honor was the venerable Fanny Hill in 1963 -- thousands of books are challenged or banned at a local level, usually either by school districts or counties and/or cities. Huckleberry Finn and Cather in the Rye are perennial targets of book banners, but thousands of others are put forward each year, sometimes with success, sometime not. Despite what many people think, Liberals are just as likely to ban books as Conservatives, perhaps even more so since school boards and library commissions tends more toward the left than the right, while complainants often veer right. As society changes, though, the reasons also shift -- just recently a school district banned one of my favorites from the school libraries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes tale, was prohibited to students, and the reason -- it might offend Mormons.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Run! The Martians are coming!

Today the Martians stopped by my house for a visit. I had not seen the leathery little devils in quite some time, not since their last attempt at world domination, so I was really quite pleased to see them, and we had a pleasant time, which will not end since the Martians decided to move in with me. As Nero Wolfe, a personage for whom I am at times mistaken, would have said, "Quite satisfactory!" My house may be crowded, but there is always room for more.

The Martians were transported over by my friend Charles, with whom I used to work at the Library. Charles and I have as much in common as we don't -- in a workplace of 800 people, we were the only veterans; we don't care for rhesus monkeys, rabid weasels or snakes-in-suits; we have no tolerance for fools; we both have a soft spot for the Insane Clown Posse; we both like weird films (his are far weirder than mine); and we both have a strong nostalgic bent. It was this last commonality that caused Charles to bring over the Martians.

Yes, a comic book, of course. After all, it's not as if anyone visiting me is going to see a real Martian -- you need special glasses for that. But I digress. The gift was a special 50th anniversary reprint of Classics Illustrated No. 124: The War of the Worlds By H.G. Wells. Originally published in 1955, the comic appeared at a time when American society was down on comics...had a Comic-Con been held at that period of history, it would surely have been raided by the FBI, the Vice Squad and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Classics Illustrated tried to legitimize comics and introduce kids to classic literature, and was the brainchild of publisher Albert Lewis Kanter, who is profiled on the reverse of the reprint.

For millions of kids, Classics Illustrated provided a doorway into a world of great literature. Most kids didn't even realize they had passed through that doorway; all they knew was that they were reading comic books that had great plots and interesting characters...the lack of tights, masks, capes and superpowers was nary a problem, certainly not when the stories kept you turning pages like crazy. Though I dearly loved The War of the Worlds, I must admit my two favorite Classics Illustrated issues were Jules Verne's Off on a Comet and Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea; and I also read and re-read another Wells tale: Food of the Gods.

I was quite touched that Charles gifted this book to me, as I have very fond memories of the comics published by Classics Illustrated, this issue in particular, which I read prior to seeing the George Pal film, but after reading the book. Although the book and the film had a particular impact on me, there's just something about reading a comic with a flashlight in the dead of night that makes the idea of Martians lurking in the shadows, or under the bed, quite believable...and probable.

The artists, editors and production people at Jack Lake Productions Inc., did a wonderful job in restoring the art and text of The War of the Worlds. Even though this edition is printed on much better paper than a comic book publisher would ever have dreamed of in 1955, with the resulting increase in color quality and clarity, the artwork still retains the flavor of the times, before artists convinced themselves they were the stars and that it was absolutely necessarily to depict not only every muscle in the human body but a hundred more muscles that don't really exist in an actual torso. The permanence of hard covers, enhanced artwork, and special articles about Classics Illustrated and its creators -- superior to the original.

Still, as good as the commemorative edition may be, the original still outshines it, even a fifty-year-old copy that looks as old as it is. The smell of the paper, the stark power of the artwork, the impact of seeing it for the first time...can't beat it. Oh, and there's one more thing: the reprint cost $14.99, and the original only 15 cents; on the other hand, the reprint was a gift (Thanks, Charles!) and 15 cents was a fortune.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Books? The kind made from paper?

When audio-books appeared (on tape, then CD), I was not okay with them. I suspected they were yet another indicator of the decline and fall of civilization, but I was willing to concede them a role in society, to admit that drivers and passengers should not be cut off from the world of literature. I knew from experience that radio is unreliable, that entire portions of the interstate highways are audio wastelands - absolute silence where the "seek" button sends you spinning through frequencies without end; or finding nothing but lonely stations broadcasting Spanglish country, Indian rock or the farm report. Books on tape, books on CD - I did not trust them, but I accepted them as necessary evils.
But, consider the following conversation, which, for various reasons, we will assume did not take place in an ascending elevator in a skyscraper in a great metropolitan city, and did not occur between four people whom we shall call THE WIFE, THE KIDETTE, THE ATTORNEY, and THE INTERN:

THE ATTORNEY: Hi, what are you doing back? I thought you retired.
THE WIFE: Oh, I'm just visiting the office, saying hi to people to anyone who hasn't been fired yet, having lunch with my daughter.
THE KIDETTE: At least I got a lunch today; my supervisor wasn't going to let me have a lunch today because I'd already had one this week.
THE KIDETTE: I wish I were kidding.
THE WIFE: How are you doing?
THE ATTORNEY: Okay, I suppose, but my weekend plans went awry.
THE ATTORNEY: Yeah, I wanted to read some books this weekend, but my wife says I have to do the taxes since they're due Monday.
THE KIDETTE: That's too bad.
THE INTERN: Books? You read books?
THE ATTORNEY: Yes, why? I like to read.
THE KIDETTE: I love to read books, if I ever get off work in time to do anything but drop exhausted into bed.
THE WIFE: I read books all the time too.
THE INTERN: You guys are talking about books, the kind made from paper?
THE INTERN: Not on-line, or on an e-book reader?
THE WIFE, THE ATTORNEY & THE KIDETTE: Uh-uh (shaking heads).
THE INTERN: Wow. The only time I open a book is when I have to research cases for the office, but all those books are old. I didn't know they still made books out of paper.

You can't see me, Gentle Reader (who just happens to be reading this on-line...hmmm) but I am not only sighing in sympathy with three of the characters in our little psychodrama, I am shaking my head in utter disbelief, and trying not to weep for the end of civilization as we know it. I am usually quite happy being in absolute denial (watch out for crocodiles!), but even I have to admit that our flabbergasted INTERN has a point. While I know that a book is a book and nothing can replace a book (yes, made of paper!), I cannot ignore the facts, as repulsive as they may be.
During the second quarter of 2010, the giant on-line book selling company reported that, for the first time since its founding in 1994, the number of e-books sold for its Kindle device outpaced the number of hardcover books sold. Also, according to the Association of American Publishers, 2011 saw the sales of e-books surpass the sales of paperbacks. very sad...I weep for humanity.

People who know me will attest I am not all an alarmist, that I am not given to hysterical and irrational rantings and ravings, that I am not some wild-eyed Luddite throwing my sabot into the delicate machinery of modern society, that I am not some cultural curmudgeon who claims that all change is bad...nor am I some crazy prophet of doom crying that the end is near!
On the other hand, the end might be closer than we think...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Doctor, my son swallowed a set of encyclopedias!"

Most kids these days are not exposed to books the way they used to be. This fact was driven home some years ago when the Kidette was in elementary school, and the instructor was teaching the class the concept of estimating. She asked the moppets to estimate (not count) the number of books and magazines found in the home -- though estimating is best for large figures, she probably wanted to keep the numbers reasonable. Her answers ranged from zero to around fifty; the Kidette, however, first gave her an estimate of 20,000, then changed it to 30,000 when she considered her mother's contribution to hyper-literacy. It came up at the parent-teacher conference and while she had not wanted to embarrass the Kidette at the time she was quite curious as to what the real number might be. We told her 30,000 seemed a little low, but it was not a bad estimate for a third grader. Fifty?!? Give me a break...we have more dictionaries that that, not to mention encyclopedias.

Well, none of the kids did mention encyclopedias, and probably for good reason -- who has them anymore? Today's cyber-zombies may ramble through Wikipedia now and then, when not playing Angry Birds or World of Warcraft, but I really doubt many have spent any quality time with a real set of encyclopedias; one thing I do know -- not one would consider a volume from any encyclopedia set as recreational reading: as far as I'm concerned, just more proof that civilization is doomed.

Whenever I would embarrass my mother by showing off in front of friends and family, which was quite often, she would frequently resort to the old excuse: "You'll have to forgive my son -- he swallowed a set of encyclopedias." She would sometimes add: "And he's a smart Alec."...though sometimes it wasn't "Alec." The latter was true enough, but the former statement was exaggeration and hyperbole. No one can possibly swallow a set of encyclopedias; a dictionary, yeah, but not encyclopedias. But I did have a set of encyclopedias, I read them like other people read short story anthologies, and I must admit some of the information was just so darn interesting that  it would have been almost criminal not to share it with friends and family...often...and loudly...when the adults were just prattling on about nothing in particular. Actually, when I think about it, it's really amazing my parents didn't move to another city after sending me to the store on an errand, though they did change the locks a couple of times.

The encyclopedia in question, my first set but certainly not my last, was The Golden Book Encyclopedia, published by Western Printing and Lithography Company. Back in those halcyon days of black & white television, before Bill Gates invented the computer and Al Gore the Internet (or Global Warming), the epitome of learning was an up-to-date encyclopedia, and the best for kids, with its clearly written articles and fantastic illustrations, was the Golden Book. I found out later that most kids (60+ million of us) got their sets at the supermarket, one or two volumes at a time. Mine, however, came complete out of the new freezer my parents bought, along with a globe of the Earth. I was not too sure where babies came from, but I surely knew where encyclopedias -- and globes -- came from. I did learn eventually the truth about the publishing industry from my Golden Books, but I had to wait for a less innocent time to learn about that baby thing.

I learned a ton of stuff from the Golden Books, starting with the great covers, which depicted many of the volume's subjects in a photorealistic manner, and it was something of a game, flipping from article to cover and back. With the actual books, it was an easy matter to browse about as one article piqued my interest about subjects in other volumes. You might argue that "browsing" is an even easier task in Wikipedia with all its hyperlinks and clickable websites, but can you read Wikipedia under the covers with a flashlight? No, I thought not, but it was a good try (almost) on your part.

At one time, men with strong arms could make a good living selling encyclopedias door to door, but that was also when someone was home during the day, usually the Mom but not always. And in at least one case I know of, buying a set of encyclopedias could get you more than just an annoying show-off of a Spring Valley, just east of National City, there was a time when, if you did fall for the sales pitch, in addition to the set (alas, it was not Golden Book), you also got a plot of land upon which to build your dream house, white picket fence optional. Today, that piece of California real estate is known, quite inappropriately, as Dictionary Hill.

I'll be the first one to admit that kids today have more sources of knowledge and information than even the most rabid futurist of my time ever dreamed of or hoped for. Within minutes, protesters killed in Syria can be seen on YouTube; seconds after an earthquake struck the Eastern Seaboard, we knew where it had happened, how deep it was and how strong...not to mention seeing the barn near the epicenter on Google Earth using latitude/longitude coordinates from the USGS; and on webcams we could watch the scurrying lunchtime crowds in Washington DC.

But, at the same time there's so much information, too much information. And what's the point of it, the value of it? I think that's what has really changed, more drastic than the actual disappearance of encyclopedias from the American home -- the devaluation of knowledge. When a good set of encyclopedias was the apex of generalized self-learning, that information was valuable, and not just so you could be a show-off, but so you could excel in scholarship. Knowledge may still be power, but not like it was then, in the same way that a hundred-thousand dollars then could buy much more than a million now.

Don't look for encyclopedias to make a come-back any time soon. You'll see the rebirth of Disco, leisure suits and vinyl before you'll ever see another quality encyclopedia set published for home use -- no one would buy it, no matter how economical. Well, I would, because even today, with all your electronic gimcracks and gewgaws, every home still needs an encyclopedia. And don't ask about the sets I have -- they are not for sale. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kadath or Bust!

Some years ago, I presented an academic paper about the various ways in which the stories and short novels of fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) were interpreted in comic books and graphic novels, a project which resulted in the book H.P. Lovecraft in the Comics. The book received good reviews at the time, sold out quickly, and is now, unfortunately, out of print.

What I was searching for was the perfect graphic adaptation of a Lovecraft story, and to tell you the truth, I did not have high hopes. As a fellow bookaholic, you know exactly what I mean -- you read a novel, you see a film made from the novel, then go back to re-read the novel trying to wash the disappointment of the film from your mind. In other words, the book is always better, and I mean always. Well, nearly always. Ah, sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes, there are exceptions to that ironclad rule. We all have at least one film that in one way or another did not trash the book, a very personal choice. I had the same experience with comic books; after going through comic after comic purporting fidelity to Lovecraft, his plots and his philosophies, I finally came across a comic that was spot-on in every respect: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by Jason B. Thompson.

The epic quest of Randolph Carter for the lost city of his dreams was depicted in a mini-series of five comics, published by Jason's Mockman Press. The artwork, though in black and white, was dazzling in both its execution and its detail. It was quite possible to gaze upon a scene in a waterfront tavern or one set aboard a pirate galley and never quite penetrate all the levels of dimension or depiction; there was always some detail which existed at the periphery of  mind or memory. Anyone who had never read Lovecraft's great masterpiece would be motivated to do so; anyone coming from the novel to the comic would not be disappointed.

While some readers did complain about the "Mockman," the dream avatar of the Lovecraftian character dreaming in our workaday world, I found him to be an apt representation. The essence of Randolph Carter is the complexity and solidity of his dreamscape, and those attributes are vividly reinforced by the surreal and stylized figure of the "Mockman" running around the esoteric Dreamlands in his nightshirt. However we see ourselves in our own dreams, it is certainly not as we are, and Randolph Carter is no different.

I was fortunate to meet Jason Thompson at the conference, surprised actually, probably more surprised than he was when he suddenly heard his own creation being touted by some geeky stranger as being the perfect embodiment of a graphic Lovecraft interpretation. Before Jason introduced himself to me, I really had not connected human artists and writers to the comic books I had evaluated for my project; in fact I had purposely blocked any connection in my mind, even going as far to turn down a chance to discuss some adaptations with the artist who had produced them. I did not want to "contaminate" my analysis of the work by meeting or corresponding with any of the subjects. I wanted my evaluation to be as "pure" as possible, consisting solely of the original Lovecraft story and the comic as a solitary object; often, I went through the story line by line, paragraph by paragraph, comparing the printed words, the prose descriptions on a frame-by-frame basis.

Of course, with the book completed, the paper presented and my brain frazzled, I felt it was completely safe to meet Jason and listen to him tell how he produced such a masterpiece. I think it was then, as he told me about the process of reading, sketching, planning, drawing, inking and laying out the panels, that I began to understand and appreciate all the work, inspiration, planning and determination that goes into bringing the imagination of the printed word into the graphic realm. I almost felt as if I might have been a little too tough on the artists, a little too judgmental. Almost. No, if you (as artists) want to play with a writer's toys, especially an iconic writer like H.P. Lovecraft, you had better be up to the task. No mercy from this reviewer. Fortunately Jason was up to the task, in spades.

The reason this comes to my mind now is because of an odd series of events. Every once in awhile I find myself re-reading Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which invariably leads me back to Jason's wonderful interpretation. This time, I had come across the novella in Damon Knight's 1973 anthology, The Golden Road. After reading the story, after reading the comics, I suddenly received a long note from Jason through my Facebook page, telling me of his latest project, asking for permission to use some quotes from my book on his "Kickstarter" page, through which he is trying to garner financial support. As if he needed permission! But I did appreciate his asking. It represented a level of respect and civility usually absent in today's world. I am very excited about Jason's latest Lovecraftian-related project, and if you are a fan of Lovecraft or the graphic arts I think you will be as well. If nothing else, please listen to Jason Thomson as explains his project, then make your own decision.