A Quest Postponed. . . In Which I Reflect on the Changing Trajectory of My Reading Habits

I realize I initially Frankensteined together this blog as a tool with which to share my thoughts on Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time as I read it, but that task would be far easier if I had continued reading it at the freakish pace with which I approached the latter half of the first book, The Eye of the World. In the intervening period of time since I last blogged, I finished the first book in a mad dash (and read about 30 pages of the second novel, The Great Hunt, before setting it aside), and I can say with the utmost certainty I enjoyed The Eye of the World far more than I ever expected. I was correct in my preliminary estimation of the first book in that it was a pretty shameless clone of the story beats of the Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring at least), but I didn’t end up being remotely bothered by that once I was able to get past the huge chunks of info-dumping exposition in the first few chapters. And, to be honest, it felt pretty euphoric to abandon what limited infatuation with literate snobbishness I wore as a façade for much of high school and college. I felt free to read and guiltlessly enjoy trope heavy fantasy novels. It’s been a pattern which has been further solidifying over the course of the past couple of years, but I’m no longer hiding behind fantasy like it is some aberration or diversion from more serious works. I’m not reading solely fantasy; there are more traditionally “serious” works on my bookshelf as well. But I’m not trying to limit myself to things adored critically by the long arm of the organized cult of “literary” fiction (I say as a Literature minor).

I’ve mentioned in passing conversations with some of my friends the existential crisis I experienced after attempting to read Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Pygmy. To quote myself from elsewhere:

“Fight Club is the book I’d be most likely to reread. When I read it in high school, it was this explosive, revolutionary, dark, funny novel which appealed to me and really struck a chord. It was my bible. But the last time I tried to read a novel by him [Pygmy], I could see through the narrative, stylistic MacGuffin which made the structural and compositional flaws apparent. I was no longer caught up with the gimmick but bored by it, so I realized how little it contributed to the novel in saying something which really wasn’t that inflammatory. So, I’m wondering if Fight Club was lightning in a bottle for me. Did I just read it (and the other books by him I read around the same time) at precisely the right moment in time? Or would his work hold up to me now despite my knowledge of Palahniuk’s particular bag of tricks?

I have a much wider worldview now because I’ve just experienced more, so would I find his work as revelatory as it once was to me? Or would I see it for what it maybe always has been — a dry husk hiding behind novelty writing choices? I used to hold Palahniuk up alongside Vonnegut as one of my favorite writers; I know Vonnegut holds up for me, but I’m doubting Palahniuk would.”

I was required a pretty substantial amount of emotional release to admit this to myself. Realize how huge a shift this was for me. I attended a Chuck Palahniuk book signing at the age of 17. I essentially had to sneak in because the event was 18 and up only. At the time, this was one of the most exciting, stimulating events of my young life. I received a signed book, a signed signature hound, and a signed blow-up sex doll. And I was indescribably proud of these belongings (except for a single isolated incident in which it was revealed to a new girlfriend, without proper context, I owned a sex doll). If Chuck Palahniuk had offered to give me a chemical burn kiss (a la the scene from the novel and film Fight Club), I would have immediately agreed. I used to carry the rules of Fight Club on a business card in my wallet. I was obsessed with this man for reasons I couldn’t explain then and struggle further now to understand. In the way young people in the 60s were bonkers for The Beatles, I was gobsmacked for Chuck Palahniuk.

In some ways, I regret attempting to spread his work among my social contacts as if it was some sort of intellectual salvation. I was a missionary for Palahniuk’s works. I was a TV evangelist for Palahniuk’s work. I loudly proclaimed his divinity and spread his word with the gusto of a door-to-door faith slinger. I was spreading the blessed, Good Works of Palahniuk.

For me, it’s become more a slowly rotting infection than anything else. It became necessary to amputate the infected mass to save what was left of me.

I’ve grown out of many of the things I enjoyed when I was younger, and I’m realizing how ridiculous some of my pseudointellectual flights of spoken fantasy were in discussing some of the books I most enjoyed as a teenager. I’m prepared to admit to myself Chuck Palahniuk was really a one-trick pony, and Fight Club was a superficial, barely concealed, obvious commentary on precisely the sorts of topics (materialism, masculinity, fight-the-man-ness) which most appealed to me as a rebellious, angry teenager. But Palahniuk’s work lacks subtlety or depth. It’s exactly what it appears to be and nothing more. What I viewed as clever at the time was really just a result of my underdeveloped palate as a reader. I felt I was able to taste various flavors in his work, but he was often as full of bullshit as the things he claimed to be railing against in his novels. In retrospect, for me, Chuck Palahniuk is the Diet Coke of satire. Chuck Palahniuk is the Michael Bay of “literary” fiction. There’s enough glitter sprinkled on the finished result to almost distract from the festering mass growing and pulsating at the core.

There are still some books from high school which I enjoy. There are fewer yet which I can still say, with total sincerity, remain hugely influential in the way I currently live my life. Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the time was a huge deal for me; I still point to that book as the one which taught me to be discerning about where I gather information and to avoid putting faith in any single source. I approach information like a scientist or a historian now, mindful of bias (both mine and the source’s), as a result of reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. I learned compassion and understanding and empathy from Malcolm X’s autobiography more so than I have from any other book I’ve ever read. As the various philosophies I accept have shifted with time, it’s one of the few books which remains a concrete influence in my day-to-day interactions with people and the world around me.

In some ways, I am reading more on science and history of late (more so now than ever) as a result to better understand the world I live in, and I can trace that impulse back to Malcolm X’s autobiography. In recent months, I’ve read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I’m currently working on The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins and The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking. I have a long list of philosophers and scientists whose work I intend to read including individuals such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Carl Sagan. These are all things I would have avoided reading in high school because of an ingrained philosophical belief which encouraged me to avoid these sorts of texts. I had been brainwashed into avoiding topics I disagreed with, and I’m now finding I often get the most impact out of books which explore things with which I am unfamiliar.

It’s been a weird journey. Opening myself up to fantasy fiction allowed me to fall back in love with reading. Falling back in love with reading encouraged me to reevaluate what it was I loved about the books I used to champion. Questioning what I once championed forced me to confront ideas which I could no longer abide. Confronting ideas which were now irrelevant to me inspired me to read about scientific and historical topics I (as a result of a somewhat limited rural American education) had never really explored. Exploring new ideas sparked a renewed obsession with learning. Obsessing over learning and new information has brought me back around to pursuing “literary” fiction.

Except now I’m going to select works I know will challenge me rather than being content to read books other people have incorrectly categorized as challenging. Except now I will select things I know I will enjoy rather than allowing a reviewer’s words to contort the way I respond to a particular work. I don’t need the faux shock of Chuck Palahniuk anymore. I will not accept shock alone as a substitute for substance. I can pursue things like The Count of Monte Cristo (and eventually as much Dumas as I can possibly consume) or the various works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, or Vladimir Nabokov alongside works of fantasy and science fiction by Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter S. Beagle, Kameron Hurley, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin (among many many others).

I will read whatever I want. Because I want to. And not because someone else has said I should. And I will think what I want about the things I read. Not what another person has stated I should think about them.

(Though I’m still more than happy to accept book recommendations. I’m still going to read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Stephanie Proffer. I’m just going to take some time getting there because my to-read pile rivals the rapidly expanding reaches of a recently big-banged universe.)

And after all this, I haven’t even begun to address the cosmic shifts in the music I consume. But that’s a tale for another day.