Back when I was a wee middle schooler, reading books was my THING. I did it constantly, often at the expense of pesky alternatives like “having a social life” or “participating in extracurricular activities.” But hey, knowledge is power, right? And if you needed any knowledge about young-adult fantasy or classic science-fiction, I was your guy.
Unfortunately, I had to stop being that guy once the pressures of high school and college filled my schedule with “commitments.” Now my regular reading for pleasure is confined to the summer months, when the sun is hot and the air-conditioning cool. This summer, I’ve found quite a bit of joy in getting back into the habit of reading a book regularly. I wish I had the time to keep up this habit all year-round, but it seems unlikely given the demands of my schedule. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to devour three excellent books so far, and hopefully a few more will follow in the weeks to come.
I started the summer reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. Ebert, perhaps the most beloved film critic of all time, is one of my idols. His dedication to the craft of film criticism even in the face of health challenges that prevented him from speaking and eating inspires me every time I think about it. His writing puts me to shame on a regular basis with its directness and perceptiveness. Ebert could communicate exactly what was on his mind better than almost any other writer I’ve encountered, and I hope that one day I will be able to claim a fraction of his skills as my own strengths.
His death in April crushed me because it meant that he wouldn’t be publishing new reviews on Thursday, as he had on almost every Thursday of my life, save when he was in surgery in the mid-2000s. Ebert had been a constant in the film world, and to lose him was to lose a vital piece of the movie lover’s experience. I wanted to learn more about Ebert beyond what I already knew from the often-autobiographical tone of his reviews, and who better to teach me about his unique life than Roger Ebert himself?
My favorite thing about Life Itself is that it lives up to its title. Ebert talks about movies, movie criticism, and movie culture, and several chapters are dedicated to detailing his experiences with particular Hollywood figures (Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Martin Scorsese), but this is not a book about Roger Ebert’s opinions. This is a book about everything else that Roger Ebert did and said and thought, and it’s a long book because Ebert did and said and thought quite a lot. In the first chapter, he writes that he has a unique ability to remember a great deal of detail about key events that happened in his life, and it’s easy to assume he’s bluffing until you read the book and realize that his memory is pretty much unparalleled. I came away from this book realizing that Ebert filled out every corner of his life with pleasure and sensation, through travel and friendships and romance and kindness.
At one point, Ebert writes that he tries to find a quiet spot in each place he visits that will remain consistent should he ever return to that city or country: a back room in a café, for instance. When Ebert visited France or England or Los Angeles or any number of other interesting places, he would find a way to personalize the experience so that he felt like he was a part of that place. This habit strikes me as a beautiful way to enhance life’s most overwhelming experiences by finding a place for solitude and internal reflection within each one. It’s moments like these that make Ebert’s book captivating whether you’re interested in his film criticism or simply want to read a book about a man who truly learned, beyond the cliché, to live his life to the fullest. Ebert’s reviews teach me to be a better writer. Life Itself teaches me to a better person.
For my first foray into fiction this summer, I chose a novel that I’d heard a lot about, especially in college: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Of course I’d heard a lot of hype about this book, amplified by the recent release of Chbosky’s well-received movie version (which I plan to watch soon), but I really didn’t know what to expect from the book itself. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book isn’t a vacuous, quirky teen romance du jour like I suspected it might be, but rather an observant coming-of-age novel about the perils (and pleasures) of being a naïve teenager and the torrent of emotion and confusion that surrounds the transition from immaturity into adolescence and then, all too quickly perhaps, to adulthood.
Did you know that this book was written in 1999? I certainly didn’t. I like that it was a period piece even then, though, set in the early ’90s. I also like the book’s structure: a series of letters written to the writer Charlie’s anonymous friend, often separated by weeks or months. Rather than following this story as it’s happening, we get Charlie’s version from his own mind, which lends the book a more distinct, idiosyncratic tone than a straightforward omniscient point-of-view might have. Chbosky nails Charlie’s voice, which is a mixture of wise-beyond-his-years and naive-despite-his-years.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has some of the trappings of convention, but it’s not beholden to them in the way that lazier novels of this type can be. Yes, Charlie falls in love with a pretty girl named Sam, but she’s neither a dutiful love interest nor an overly mature object. She’s a human being, her feelings are complicated, and her relationship with Charlie follows an unusual, though satisfying and believable, trajectory. Yes, there are references aplenty to hip(ster?) bands and youth pop culture, but filtered through Charlie’s point of view, we understand them as a part of his life, not a blatant attempt to draw interest with references to real-life figures.
More often than not, Perks eschews convention altogether. The ending is neither happy nor tragic. Charlie’s parents are both alive and well, despite the prevalence of stories about teenagers with one or both parents missing or divorced or dead or some combination of the three. Chbosky doesn’t shy away from drugs and sex, but he handles them in a way that reflects Charlie’s well-meaning if often confused perspective on such things. If I had to quibble with the novel, I’d say that I wasn’t completely sold on a rather melodramatic climactic twist that answers some lingering questions I wasn’t sure needed to be answered. But on the whole, The Perks of Being a Wallflower disarmed me.
Back in middle school, one genre in particular consistently captured my imagination. Let’s call this genre “Teenage Boy Finds a Link to a Magical World and Adventures Ensue.” Regardless of the complexities within, Harry Potter, Pendragon, Charlie Bone, Faerie Wars and many, many others fit this archetype. And I read them all, even the ones that, in retrospect, were derivative of their forebears at the expense of originality. Many of them are great books! But they often hit familiar notes.
At first, Time book critic Lev Grossman’s The Magicians appears to fit neatly into this formula, albeit with an adult sensibility. Quentin Coldwater, a junior in high school, finds himself transported to Brakebills, an elite institution dedicated to training people with magical tendencies to become great magicians who will serve the world in secret and hone their craft to maintain order for unsuspecting knaves like us.
The departures from formula quickly reveal themselves. For one, Quentin loves fantasy novels like the ones I read in middle school. Grossman has said in interviews that he always wondered why Harry Potter didn’t read fantasy novels as a young boy. Quentin, on the other hand, is obsessed with a series of novels about a magical realm called Fillory, which seems a far more exciting and comforting place than the harsh, confusing world to which he is confined.
The book also rushes through Quentin’s four years at Brakebills at a considerably faster rate than I expected. The book isn’t even half over and Quentin’s already graduating. Instead, Grossman explores what happens after the magical structure falls away and a magician is left to his own devices. The answer? Lots of debauchery, and a sense that life is passing by far too quickly. Eventually, Quentin and his friends stumble upon a gateway to worlds unknown. Could it be that Quentin’s childhood fantasy novels were closer to reality than he presumed? The answer isn’t simple, but it’s fascinating.
I admire that this book acknowledges the fantasy genre that served as inspiration without sacrificing adult themes, complicated ideas and challenging conclusions. Quentin’s journey doesn’t end in triumph, and the story’s message is far more surprising than “Good = good, evil = bad.” Grossman moves the story along at a brisk pace, and he doesn’t hesitate to dispense with several uneventful months of story in a few short paragraphs. His characters change substantially from beginning to end, making their journey one of self-discovery as much as heroism. Best of all, Grossman answered the tantalizing cliffhanger at the end with a sequel, The Magician King, that many people seem to feel surpasses the original. I’ll be cracking that one open soon enough.
Though summer seems to be speeding by at the speed of light, I’ve still got time to read a few more books before I have to return to textbooks and assigned readings. Next up: Ernest Cline’s pop-culture extravaganza Ready Player One, Brian Stelter’s real-life account of the recent drama at broadcast networks’ morning shows Top of the Morning, and more.
Have you read these books? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section.