So I’m reading Jo Walton’s Among Others. It’s a 2012 Hugo nominee, but it wasn’t yet when I picked it up by chance, and I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read Walton before, so when I cracked the spine—oblivious to the nomination—I had the unexpected shock of discovery that I used to have a lot when I was kid, but that I don’t have so much anymore: This is beautiful and true. Keats’ pronouncement that beauty is truth, truth beauty, seems apropos, though I wonder if he meant or understood that true things are often ugly and painful and that they too are beautiful.
Jo Walton certainly understands it. Her heroine, the fifteen-year-old Mor, has been crippled in the same event—still mysterious at this point—that killed her twin sister, she’s marooned at an exclusive girls school by an alcoholic father, and her mother may or may not be trying to murder her from afar—may or may not being the key word, for the book, as far as I’ve read (I’m three quarters of the way through) mostly bestrides a line of ambiguity that’s hard to march. Mor may or may not be able to see fairies, she may or may not be doing magic, her three weird aunts may or may not be witches with malign intent: or it could just be that the poor child’s head has been turned by trauma and pain and reading.
Yes, reading. Among Others is a book about, among many other things, the power of books—especially, though not exclusively, the fantasy and science fiction novels of the seventies and early eighties. For Mor, crippled and lonely and precocious, is also an omnivorous reader. She doesn’t much care what she reads—she’s as likely to show up with a Piers Anthony book in hand as with a Samuel Delany novel—but she’s smart enough to understand that Anthony isn’t much good at all (“they are crap really,” she says) while Delany is better than good, and to distinguish the two Silverbergs: the pulp hack and the genius who wrote Dying Inside and Nightwings. Her favorite collection of stories is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, so you can’t say she doesn’t have taste.
Fair warning: part of my love for the novel may be rooted in my own bibliomanic nostalgia—I devoured Silverberg in both of his modes, and like Mor, I more than once found refuge in Middle Earth. Yet I think it goes beyond that to a larger truth. Books save lives. Literally. When I was Mor’s age—at almost exactly the same time Mor was Mor’s age, another reason, perhaps that the novel speaks so deeply to me—I was a bright, scrawny child with thick plastic-rimmed glasses and a fair case of acne, unliked by my peers and uncomfortable in my own skin.
I was also a bully magnet, and remained one throughout college, a perilous time when, if I wasn’t being beaten I was being intimidated by the prospect of a beating. These are painful times to recall, even now. I can remember the humiliation of searching every day for someone to sit with at lunch and the sense of betrayal I felt when my best friend wouldn’t talk to me at school for fear of catching my social disease. I can remember crouching in a circle of jeering teenagers as I tried to gather up my books, only to have them knocked from my arms again. I am probably the only person on earth who can claim the distinction of being beaten in the halls of Princeton High School—once so badly that I required surgery to put my mouth back together—and in the streets of Oxford, on only my second night in the country no less. “You’re in my town now,” said the cop who broke that one up, as though he’d had to pull me off the other guy instead of vice versa, and so went my anglophilia in the space of a single short sentence. As for girls—well, forget that.
But I always had books. I had the stacks of the Princeton City Library, where I usually ran—literally ran—the minute the last bell rang, and raided the shelves for Asimov and Anderson, Benford and Bradbury, Michael Bishop and Robert Heinlein. (I learned that librarians could be bullies too when I was forced to read a passage aloud, while others waited behind me, before I was permitted to check out a book.) I remember still the first shipment I received from the Science Fiction Book Club. And how I used to wake up with anticipation on Saturday mornings when my sister, coming home from a date, would sometimes stop at the drug store to pick up the most recent Analog for me, where I might find a new novella by Gordon R. Dickson or Timothy Zahn. The best Christmas present I ever received—second to the manual typewriter I got in seventh grade (I was the only boy in my typing class)—was a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I’ve subscribed on and off for most of the three decades since.
Books were a life-line for me, a place of refuge. They empowered me in ways I could not otherwise be empowered, if only vicariously, through the exploits of Strider and Gandalf and a dozen others. Mass-market paperbacks and cheap SFBC hardcovers lined the shelves of my bedroom—another refuge. Today many of the same books line the shelves of the room where I write. I became the sort of person—and still am—who buys the nice trade paperback re-releases of those old books today, and shelves them in the same room, because my old copies are too fragile to risk and who knows, the day may come when I want to re-read The Man in the High Castle.
Today, much has changed. I’m not as scrawny. I’ve gotten contacts. The bullying is a thing of the past. I have a lovely wife and a beautiful child. But one thing hasn’t changed: my love of the books of my youth, my love of the books yet to come, the way they provide refuge for me in moments of stress or sadness or loss. I rarely watch television or movies these days —Game of Thrones is the only regular program I tune in to see and I hit the theaters only four or five times a year—but I never go anywhere without a book. I’d like to thank Jo Walton for reminding me why.