Monday, July 22, 2013

3-Minute Joking

Part of me is disappointed in Gary Raymond’s “unauthorized biography” 3-Minute JRR Tolkien. As of this writing (and I will update this as I go along) I’m about halfway through, and frankly wonder why Raymond bothered.

I’m guessing his target audience isn’t the die-hard Tolkien fan because none of them would think much of this book (though, as a semi-professional fan, I do commend its collection of Tolkien, Hobbit, and LOTR-related illustrations and photographs up until Peter Jackson’s movies are mentioned, though I’m curious to know why much of the art and photographs go unannotated, offering no clues to their origin or significance). Of particular uselessness to Tolkien die-hards are Raymond’s plot summaries of The Hobbit as well as The Lord of the Rings.
So the audience is the Tolkien virgin, those looking for a compendium of Tolkiengalia in order to form the basest of understandings of what the hell their obsessed friends are talking about. But even at that, this book fails – Tolkein’s Wikipedia article has more breadth and depth as an autobiography as this collection possesses.
Even John Howe’s introduction to the book is patently useless, as he drones on about how myths are central to our being as humans except that we don’t tell myths any more, blah blah blah which is, of course, the Big Lie in Tolkien fandom – there is plenty of myth-making and myth-telling in literature, movie-making, and general story-telling beyond the Time of Tolkien, they just choose to turn their toffee noses up at it in order to hold their lord of the rings up on that highest rung. (I will concede Tolkien has no equal in creating his mythological backstory, but to claim modern myth-making as Tolkien’s sovereign territory is unquestionably false.)
Raymond seems to think presenting this basic information in a way in which it is digestible and cross-linked and easily ponderable is more important than the information presented. In his own introduction 9under the heading “Instant Expert,” he writes:
The structure of the book means that each of the three chapters will take about an hour to digest and that the whole book will furnish you with a solid understanding of the life history, literary highlights, and important of JRR Tolkien in about three hours. In addition to all that, each chapter concludes with a timeline and glossary to help you keep your thoughts in order. You’ll have to read Tolkien’s own works to fully appreciate and enjoy his genius, but this is the quickest way to discover the man behind the magic and the real-world experiences that helped shape the most fully realized fantasy landscape in literature.
In other words, go read the books. But buy this one, because, well, it’ll give you all that. It’ll look good on the shelf. And won’t impress your Tolkien-soaked friends one bit, since they’ve watched the DVD extras on Peter Jackson’s films, which offer a lot more information than this book does, and know the related Wikipedia entries by heart. (Side note: The book’s British publisher, Ivy Press, seems to make a go at producing such 3-minute biographies (they’ve done Stephen Hawking, for example).  A tell-tale tell of the weight of these books: “Each topic divided into 3-minute bites that you can absorb almost without pausing for thought” in the description of the Hawking book. NOT a good sign, folks. (Neither is the appellation of “instant expert.” I learned time and again as a journalist that the line between instant expert and instant asshole is razor thin.)
But is this a book? It’s odd in that in some ways this biography resembles an HTML page, with odd snatches of text bolded as if they were meant to be hyperlinks. I keep wanting to click on them, for example, to see what the author’s own worries had to do with crafting of The Hobbit. But, alas, the page is dead. Raymond does cross reference this biography lightly, on each page offering us related thoughts if we want to pursue banal previous or future sections of the book as we read the banal page we’re on now.
This book is likely doomed to the same fate of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” of which Lewis himself said is the kind of book that gravitates to guest bedrooms or ends up being read because of the three or so “scholarly” works offered to reading circles, it’s the shortest. It reads, frankly, like one of the papers offered in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota’s Thanatopsis Club in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (more on this particular Lewis later). Lewis mocked the intellectual shallowness of GP’s leading citizens in seeking out the birth and death dates of famous writers, covering all of English poetry, say, in one day, and leaving feeling educated about them.
I do concede I have learned one new thing by reading this book – that Tolkien found some inspiration in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt in naming the Hobbits, and that many professional English-language babblers have made much hay of that connection since. But otherwise this book as a biography and as a collection of Tolkien tokens is a disappointment.

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