I am not exactly a voracious book reader as a rule, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of it. There was a story in the NYT recently about how the Harry Potter books may not be the turn-on to children’s reading habits that they’re cracked up to be. (I haven’t read the books. I tried to start with the first one, but just couldn’t get into it.) The Ur-book(s) for many people is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I come from a different angle at the adventure-and-morality epic — my Ur-book was Watership Down, which is just one volume to get through. Maybe that’s why I have little patience for book series today. I wonder why authors can’t just write a story in one go and be done with it.
Nevertheless, I did get through the His Dark Materials trilogy this summer. (I cheated: I bought the audiobooks.) It’s a sinking feeling when you reasonably enjoyed the first two parts of a trilogy, and then you sense the author is going off the deep end of profundity, and yet you paid for the thing, so you have to finish it. (Pretentious pre-chapter quotations really come off poorly when you have to sit through an actor reading them.) I think the themes in this series are fascinating, but somehow the ending just doesn’t seem like much fun, even “serious” thoughtprovoking fun.
In addition to the other books I mentioned previously (Jared Diamond’s, and Joseph Tainter’s books on societies collapsing), I have been reading Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, an autobiography by a Yale professor named Kang Zhengguo. It is about a guy (him) who wouldn’t have fit in well in any society, much less repressive Maoist China, so it’s the story of how this misfit just keeps shooting himself in the foot over and over again and what happens to him. (Example: At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Zhivago becomes a super-denounced book for some reason, so this guy starts imagining how cool and interesting it would be to translate Dr. Zhivago into Chinese and he writes to Moscow asking them to send him a free copy. When he gets in deep trouble — by no means the first time he has gotten in deep trouble — he has no idea why.) I don’t think I would be so much of a misfit, but I am really glad I was not born in China.