It’s safe to say that Harry Potter blazed many paths. It brought life to a dying publishing industry, it launched the young adult and children’s genres into the mainstream, and it gave adults and children alike an outlet for their imaginations. But perhaps most importantly, it spawned one of the most important debates of our era: which Hogwarts house is best? (It’s Ravenclaw)
Being sorted into a Hogwarts house is both a serious privilege and a touchstone of identity for characters in the series and readers alike. Take the traditional Gryffindor pride shared by the Weasley clan, or Harry’s fear of ending up in Slytherin. As any Potter reader would know, this enthusiasm doesn’t just stay in the pages. If you haven’t deliberated seriously over which house you belong in, are you even a real fan?
Later young adult books have tried to capitalize on this notion of self-identification by means of community, but none of them have been as popular or long-lasting as the Hogwarts houses. For The Hunger Games, it’s a matter of choosing one’s district, which differ in terms of main exports and class distinctions. For Divergent, you choose one of five factions, each placing priority on a different personality trait. But being part of one of the four Hogwarts houses goes beyond these other choices. Choose your Hogwarts house, and you will be part of a lifelong community that shares your values and ambitions.
The introduction of Pottermore made this choice a reality, as readers could take an official online test that would sort them into their house. But wait—there’s more! Did you think that the customization of your wizard identity starts and ends with your Hogwarts house? Pottermore also offers the chance to get your wand (which, remember, chooses you), featuring different lengths, woods, and cores that vary in accordance with your personality. Then you can take the test to find your Patronus—your magical guardian, able to be summoned at will, representing you in animal form (good luck not getting a wild boar… not that it’s supposedly my Patronus or anything). Then, finally, head on over to Ilvermorny, the USA’s own wizarding academy, to be ceremonially sorted once more.
After taking all these tests, based on your favourite book series and developed by the brilliant J.K. Rowling herself, you may feel slighted by the results. Perhaps you’ve considered yourself a Ravenclaw your entire life and have now been declared a Hufflepuff. Maybe your Patronus ended up being a wild boar (I am, ahem, not speaking out of personal experience for either of these things). Don’t throw out your prized Ravenclaw scarf just yet—you may be curious to know what your sorting reveals about you.
A recent study using 132 Pottermore test-takers has shown that what house you prefer reflects your real personality. Those who choose Slytherin, for example, are more likely to exhibit narcissism, while those who prefer Ravenclaw display a higher need for cognition. Hufflepuffs are found to be more agreeable, and Gryffindors are the most extroverted. For this study, the chosen house aligned with the candidates’ inner selves more so than what the digital Sorting Hat said.
Unhappy with the results of your sorting test? Rest easy knowing that the house you belong in is the one you want the most. As Dumbledore said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was a great man. A champion of wizard and muggle rights, defender of the innocent, genius, scholar, warrior, philosopher, and general. Founder of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore single-handedly stopped the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s reign of terror, kept the dangerous Elder Wand safe from those who would abuse its power, and waged two wars against the Dark Lord Voldemort (yeah, I can say his name) over a period of twenty years, even giving his life in order to stop the darkness.
Dumbledore’s life stood for kindness and compassion for others, and the value and power of love. I love him and I will challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel. And yet… how well suited was Dumbledore to be the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
Here, to the detriment of my own soul, I admit that as great a man as Dumbledore undoubtedly was, he wasn’t a very good headmaster.
Let us start with the dangers that Dumbledore allowed into his school. Does everyone remember in The Philosopher’s Stone when three eleven year old children stumbled into a room that held a gigantic, vicious three-headed dog? I sure do, that book was great. But you might be shouting, “Fluffy and the other traps were there to protect the philosophers stone you moron!”. And yes, I know this.
It was a very decent thing of Professor Dumbledore to do, to keep safe the most important possession of a dear friend against the forces of evil. But…why exactly did Dumbledore decide to do this in a school? Yeah sure, he mentioned at the feast that year that the third floor was out of bounds to any who didn’t want to suffer a horrible death. This is a school full of children! It was wildly inappropriate for Dumbledore to hide the philosopher’s stone inside of the school where his priority should be the children. Yes, he had the best intentions, but he still endangered the lives of his students in order to prevent the return of Lord Voldemort.
Also, speaking of monsters, remember how there was a giant child-killing snake hiding in the Hogwarts castle? The first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Dumbledore was a professor! A child was killed, and that was absolutely out of his hands. But later, once the attacks stopped, Dumbledore just kind of went, “Well, I know there is a child-killing monster somewhere in this castle. Neat.” and he did nothing about it! There is no evidence that in the fifty years between the times the chamber was opened that Albus ever so much as peeked under a bed to try and look for it.
Now we must come to Dumbledore’s teaching practices. Professor Quirrell can be excused, as he was hired before supergluing the Dark Lord to his head. I will also fight anyone who says it was inappropriate to hire Remus Lupin. Even Hagrid I would say was a perfectly decent choice for the Magical Creature’s professor, although some limits as to what he was allowed to teach at what level (and what he was allowed to breed) should have been firmly put in place before Hagrid accepted the job.
So this leaves us with six teachers we know were hired by Albus Dumbledore during his tenure as headmaster of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, Firenze, Mad-Eye Moody, and Horace Slughorn.
The most obvious and insane mistake of Dumbledore’s hirings: Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart, who is a barely-competent wizard, a selfish fraud, and a charlatan, is hired by Albus Dumbledore, a man adept in seeing through people, has the power to read minds, and hopefully the ability to check references. What on earth prompted Dumbledore to hire a man who is so obviously incompetent that a bunch of twelve year olds figured it out after a couple weeks of lessons? Really, there are only two possible explanations.
He did it because it was funny. Yes, Albus has a great sense of humour. No, it should not be at the cost of the education of the youth under his care. Or…
Dumbledore thought Lockhart was very pretty, and so hired him on the basis of how pretty he was. This is horrible and his students suffered as a result, though admittedly, since I too am hoping to get by in life by being so very pretty, it does give me hope for my future.
Sybil Trelawney is a true psychic. Indeed, it was her prophecy which caused the deaths of James and Lily Potter, and ensured that their son Harry would be the one to bring about the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Knowing her importance, Dumbledore agreed to hire her as the divination professor in order to keep her safe from Voldemort’s forces.
But just to be clear, so far as Dumbledore is aware, Trelawney has only ever made one real prophecy in her life. Albus believes that the rest of the time, Trelawney is a fake. He does not hire her to teach his students, he hires her as a chess piece in his war against Voldemort. An asset in a supernatural war is really not a good reason to hire a bad educator.
Now how about Mad-Eye Moody, eh? Yes, I know Moody himself never got a chance to teach since he had been secretly replaced a Death Eater. That wasn’t the real Mad-Eye. But we still meet the real Mad-Eye Moody in later books. We get to see how paranoid, abrupt, and extreme he is. This is a man with intense PTSD from his time as an officer of the law. He is brilliant, but he is also prone to violence, shouting, and telling people that someone is going to come and try to kill them at any moment.
Albus Dumbledore thought it would be cool to put this man in charge of eleven year old children. Maybe I’m being judgmental here, and it could have turned out that if given the chance, Mad-Eye would have been a great teacher and had hidden talents in working with youth.
But I don’t think so.
And finally: Snape and Slughorn.
Slughorn is a more than competent potions master. He is perfectly capable to do the job he has been hired to do and, creepily making students join his pseudo-cult aside, he seems like a good teacher. But this is not why Dumbledore hires Slughorn. Slughorn is actually hired so that Dumbledore can have Harry Potter extract a memory from the old professor, so that Albus may confirm his theory on Voldemort’s seven horcruxes. Slughorn is hired so that Albus can continue the fight against Voldemort. It had nothing to do with his teaching ability.
And finally, Snape. Snape, who is Dumbledore’s valued spy. Snape, who Dumbledore entrusts with both his life and his death. Snape, who brutally tortures the child of the woman he loved, just because she didn’t love him back. Snape, who was biased in the classroom, cruel, and abusive. Snape, who made thirteen year old Neville Longbottom more afraid of his teacher than anything else in the universe.
I understand that Snape was ultimately not the villain he pretended to be. Snape did what he needed to do on Dumbledore’s orders. He was an excellent spy and soldier. But he was a terrible teacher. Maybe Harry could forgive Snape for his treatment of children, but I can’t. Dumbledore brought Snape to Hogwarts to fight a war against evil, and they won. But he did so at the cost of allowing a teacher to bully his students until they trembled when he approached.
I will never forgive Snape for being the thing that the Bogart became at the sight of Neville.
If there is an underlying theme of my criticism of the headmaster, I think it is that Dumbledore often put his fight against evil over the safety and education of his students. Yes, he did the right thing, he stopped a terrible dark wizard from destroying his people. Albus worked as hard as he could, and saved as many as he could. But really, did he do so as a teacher? No. Many of his hiring practices were to do with fighting evil, which was good for the fight, but bad for the school.
Dumbledore might have turned down the position of Minister of Magic, believing he could not be trusted with power. But really, it might not have been a bad idea to go and run the war from the Ministry instead of the school. If anything else, he could have at least found a place for that giant three-headed dog where an eleven year old girl couldn’t break the lock.
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Great man. Lousy school administrator.
Tom Marvelo Riddle is a great anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort”.
In English, that is.
I often get surprised looks from people when I tell them that I absolutely cannot watch the Disney animated version of Robin Hood in English. It simply doesn’t feel right to me. Growing up with a particular version, with a specific cast of voice actors, my mind refuses to process anything different.
Even now that I am grown up, the original English versions of movies are still not dominant in my life. For instance, I will happily sing “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled in Russian, and with the exception of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I haven’t seen any of the Marvel movies in English.
A topic that is particularly valid throughout the realm of speculative work is a question of whether or not translation is even a possibility. And if it is, then how much of the original meaning and “cleverness” value is maintained in the translation?
For example, many jokes cannot be translated literally language-to-language. Sometimes the wordplay is unique to a text’s mother tongue, other times the difficulty is in a culture gap. I didn’t realize just how interesting the issue was until I tried having a conversation about Harry Potter with some students at a coffee shop, and discovered I was at an impasse.
The world of Harry Potter is known for its use of made up concepts and new terms that rely frequently both on wordplay and a degree of linguistic understanding. In the case of the term “Horcrux”, I spent a long time explaining what I was talking about to people because the term that I was using, “Крестраж” (“Krestraz”), bears no similarity to the original. Here, the translators had to be creative, although another alternative was to simply take the English term and create an Anglicized term that could be written in Cyrillic.
Other translators rely on the denotation of the words themselves to find a more-or-less fitting equivalent. Terms such as “Howler” become “Громовещатель” (“Gromoveschatel”, literally “loud-proclaimer”), and “Sneakoscope” become “Вредноскоп” (“Vrednoskop”, literally Nastyscope).
With other words, creativity and wordplay was necessary. One of my particular favourites is the translation for “O.W.L.S.”, which becomes the Russian word for “owl”, “сова”, or “S.O.V.” in a literal English equivalent. The best part is that it can also be deconstructed as an acronym, translating as the “Standards of Learning Magic” with the Russian acronym.
Another interesting one is the Mirror of Erised. The Russian translation uses the same trick and takes the word for desire “Желание” (“Zhelaniye”) and inverts it to make “Еиналеж”. Other terms, like “Ravenclaw” or “muggle”, resort to a mixture of these strategies.
The Harry Potter example is relatively simple, however, if you look at the much more extreme side of the spectrum. Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem “Jabberwocky” is a common example in linguistic and cultural anthropology courses when discussing the abstractness of English. Since the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” makes little sense in our literal understanding, it’s really a free-for-all in the realm of translations. The question here becomes whether translation is beneficial or detrimental to the speculative genre, and how one should approach it.
Fluency is not an ability that everyone possesses, and there is certainly something special about reading a literary work or watching a movie in its original language. But the fact that a massive studio like Disney has separate divisions in numerous countries should be an indicator of how drastically the area of translation has evolved. They show that a lot of effort is put into preserving some of the initial emotional sense of a term or phrase. Moreover, often there are humorous little rhymes and anecdotes that sound much better in the translated version than they do in the original.
There is no right or wrong in this case, as some of the explanation lies in the nature of languages themselves. One language may have a more diverse range of colour terminology, for instance, while another may have adjectives that are used to convey sounds, textures, and other minute details that another culture may not pay attention to. There is one certainty however: being able to watch or read something in two or more languages certainly makes one more receptive and open-minded to these nuances. It creates the realization that there must be something brilliant and wonderful in the work itself if so many cultures are trying to find ways to say it.
Are you looking for great new music for your study time, work time, or downtime? Well, here is a suggestion: look to the speculative. Speculative fiction has entertained you with books, stories, comics, and movies, and now it can be used for all your music-listening needs. All of the amazing films that you have admired for years and those that have just recently come to the big screen have a soundtrack. Even the movies that have never piqued your interest or given you goosebumps may have something to offer. Some may ask, “What is a soundtrack without its visual counterpart?” Well, as many probably already realize, a film’s soundtrack is part of what makes it iconic. When people think of Harry Potter, it’s very likely that one of the first things that comes to mind is the haunting melody of the theme song—also known as Hedwig’s Theme—by the sensational John Williams. Pieces of music such as this and many other magical movie tunes and ballads have become representative of people’s experiences, life stages, and love for film.
While soundtracks can be intimately connected to their movie origins, they can also have a separate, special existence, appreciated for their own unique beauty and emotion. So go ahead and explore those dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic, and brave new world soundtracks from films old and new, but don’t limit yourself there. Search up the soundtracks for all your favourites, be they sci-fi, fantasy, drama, or documentary films. Are you into all-time classics? Then search up the “best soundtracks and movie themes of all time” and you are guaranteed a phenomenal musical experience, whether it’s the unbearably romantic Titanic tracks written by James Horner and performed by Celine Dion and Sissel (a Norwegian singer chosen for her emotive and powerful vocals); the chilling score of The Godfather composed by the incredible Nino Rota; or other award-winning scores such as those from The Gladiator by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, or Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. You may just discover a truckload of music you’ve always heard in the background while being occupied by the action happening on screen or while watching the end credits roll, but that you had never really listened to on its own. So why not turn it on at the park bench or while writing a paper at your desk? Who knows—maybe it will be the inspiration for your next masterpiece.
As for speculative films, the soundtracks not only contribute to the unforgettable action but also have the doubly difficult task of creating a completely alternative or futuristic feel for the audience. For non-speculative movie genres, filmmakers and composers can look to ancient or recent geographical, cultural, and historical details while constructing the desirable score. For thriller, horror, and crime movies, composers can employ psychologically and emotionally appropriate musical devices, but the composers for speculative films often have no such luxury. How does one score a world that does not yet exist, that hides under the surface, or that, as many stories try to show, does not really exist at all? While everything must, of course, be reflective of the past, the speculative must also encompass possibility and question the present. These scores must be both foreign and familiar, recognizable yet unique, futuristic but ordinary, both exciting and haunting. Not an easy feat for any composer, and so let’s give credit where credit is due.
Here are some speculative sounds you may already know:
Released in 2012, Cloud Atlas is a German-American film with an all-star cast that follows six different storylines through the perspective of a single reincarnation. It explores the connections between individuals and actions across time and space, starting in the 1800s, continuing through to the present era and even into the distant future. Beauty, violence, rebellion, and love are intertwined in this historic-futuristic narrative about the power of kindness and hope. From clones to cannibals, conspiracy to comedy, and a bright future to the apocalypse, this film is a medley of impressions with something for everyone. The original soundtrack, written by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil, successfully connects the events of several centuries and manages to unify the themes and emotions of each time and place. The main musical theme, “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” is a simple but haunting piano melody with a slightly melancholic and nostalgic sound and a hopeful resolution.
This classic 1982 cyberpunk film, set in the very near future (2019), deals with man’s unending quest to master cloning, and explores the dangers faced by humanity when this ambition goes terribly wrong. Police and clones face off in this complex action thriller, and the epic fight travels from Earth to space and back again. Life and love are overshadowed by moral darkness and the disturbing aspects of advancing technology. The original soundtrack by the masterful Greek composer Vangelis is the perfect complement to this futuristic masterpiece. Electronic, jazzy, and unusual, the tracks incorporate sounds and synthesizer effects to create a strange, foreboding, and eerie listening experience. The tracks “Love Theme” and “Memories of Green” provide a great contrast to the more techno pieces of the film, adding a calmer classical element.
The Hunger Games
Based on the dystopian series by Suzanne Collins, the Hunger Games films (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay: Part One) provide an action-packed representation of a disturbing future in the post-war North American country of Panem where, every year, two children from each of twelve districts are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the pampered Capitol folk and the government of Panem. The 2012 score for The Hunger Games was written by James Newton Howard, a composer also known for the great scores of The Dark Knight, Water for Elephants, Blood Diamond, and many more. The film’s music varies beautifully between grandiose choral segments, powerfully orchestrated themes, and catchy, single-instrument tunes, making it a perfect fit for both the action scenes and the heartbreaking emotional scenes. The soundtrack of the movie featured songs from more than fourteen artists including Birdy and Arcade Fire. Fun fact: Rue’s famous four-note whistle in the movie originated from the melody of composer Nino Rota’s “Love Theme,” from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo and Juliet.
Have any suggestions for life-changing movie scores? Comment away!
The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.
Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.
For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.
Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.
It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.
In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.
And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.
In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.
Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.
And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.
Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?
Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?
Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.
All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.
Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.
Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.
In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”
What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.
Giants. From the English fairytale “Jack and the Beanstalk” to the most recent iteration in the anime and manga Attack on Titan, giants are a well-established element of fantastical stories. However, as with all story elements, they are subject to evolution. Giants in some form or another had existed in folktales and stories well before Jack and his beans were conceptualized in the late 1790s. Greek folklore is thought to contain the first of the giants in its stories of Kronos and his cohort, who both gave birth to and terrorized the gods. Legends continued to spring up around the world, culminating in Ireland with the story of Fingal (or Fionn mac Cumhaill), who is the vertically-enhanced being responsible for the Giant’s Causeway. By then, giants were an integral part of European folklore, eventually coming to England with the well-known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In Jack’s story, the giants are a thinly-veiled metaphor that essentially admonishes people not to be little brats or else they’ll be stepped on. It is a cautionary tale used to remind children that the world is not a forgiving place. What better way to scare them than to tell them of huge humans, with human desires and emotions, but with devastating strength and a penchant for vendettas? This metaphor has been reused constantly across almost every tale involving giants since then, from Roald Dahl’s BFG to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. In both, the giants are, for all intents and purposes, just tremendously big people. Though perhaps not as lucid as Jack’s giants, they still demonstrate extremely human traits. These giants also have rather blatant similarities in the messages that they are attempting to convey. The world (giants) is big and scary, and if you aren’t nice to it, it won’t be nice to you. And it may even squash you anyway.
Along comes the twenty-first century, and, apparently, a new set of rules. The anime and manga, Attack on Titan, takes the giant and gives it an entirely new spin. The giant is still big. Still bad. Still very much set on stomping. However, any human emotion, desire, or purpose has been utterly erased. These giants exist for one purpose: slaughter.
This complete reversal of everything giants had been, stylistically, up to that point, brings with it an entirely new metaphor. “Jack and the Beanstalk”, BFG, Harry Potter, and Fingal’s stories had all been written with nineteenth and twentieth century criteria. The giants in those stories were created to underline the age-old ideas of what it means to be good. Thus, it was important to see some part of ourselves in the creatures intended to be the externalizations of our punishments should we fail to be good. Attack on Titan departs from this line of thought. Its giants are pure and animalistic. Gone is “eat your vegetables, dearies, or you’ll be pulverized”. These giants seem to have a much deeper, much darker purpose—one that would take volumes to analyze, but seems to boil down to this: climate change, wonky political systems, and “don’t nuke your neighbours”.
Every part of a story exists for a reason, and all parts are subject to revision as society and media changes. Whether it be to inspire kids to go to bed on time or to highlight the various fallacies of modern society, giants are one such part.
My Human Library: How I Started Reading My Friends
If I had a super power it would be the ability to read people like books. I mean, teleportation or shooting lasers from my eyes would definitely be fun for a while, but there’s something uniquely attractive to me about understanding the mechanics of being human. Strangers on the street are endlessly fascinating because they represent lifetimes that I will never know or appear in except for that brief moment when our times and spaces happen to intersect. This is a story about how I attempt to realize this odd little dream.
It began, as some things do, with an uneventful summer, a cute boy, and The Name of the Wind.
I happened upon The Name of the Wind, the fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss, during a slightly desperate attempt to seem casual on a pseudo first date. He was a twenty-one-year-old college dropout, a free and easy spirit with a slight Punk Rock aesthetic—making him insurmountably incomprehensible to me with my high-strung, college freshman anxiety. I quickly scanned the first few pages, picking up some key words and phrases, and cobbled together more enthusiastic praise for the book than I had felt at the time. His ecstatic reaction, however, registered in my slowly pooling grey matter as solid conversational ground to stand on. He felt a strong connection to this book, and had read it over a hundred times. I bought it soon after at a second-hand bookstore, but since I’m a procrastinator to the core, my copy remained untouched for the rest of the summer.
When I finally picked up the book in a fit of nostalgia a few months later, it completely won me over. But, more than that, reading the novel felt… weirdly familiar. You know how after a while a couple starts to resemble each other? I thought something similar had happened to that boy with the book… Except I don’t just mean a resemblance to the protagonist (though I could definitely see where he had adopted Kvothe’s characteristics). The sense of similarity ran deeper, permeating the prose and the style of the narrative. It was like, all at once, I had a much deeper understanding of who he was, like I was reading his life story as opposed to that of a fictional character.
In a way I suppose, this is makes sense, since the stories of our lives shape the people we become. And what are the books we have read and loved but another memory, another story of our lives, as much a part of us as the stories of our first day at school or our past relationships? When we truly immerse ourselves in fiction, we live the events of the story as if they were happening to us. The suspense, the heartbreak, the happiness, the love—they are as real to us as our own uncertain existence.
I recently came across an article in the Boston Globe titled Why Fiction is Good for You. I’ll summarize the important bits: basically, we allow ourselves a vulnerability when reading fiction that we don’t permit with non-fiction. We view news or history or politics with a critical eye that the blatant lies of fiction easily evade. “We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape”. We know through ample research that fiction affects our psychology, particularly the way in which we experience empathy toward other human beings. It stands to reason, therefore, that the books we choose to represent us are a record of our lives in development.
Over the past two years, I’ve been collecting and reading the stories in which my friends see themselves. Perhaps it’s a testament to the people I choose to associate with, but these books are consistently speculative fiction. One thing that surprised me, though, was the speed and conviction with which many people chose the book that I was to read them through. While in my experience the common bibliophile reacts with debilitating paralysis to the words “what is your favourite book”, as if the questioner was asking them to murder all but one of their children, it seems that they understood I was asking for something different. Not a judgement of merit, but a memory from their own lives. Some titles were old friends (The Hobbit, Harry Potter) and others were fascinating strangers (The Angel’s Game, Gormenghast). In every instance it allowed for unique insight into the lives of some incredible people I feel fortunate to know.