Hiding in Westeros


I’ve been hiding in the warm safe comfortable womb that is Westeros for the past threeish weeks. Soon I will have to emerge… but not yet. I’ve almost reached the saturation point, via the books, TV series and (yes) board game (I was the Lannisters twice–thank God for my alliance with the Tyrells and the Greyjoys’ reluctance to attack, or else the Baratheons and Starks would have surely crushed me).

In terms of Nerdy Fandom, I rank myself a 2.5 out of 5, with 5+ being full-blown, Comic Con-attending and message board-arguing level of passion, and 1 being this guy. In contrast, I’ve read/skimmed the books, watched the show, and can talk about the series with energy and enthusiasm. However, don’t ask me to explain what’s going on in Dorne or the Iron Islands, or how many siblings Tywin has. I am pretty skimpy on what’s been going on in the North and with Dragon Lady as well. Since my sister is capable of doing all of these things and more (thus earning her the nickname of ‘Wikipedia’ from her boyfriend), I  hereby grant her with the prestigious level of 4 out of 5. Congrats, sis!!

I am not a fantasy/sci-fi person. It’s like I want to be… but I’m not. I’m not interested in going to Comic Con or writing fanfiction. I couldn’t get through ‘The Two Towers,’ and I didn’t like Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ (one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite books; go figure). I enjoyed Dune but am not interested in reading any of the sequels, haven’t read any of the Hitchhiker’s books since I was a youth, and somehow had the prescience to stay away from Wheel of Time (my older brother is still bitter about that debacle…). When it comes to fantastical literature (or whatever you want to call it), I guess I  like the books that tend to be more ‘literary’–the Philip K. Dicks, the Margaret Atwoods. And then there’s the books by folks like Ray Bradbury or Patrick Rothfuss, books that are  guilty pleasures for me, ones I read for pure escapism, when I just want to get out of my life and be transported, not think about anything else. And then there are the books that are absolute classics, the ones I’ll always feel nostalgic about–Ender’s Game and Watership Down. There’ll always be a part of me tempted to read (or at least skim) every book on this list. In the end, though, I haven’t drunk the Kool Aid. I am not a card-carrying member.

I am definitely saying this in a way that is sort of sad and regretful, rather than snarky. Being a truly committed nerd has always seemed sort of fun to me–there are worse things to do with one’s time, you know? It seems so fun from a distance, people who can just throw around phrases and references so effortlessly and knowingly: oh yeah, so how about those Martells? It’s like having a secret language, an intimate community to belong to. Ultimately, though, I guess there are just soooo many books in the world that I want to read, that at a certain point I have to draw the line.

That hasn’t been happening these past three weeks. The line has definitely been gone, erased, trampled underfoot and crushed in the mud by a ton of blood and swords and dragons and treachery and twincest and zomg, reading a fantasy series can really suck you in and take up a lot of your time. How did these books get to me, when other ones didn’t? What is it exactly about them?

First, I think there’s the visceral deliciousness of escapism. One of the best parts about reading  is when you are completely absorbed into the fictional world. You don’t need to think or worry or have to deal with anything else other than the words that are in front of you. It reminds me of the same feeling you get when you’re doing yoga, exercising or meditating. You’re not anywhere else. You’re in one place. And the great thing about reading fantasy, is that the  place where you are is Not Here. You are in a Different World. You are thus retreating from reality in the purest sense of the word. In terms of blissful escapism, I can definitely see how reading fantasy can turn into a crack pipe.

What’s good about escaping specifically into Westeros is that the level of detail that goes into the world-building is EXTREMELY complicated and dense and rich. If you’re going to read these books, you REALLY have to be paying attention and making sure you’re keeping track of who’s who. You gotta be mindful. It’s hard to be fretful or distracted by other things in your life when you’re trying to figure out who is it that Lancel Lannister is married to, again? And who the heck are the Hightowers? The Darrys?

The second thing that I think really got me hooked  were the characters. Simply put, they are great.  Well-developed story archs, rich backstories, intriguing motivations, interesting journeys. Maybe it is really that basic–to have a good book, you need to have good characters. I love books that are great based on what they do with language and style (As I Lay Dying, Mrs. Dalloway), but ultimately, nothing takes the cake so much as good old-fashioned well-developed characters.

What’s most worth mentioning about the characters in the ASoIaF series (see how I used the acronym there?!) is what is most often said about the series: this is not a black and white world. There are no Voldemorts here. The villains are never really villains, and the heroes are never truly good or honorable either (for a good discussion on this tendency, especially seen through Jamie Lannister, see this article). What I would really LOVE to see one day is a book set in a Game of Thrones-type world (rich in lore, backstory, and history) with the narration and style of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (two books that the more I think about, the more I admire). That…. would be the shizz.

The other important thing that these books reminded of is that ultimately, on a very basic level writing and reading has to be FUN. As Dorothy Allison says, writing needs to be “a place of joy… It needs to be what you want to do, what you love to do.” Yes, sometimes it’s good for you to read books that are kind of a ‘slog,’ like eating the nuts in the peanut mix that aren’t almonds or pistachios but you know are good for you anyway and you don’t want them to go to waste. And yes, while writing you can’t always be like this undisciplined monkey mind child who only wants to do things when they’re enjoyable. But you gotta have the dragons. And you gotta have your swords. Maybe that’s the main lesson to be learned here… when in doubt, bring in the dragons.

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