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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Emotional Attachment, Aging, and Books

A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend about book obsession.  Specifically, I was curious about Harry Potter and similar franchises, which developed a fanbase of obsessed kids and adults, all open about their excitement about the next book in the series.  I experienced the same obsession, as did a number of my friends, though to varying degrees.  To this day, I can't quite explain why that series drew me in.

The topic of book obsession came up because I was concerned (or, perhaps, curious) about the relative paucity of excited feelings about books released since the Harry Potter.  By "excited" I
meant the "ravenous desire to consume a literary product to the extent that it occupies a good portion of my daily life."  I wondered whether I could re-experience the "Harry Potter moment" again in what remains of my life (likely 20-25 years, but knowing my luck, I'll live to be 150).  I miss the obsession and the excitement.  When the announcement came that the final installment of HP7 had an official publication date, I recall making silly sounds and bouncing up and down in my computer chair; my excitement boiled over when the book finally arrived in my mailbox, and the experience of reading the book in such a short period of time (48 hours) sticks with me today.

But I haven't had that experience again.  There are plenty of books and series that I enjoy, and certainly books that I consume at alarming rates (for me), but since 2007, I have remained somewhat neutral about book releases, with some minor bumps on my excitement scale here or there.  I'm not saying that I haven't had interest in anything since 2007, because I have.  Instead, I'm trying to relay my discomfort with a personal lack, and wondering where that lack develops from.

It's been suggested to me that this problem has to do with the process of aging.  I wouldn't say that I'm old, in terms of the number of years I've been on this planet, but I have certainly seen a lot of things, experienced much, and moved on from the childish teenage years (and the childish 20s that followed it) and found a more secure place in this thing we call "adulthood" (an absurd thing, by the way, because the name itself implies that one cannot exhibit anything from our "childhoods" without leaving "adulthood," which is an unspoken rule that I refuse to follow).  But does adulthood, or the process of being adult, or the security of being in a stable "adult life" lead one to the lack implied above?  Does getting older mean we aren't able to experience the utter joy in the moment of excitement for a literary product?  Do we displace the excitement to something else (and what would that thing be--movies, perhaps, or ties)?

I want to say that age has little to do with it for some of us, particularly myself, but maybe the world neutralizes with age, and you don't have much choice in the matter.  Or perhaps the field of books is shifting away from what Harry Potter created all those years ago, and what exists now are echoes, in much the same way that a great quantity of fantasy novels have been echoes of Tolkien.  Echoes don't necessarily inspire the same love as the original product--at least, not for those that once experienced that love with the original, which explains, perhaps, why we see cycles of excitement with each new generation.  Or maybe I'm simply waiting for that next special book to come along that sucks me in and spits me back out impressed and shocked.

Out of curiosity, how many of you have experienced this lack?  I know many of you, like myself, do get a little excitement for the occasional book, and we all likely enjoy much of what we read, but have you been able to find many books to become obsessed over in the last few years?  If so, what were they, and why did you latch onto them?

And also pressing:  what is it about Harry Potter, or *insert the series you became obsessed with once upon a time,* that creates that obsessive excitement, that sucks people in and spits them out impressed and shocked?  Is there an objective quality we can look for, or is that just the nature of the beast?

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  1. Anonymous3:26 PM

    I feel like I've tempered my anticipation/excitement for something with the reality that things are rarely as amazing as we build them up to be (or others build them up to be). Basically, it's a hedge against disappointment (again, for me).

    I do think, as we age, something really has to be exceptional in story and in craft to knock our socks off because we have more hours of reading under our belts. We've also seen a lot in the real world against which we can compare what we read. Naivete has a nice way of making things more magical.

    For a time, I wanted to be a Middle-Earth historian. Lord of the Rings resonated with its deep back story and overall feeling of antiquity. If someone were to offer me the job now, I'd still take it.

  2. Jonathan: I'm sort of the same way now. I find that hype leads more often than not to disappointment.

    Is there a way to combat the side of us that makes us less impressed? I remember the wonderful feeling Harry Potter gave me when I was excited for the next book. Can we get that feeling back, or will it be artificial?

    I'm raising lots of questions. It's something I don't quite know how to answer, so you'll have to excuse the questioning nature of all of this.

    Thanks for the comment :)

  3. I remember when the HP 7 release news hit. My wife and I were up the coast that day and there was furious text messaging to all our like minded friends and relatives.
    Sometimes I read something (movies don't really have the same effect on me) that really makes me sit up and I get all excited about it and follow it avidly. I will scream for pure joy the day George Martin posts 'It is done!' on his NaB regarding A Dance with Dragons and I'll do something similar when I see a copy of Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves that is actually for sale. HP was a phenomenon and it crossed age boundaries. I long for the day when we see another phenomenon like it.

  4. Anonymous9:09 PM

    Despite all the rancor on the web about it, I'm still excited for GRRM's next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. And after reading Brandon Sanderson's continuation of the Wheel of Time, I'm excited for the Towers of Midnight as well (Plus Sanderson is a MACHINE, so I know I'll see those in the near future).

    Both of these series brought me back to fantasy about 10 years ago. Mieville and Vandermeer have injected new excitement into reading for me as well, having just discovered them for myself within the last year or so. And yes, in fact, I did live in a cave for a while ;-)

  5. Elfy: I do get excited about certain movies. I was all kinds of excited about Inception (and it lived up to the hype). But there haven't been many books that I've found myself desperate to get my hands's strange.

    Jonathan: Mieville and VanderMeer are both very interesting writers. I've liked work by both of them a great deal. Nothing wrong with living in caves, though :P. Sometimes it's good for you.

    And I don't get all the rancor over GRRM's lag. It seems irrational and counterproductive to me. But I'm not a big fan of his fantasy work. I think his science fiction is top notch, though.

  6. There's a lot that can be said on this topic, but I'll try to stick to just two insights that I don't think have been mentioned yet. Though before I get to those, briefly: Harry Potter just recently ended. Isn't it overkill to expect another property to sweep you up in the same way this quickly?

    Which actually leads well into this first insight: one thing I think is supremely responsible for the (supposed) lack of excitement generated by modern properties is the comparative swiftness the sequels, threequels, and so on are released. I've noticed most of the examples in the comments section here name books that have long been delayed, and series that haven't been released with any absolute regularity before that. It could be that popping out the next volume like clockwork keeps most series from garnering any sort of sincere excitement, that eager anticipation that may only be garnered if there's an actual question involved: Will it come? When? What will it be? Nowadays, we tend to know, conclusively, the date, synopsis, and even a sample of the next volume before we finish the current one.

    Maybe stories that have this profound an effect on us, by definition, will be rare to come by?

    Secondly, there's the question of hype. For me, personally, I have to discover something on my own for it to truly thrill me. The hype can grow and get out of control later, or I can just be oblivious to any hype that does exists, but initially the discovery has to not feel like jumping on a band wagon. Otherwise, I'll be too self-conscious to feel anything deeply.

    Which is difficult in the digital era where information spreads faster than we can keep up with. This isn't to say it happens less, necessarily, than it ever did before. But for those who require this "discovery" aspect to be thrilled, that requires a concerted effort to beat the crowd to the next "phenomenon".

  7. Perhaps this is just proving your point about age and excitement, but I get very excited about books! I was utterly filled with glee about the new Terry Pratchett book, I absolutely can't wait for the next Charles Stross, so on, so forth ... new books by people I love elevate my mood for days :)

  8. I have to agree with Dave B. The more hype, the less likely I am to join in. By the 4th or 5th H.P., I was over it. Maybe because I was(mostly) an adult when they were introduced, so I didn't exactly "grow up" with them. I find much more joy in discovering old authors that are new to me. That way I can just go to the Library and read all their books in a week.

    The last book I remember being excited about was Scott Westerfield's Leviathan. I am a fan of steampunk and S.W., so it seemed like it would be a win-win. I liked it, but not as much as his other books.

    I think maybe as we age the number of disappointments starts to outweigh the times the item of our excitement meets or exceeds our expectations, whether it is a book, music, movie, etc. This leads us to be more cautious in our enthusiasm.

    Now I enjoy watching my young children experience the thrill of new books. I have a 9 yr old son who is finally discovering the joy of sci-fi and fantasy. I just gave him one of my William Sleator books to read, and he came asking for the sequel as soon as he was done.

  9. fiorinda: Thanks for the comment. I guess that's something I'll have to accept, then. I don't like it, though. I like being excited. I like the rush, but I'll readily admit that my tastes and expectations have become more "sophisticated." I use that word hesitantly, because I don't want it to be taken to mean that I have "better" tastes, just that my tastes are much more complicated than they used to be.

    Maybe there's something in living vicariously through the young, though. I don't have children. I'd like to have them some day, though. And there does seem to be something wonderful about exposing one's children to things and seeing that they love it too.

  10. Perhaps the Harry Potter thing owes more to shrewd marketing and myth making around the author than literary merit.
    I enjoyed the Philip Pullman series much more and enjoyed some of the obsessive `can't put it down and when is the next one' that some of you describe.

  11. Well, now I'm going to have to read Philip Pullman's books. Thanks.