My favorite books are ones I can reread and find something different to enjoy each time, with a few exceptions. I can’t reread John Fowles’s The Magus, for example, because it would be impossible to recreate the feeling of utter shock at the last quarter of the book, the sheer page-turning power of it. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean. Others, I can and have, several times: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a classic, as is his Narcissus and Goldmund. Anything from Jonathan Carroll. Much of H. P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
One notable book I read in my twenties and had trouble with decades later was Clive Barker’s Imajica, for reasons I described here.
I have a confession to make, however, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I must. I’d read C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia many times, and claimed I read and enjoyed his Space Trilogy, but the latter isn’t entirely true. While I read book one of the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, and read the second book, Perelandra, I’d had to skim through large parts of the latter because they bored me. As for the third book, That Hideous Strength, I had never made it past the first chapter.
It’s such a different story from the first two novels, taking place entirely on Earth instead of Mars or Venus, that I couldn’t get into it. Less adventure, more talking. No alien life. Why bother?
It’s a terrible mistake. That Hideous Strength is the best novel of the trilogy. While Out of the Silent Planet takes place on an un-fallen world, and Perelandra describes the protagonist’s attempt to keep a new world from falling like ours has, this third novel grounds everything right here, delving into the terrible consequences of our world having fallen from grace, and how despite that, we, as flawed, desperate creatures, can do great, even holy things. We’ve fallen, yes, but redemption is available.
It deals with a number of themes: love and marriage, the mistake of equating science with progress, journalistic manipulation, the ethics of today versus yesterday’s, and many others. While it starts very slowly, it grips you hard, if you’re accessible to it, and does not let you go. Some sections are deeply disquieting, filling you with real horror, and others describe sweeping, magical experiences from within. Despite that it’s decades old, That Hideous Strength is relevant today:
When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.
It’s as accurate a description of the chattering class versus the working class as you’ll ever read.
So the novel hadn’t changed. I did.
Contrast that to Gary Jennings’s novel Aztec. This remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and it kindled a lifelong interest in both pre-Columbian history and historical fiction. A gripping account of the Aztec empire at its height…and how it falls at the hands of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (with the help of neighboring Mesoamerican civilizations). It’s a book I’ve read many times and continue to marvel at.
But I no longer mourn for what was lost when the Aztecs fell. While the Spanish were greatly evil in their massacre and plunder of the Aztec civilization, the Aztecs were themselves monstrous, engaging in human sacrifice, cannibalism, torture, and casual murder. The protagonist, Mixtli, is a clever man, a funny man, but not at all a good man, and he does things that are oftentimes horrific and disgusting. It’s easy to excuse him when reading his first-person account: after all, he’s a different man living at a different time in a different culture. But even if we’re invited to sympathize, we don’t have to approve. We can understand and still be disgusted. As I am now, reading it again.
The novel hadn’t changed. I did.
Despite that, Aztec was a significant influence on my story Beneath the Ziggurat, and drawing from Mesoamerican culture/myth is something I’m comfortable with.
Tastes change as we get older, and I’m further into middle age than I like to think about. Is this the maturing process, or does one’s brain alter? Does liking one thing over the other suggest maturity, personal advancement, or simply a lateral change in taste? Since becoming a fiction writer I read differently from the way I used to: I dissect, I analyze, I learn more. I’ve become an active reader.
I heartily recommend both books, for entirely different reasons.