About Me

My Life as a Reader

published January 2, 2012

I’m Mary Jo, and I’m a reader. Ever since I learned to read, I have loved books. My best childhood memories are reading with my mother and siblings, making trips to the library and toting home stacks of paperbacks, and spoiling my eyesight finishing a book after bedtime. When I was in elementary school, I would read the textbooks from cover to cover just to have something to do and to be able to say I did it. When I was in high school, I felt cheated when I discovered that my sophomore English teacher was teaching us straight from Cliff’s Notes. “Isn’t there more to these books than these rote questions and responses?” I wondered. The following year, AP English Lit was my favorite class, where my favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Jim McDonough, who looks just like the British comedian Rowan Atkinson (or Mr. Bean) taught me close reading. I followed my reading bug to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, a small, rigorous liberal arts college where I majored in English and Spanish. At Centre I dove into classes on Shakespeare and Austen, the Romantics, Transcendentalists, and Southern Agrarians, Arthurian legends and Greek philosophy. I also got to spend a semester in Merida, Mexico. I lived the life of the mind and loved every minute.

When it came time to figure out what to do after graduation, I decided to pursue a dream. I figured that no matter what happened later, even if my dream utterly failed, I would feel better knowing that I set out to try for it at the first opportunity, rather than settling early and putting it off. (That might have been a slightly fatalistic way to think of it, but I told myself I was mixing my wildly idealistic optimism with a healthy dose of reality.) I wanted to write, and being the risk-averse, academic-oriented, school-loving 21-year-old I was, I figured the best way to do that was to attend a writing program.

Why did I want to write? Idealizing books had led logically to idealizing their writers, and I thought that the most high and noble thing anyone could do was to create fictional worlds to gift to others, to help them escape whatever they needed to escape and to fill them with joy and make them think, even for just a moment. Ever ambitious, I wanted to try to do the thing that I thought was the greatest and most important thing in the world. I didn’t think much about whether I liked it or was good at it. I wanted to do it because of the value and esteem I held, and mostly still hold, for writers. At that point I actually didn’t have much experience writing fiction. The only short story I wrote in the four years I spent in college was the one I used in my grad school applications. Before that, the only short story I wrote in high school was one that I was assigned to write as a freshman, using a very specific prompt. The one kind of writing I did have plenty experience with was journaling. I have been journaling since I was about twelve. There are boxes of notebooks in my parents’ basement, I think, full of teenage drama. By now, over half of my life has been committed to paper. (Hopefully, this experience will prove useful for blogging.)

I applied to a handful of programs in my senior year at Centre, and was accepted at the University of Cincinnati’s program for a Masters of Arts in English, with a creative thesis and a concentration in fiction. I spent two years there, teaching freshman composition courses, taking classes with intimidatingly intelligent and accomplished professors and classmates, and writing overly serious short stories about shy young women with relationship issues. Also, living in my parents’ house, waiting tables, and traveling to Tennessee about every other month.

At the end of my time at UC, I decided I was moving to Nashville to be closer to David, who was my long-distance boyfriend at the time, and who is now my husband of 17 months. I made some halfhearted applications to Vanderbilt’s MFA and PhD programs, but by then I could pretty much tell that my time in academia was over. I knew I didn’t have the heart for cross-country moves or the academic job hunt, and I doubted I had the intellectual focus or endurance. I figured the bargain I had made while applying to grad schools initially had been fulfilled. I had tried for the dream and failed, and would now be happier in a settled life for having at least tried it. God, that was a bleak way to think of the rest of my life. How about this: more optimistically, I had decided to make a life and a living now, rather than putting off love and gainful employment any longer, and, besides, I could write anytime, and now grad school had given me some of the skills, discipline, and judgment I’d need to make something out of any worthwhile idea I might have later on in life. Whew. That’s better.

So I taught for English composition for freshmen for a year at Belmont University. That was a part-time gig, so I was very, very poor. But it was great to be in a classroom where the students were intellectually engaged and enthusiastic. The low pay created an unsustainable situation for my bank account, though, so I applied to the Nashville Teaching Fellows program, which trains alternatively licensed teachers and places them in urban classrooms. I ended up in McGavock High School, the largest high school in Tennessee, teaching Spanish II and English III. My English classes were all male students from the “STEM Academy,” which in our school meant auto shop. You can imagine how excited those kids were about writing five-paragraph persuasive essays. At the end of the year new teachers were let go in budget cuts, and I ended up at Glencliff High School, the most diverse school in Tennessee. I taught English III and English IV to students in the “Hospitality Academy,” which in our school meant cosmetology and culinary arts. I liked Glencliff because the students were more respectful than McGavock students and the faculty was young and vibrant. But again, at the end of the year, new teachers were let go in budget cuts. Luckily, I had 4 offers, because 97% of my students had passed the TCAP writing exam. I chose the Academy at Old Cockrill, a nontraditional high school which only accepts students ages 17-21 who are making up credits to get their high school diplomas. Classes are small and students are screened through an interview process in order to get in. This is my fourth school in four years, but I want to stay here. It’s challenging, but in a way that I feel I can handle. Because there are so few students, I feel like I’m actually able to create relationships with them. They’re interesting people.

There have been times in my recent history when I stopped reading for fun. Late high school, most of college, all of graduate school, and my first year and a half teaching in public school. It was no fun. Reading is very important to me. But in the past year or two, my reading habit has come back in a big way. I’m reading more than ever, and more widely and systematically than ever. And I have some things to say about what I’ve been reading.

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The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I picked up the first of the famous Wheel of Time series to try to fill in a gap in my reading in the fantasy genre, and was really disappointed not to enjoy it as much as I was expecting to. I call myself a fantasy fan, so I felt obligated to finish it. It’s a very long book, but I stuck it out, in case there was something at the end to justify the hype. Maybe the ending is amazing enough to justify the thousands of fans and dozens of sequels, I was hoping. 

The language grated on me and was a constant source of annoyance. I enjoy high fantasy language when it’s done well. I love Tolkien, Robin HobbGarth Nix, and Jillian Kuhlman. But Jordan’s language seemed affected to me, not genuine or authentic, like his characters were elementary school kids reading lines in a bad play. I didn’t buy the weird invented words like gleeman (a minstrel–why not just say that?), or the newly-coined curses (“Blood and ashes, Batman!”).

I’m someone who doesn’t shy away from a long book, and who happily dives into thousands of pages when they’re well-written and worth the time to read. But this book is way too long, and its length problem starts at the sentence level. I could edit 10-25% of the scenes and events and side characters out of the story, and then another 10-25% of the words out of every page that’s left. It’s a good general rule that if you need a dictionary in the back to help your reader keep track of your mythology, then you’re either dumping it on too quickly, or you made it too complex, or both.

I thought the characters were annoying and impetuous because they constantly make dumb decisions. Like, don’t tell the wizard who saved your whole town that you’re having dreams where the devil talks to you and you wake up with your dream-pricked finger bleeding. Of course, go explore the creepy ruined city, and follow the guy with no shadow. And then, go ahead and steal a jeweled dagger from an enchanted treasure and hide it while playing with it obsessively. These decisions are so incredibly stupid and genre-blind that I lost patience with them and could no longer dismiss them as motivated by superstition or teenage capriciousness. They were pure distress balls.

A quote on the back of the copy I read said, “Robert Jordan has a powerful vision of good and evil.” But I did not find the portrayal of evil in this book to be persuasive at all. If real evil worked in such a transparent, obvious way, announcing itself and insisting that people bow down to it, evil would be much easier to resist than it actually is. The motiveless, pointless evil of this book’s villain was overblown, caricatured, and flat-out boring. Similarly, all of the talk of the Pattern, and the Wheel that weaves it, is another problem that takes power and meaning away from the characters and their story. If all of the actions of the characters are simply a result of their fate, of the turning of an abstract Wheel, then they have no agency and their choices are meaningless. If that’s the case, what’s the point of reading about them?

There are so many elements of this story that have exact parallels to The Lord of the Rings that it seems like kind of a rip-off. I’m sure others have pointed these similarities out before: idyllic farmland attacked by outsiders, a magic wizard who calls the reluctant hero to join a quest, an epically long backstory. Even the people and places are the same:

  • Orcs = Trollocs
  • Wizard Gandalf = Aes Sedai Morraine
  • Aragorn the Ranger, heir to the throne of Gondor = Warder Lan, the last Lord of the Seven Towers, the crownless king of the Malkieri
  • four hobbits = four teenagers
  • The Shire = Emond’s Field
  • Ringwraiths = Myrdraal/Fades/Half-Men
  • Ents = long-lived, tall creatures that call humans “hasty” = Ogier
  • Misty Mountains = Mountains of Mist
  • Mount Doom = Shayol Ghul in the Mountains of Dhoom
  • Mordor = The Blight
  • The Dark Lord Sauron = Ba’alzamon/Shai’tan/The Dark One

At first I thought the changes Jordan made in rewriting The Lord of the Rings made his story more inclusive because there are many more female characters than in Tolkien’s books. But the gender politics of the One Power are so strange that I’m not sure if they’re progressive or regressive. The principle of balance seems good and neutral, but if balance has to be restored by taking fictional power away from a group that has little real power, I don’t necessarily think that’s a positive and inclusive choice for an author to make.

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