Saturday, July 16, 2011

Buried Alive

I've been a fan of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, ever since a friend of mine pointed it out to me (unfortunately, during finals week of medical school). The series, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a ripping fantasy rife with scheming, backstory that's as good as the plot, cruelty that makes waterboarding look like a dip in the kiddy pool (not saying that makes waterboarding okay, but I think I'd rather be dead than Reek), unlikely heroes, and a healthy dose of literary irony. What makes it so appealing is that the story just as often progresses through the eyes of "the bad guys" as much as it does through the protagonists, so you end up with an incredibly nuanced story that makes ripping through the first 3200 pages a breeze--it's not light reading. Equally appealing is that you can't count on your heroes surviving, nor can you count on your bad guys dying: like the real world, our heroes are mortal, and they do die. And sometimes evil (or really, better poisoners) does prevail. But more often than not, good people make bad decisions, while even the worst characters can find redemption.

The first four books (out of a planned 7, supposedly, although I suspect it will end up being 9) came out in relatively quick succession--1996, 2000, 2005--if you consider the length, depth, and scope these stories encompass. But A Dance with Dragons only came out this year, and only after some 2 years of "It's coming next month". Karel surprised me earlier this week when he handed me an box filled with a 900-page tome, and, well, the rest is history. I tend to get a little compulsive about these things.

This was a (very late) Christmas present, but the fact that I got it so soon after it was released is one of those marvels of the Internet that, if you think back just 10 years ago, would have been unlikely. 20 years ago--impossible. Karel and I aren't that much into movies--I might have been had I stayed in the States, being fed on a constant diet of indie movies at the Ritz--so not being anywhere near HP7B fans on opening day was nice. Film culture in the Netherlands doesn't seem to make the distinction between the cheap thrill and the highbrow art affair. Some movie theaters are more devoted to the European art-house flick than others, which import subtitled trash (sorry, but it'll take a director of Chris Nolan's caliber to elevate Transformers anything more serious than a 30-minute after-school cartoon) directly from the US, but even those theaters will still show "serious" (not necessarily "good") movies like "Sonny Boy".

Ostensibly I'm talking about books and not movies, but when you live in a country where English isn't the first language, you have to learn to accept that your book selections will be limited, both in time (not-so-recent recent releases) and scope, as most books tend to be fiction (unless you live in Amsterdam and have access to Waterstone's, which I do not). These days, with the Kindle and other e-book readers, you don't need to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get a paper-printed book, but I have always been attracted to the methodical passage of pages and a bookmark's creep down the length of the spine. For huge books like A Dance with Dragons, it feels like more of an accomplishment. I don't doubt that one of these days, we'll get an iPad or an e-reader--it's a question of commitment, really, and whether we'd use it enough to warrant the €700 price. But I'm sort of saddened to think that my generation might be one of the last ones in which you can, somewhat literally, be "buried in a book".

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