This has been a year for comfort reading – for reading the books that you find pleasurable no matter how many times you’ve read them before, no matter how many times you may have thought that you really ought to be reading something else. There will be other years for other reading.
I’ve read all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series this year, including (for the first time) the radio scripts. I’ve read all of Christopher Moore (if you haven’t read Lamb you’re missing out, but they’re all worth your time). At some point I may well take a long walk through the Discworld, again, in order because that’s just the kind of nerd I am. Or perhaps Jasper Fforde. Maybe both.
But for now I am once again reading The Lord of the Rings.
There was a time in my life that I did that annually, dropping into Middle Earth for Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party and then trekking across field and forest, mountain and city only to return to the Shire when all was done. I loved the elves most of all and still do, despite Terry Pratchett’s thoughtful criticisms of the conceits behind them. I can still write in Tengwar, in both the Noldorin and Sindarin fashion. Tom Bombadil has always struck me as goofy and superfluous, Arnor as tragic, and Minas Tirith a much more interesting place than Edoras.
The Silmarillion was my favorite book for many years and The Hobbit is a much quicker book to read, but it was The Lord of the Rings that I read first and to which I returned, year after year, even in years when I didn’t read the others.
It’s probably one of the reasons I’m a professional historian today. Nobody does backstory like Tolkien. You get drawn down into the deeper wells of his world and you never really leave, and eventually you realize that you can do the same thing with the world we live in.
There are issues with The Lord of the Rings, as there are with all books. With a few exceptions women have almost no substantive role to play in Middle Earth – an odd thing in a book so obsessed with genealogy and lineage. The language can be a bit stilted. The academic roots of the story shine through more than a few times. On and on.
But it was and remains a favorite, a place to which I can return and remain, regardless of the outside world.
I first read the books separately, checked out of my local library one at a time, and then decided I wanted to own my own copy. At the time there was a small independent bookstore in the shopping center not all that far from my house, and there they had the one-volume red slipcased version with a fold-out map at the end. It was $40, which was a princely sum of money for a 7th-grader in the summer of 1980.
My mom let me come with her to the county courthouse from time to time that summer and do research for her as she worked, searching property titles before the annual tax sale. I learned how to do real research for this book, which is another thing that set me on the path toward being a historian I suppose. For this she paid me a dollar an hour out of her own pocket, and after a few weeks I had enough to buy the book. I rode my bike up to the bookstore – maybe three miles or so through what passed for traffic in the suburbs of Philadelphia – and came home with my treasure.
I promptly disappeared into my room until I had finished reading it, sprawled across my bed with the radio on, working my way through Middle Earth once again. I still think of Frodo Baggins every time I hear the Rolling Stones sing Shattered.
The book came already smelling the way that old books do, and forty years later it still does.
It tells a story where the good triumphs, though not completely and not forever. The Shadow will always return, after all. There is a strong melancholy streak throughout the story, of beautiful things fading away and being forgotten, of victories turned hollow, of last stands and old friends, of the fragility of what exists and how easily it can fall apart. But there is also the counterpoint of doing all you can in the face of such things, of the importance of the small and the powerless and the overlooked, of the power of memory and the idea that the good can still win, if only for the moment, but there’s always a next moment and we get to say who wins that one too.
These are good things to remember.