Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
In this book, Michael Chabon has done something very interesting – he has uplifted me and humbled me at the same time. It’s a weird feeling, that combination, probably because I’m reviewing a book about literary criticism and the telling of stories, which put me in a kind of meta-reviewer mindset. Reading this book not only forced me to think about myself as a reader, but as a reviewer of and writer about books.
Let’s do the first part and then I’ll get to the second.
The beginning and ending of this collection of essays focuses on something very important regard the telling of stories: the idea that reading is entertainment. Reading a book or a short story, Chabon maintains, should be, first and foremost, fun. It should be a good way to rest your mind and give it a break from the rigors and stresses of daily life. Movies, music, juggling – those are all labeled entertainment and are generally accepted as being fun, so why not books?
With me as a reader, Chabon was certainly preaching to the choir. I’ve always regarded reading as fun, and if I have time to spend with a book, then it’s time well spent. But even I, the reader looking for a good time, have fallen prey to the idea that reading a book should Mean Something. I mean, look back on these reviews for a moment. How many times have I dug deep to find some kind of moral or philosophical “lesson” in a book that was probably written with nothing more in mind than to pass a few pleasant hours on an airplane? Far too often, and more often than not it was born of a desire to make the review a little longer than, “I liked this book and you will too.”
Many readers have this secret shame that we’re reading for fun. This drives us to pick up books that we wouldn’t normally read – and in my case here I’m thinking about pretty much anything written by a Russian in the 19th and 20th centuries – in order to pick up some kind of intellectual cachet. We wander around the bookstore, dawdling before the “literature” section in the hopes that someone will see us there instead of in the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, which is where we really want to be. Chabon suggests that it is this ghettoization of books that contributes to such book snobbery and, if he had his way, he would see it gone. Every bookshop would be one section – Books.
The title of his book, Maps and Legends evokes this feeling. Maps, you see, serve two purposes. They chronicle where you have already been, showing you the roads you took and the things you saw. But, and possibly more importantly, they show you where you haven’t been yet. Who among you has never sat down and looked at a map and thought, I wonder what’s there? Even a map of the town in which you live can be oddly alluring. I lived in Kyoto for nearly nine years, and yet I could still look at a map and wonder where I should go next.
Books, Chabon maintains, should have the same quality. When I go into a modern bookstore, I head straight for the ports I know. I don’t explore distant shores or unknown islands. I’m provincial, a homebody of the literary sort. Perhaps if there were a store where the map was different, the layout unfamiliar, I might discover new worlds that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
So this is where the uplift comes – Chabon inspires me to be a better reader. To not only read more, but to read better. To not gloss over the details in order to enjoy the book, but to actively search for them. To stare at some part of a story and wonder, What is that? Have I been there before?
Where he humbles me is simply in his writing. For the purposes of this book, he and I are in the same field – talking about books and writing and how they affect us. And Chabon is much, much better at it than I am. His writing is a pleasure to read – not in that frenetic, sensory overload Tom Wolfe kind of way, but more in the same way one would enjoy a really good meal. You want to pause and roll the words around in your head for a moment before you move on. He digresses and wanders and then comes back again, just when you were wondering where he was going with all this.
In the essays to be found in this book, he looks at the immortal allure of Sherlock Holmes, the bleak horror of The Road, and the unfortunate lack of anything worthwhile for children to read. He talks of golems and death and imaginary homelands for speakers of dying languages, and makes it all compelling and enthralling. I want to write like Chabon when I grow up.
If there’s higher praise, I don’t know it.
“The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth, and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.”
– Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends