Friday, August 25, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 3: Diadem book 1; The Book of Names, by John Peel

The last two installments of this series have been about titans of the genre, books that have had an abiding impact on huge numbers of fantasy readers over the decades. Today we’re going to talk about a forgettable Scholastic paperback, a book I wouldn’t pull out from the shelves of a used bookstore for a closer look today, but which means as much to me as anything I’ve read. There is nothing at all that should be life-changing about the content of Diadem #1, but it changed my life as much as any other piece of writing ever has. It was the first proper book, the first book with only words and no pictures, that I read myself without help from anyone.

I have a copy of the same edition I read, which tells me that it was first published by Scholastic in August of 1997. I would have been almost exactly eight years old when I read it.

I have loved books from the time of my earliest memories, and being read to was my favorite activity when I had a parent’s full attention for any length of time, but reading on my own came only with difficulty and frustration. It is probably not true that I was struggling to finish a Dr. Seuss a few weeks before I read Diadem #1 and demanded the sequel, but I have no memories remaining of a gap between the two. I remember reading to myself instead of listening as a chore, where I was forced to push through my inadequacies for a watching parent. I remember reading The Diadem, and I remember devouring every genre book I could get my hands on. This one little paperback is the bridge in my memory between reading nothing and reading everything.

After I read it, I was off. I remember this book being hard. I may have started it two or three times before I finished, but I read the sequel in two or three days once it arrived. It was the beginning of a voracious consumption of fantasy and science fiction that had never stopped, and only slowed a little for college. I read six Diadem books, and similar things from the scholastic catalog. I read the classic science fiction on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Hobbit and Narnia and The Lord of the Rings for myself. I read book after book from the shelves of a suburban library with a particularly large young adult section, where my mother would take me every few weeks to collect more books.

The contents of Diadem #1 are  scarcely important. It is pretty ordinary scholastic fare. Three teens, one from earth, one from a medieval world, one from a technologically advanced utopia/dystopia are drawn through onion-layers of reality toward the center from which magic emanates. There is magic, variously systematized. There is low comedy. There is an abundance of riddles for the characters and the reader to solve. The children overcome their prejudices to work together. Neither the prose nor the plot are noteworthy.

I think it was and remains important, that the book was fantasy. From the beginning, I have done the vast majority of my reading in genre fiction, only occasionally dipping a toe into historical fiction, spy novels, or mystery. Something in the wonder, in the visions of a different world made those books so much more interesting than anything set in the real world. Part of it is surely that I was homeschooled until I was thirteen. Contemporarily set books targeted at my age group sketched a set of experiences and social problems I never experienced, much better to read about far futures or magical otherworlds and have an interesting alien place to decode, instead of a boring one.

The Diadem is not a great book. It has been long enough since I read it that I am not sure if it is even good. But that’s not the point. I can a draw straight line from mastering that book, from finally forcing the words to parade in order through my eyes and sound inside my head in the September or October of 1997 to now, twenty years later, writing books that would go on the same shelves, and perhaps be read by the same children, who would have picked up The Diadem when it was new. I have spent most of my life reading fantasy, and the last three years striving to write it professionally, and The Diadem was one of the first steps on that road. I never will forget it.

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