Since 2001, I’ve kept a list of books I read each year. I usually get through about fifty, a relatively small number compared to those I’ve met who devour 300+ novels every year.

As this December rolled around, I realized I had read only forty-five, and I decided to try to reach fifty, which gave me an excuse to pick books from the 60’s and 70’s, that time in publishing where SF authors wrote novels under two hundred pages, thin books that could be read quickly. Since a used bookstore recently opened nearby, I had the perfect opportunity to find some gems.

Although I’ve read a lot of science fiction over the years, my main interest has been fantasy, so there are a number of SF authors I haven’t read. I picked up a novel and a short story anthology by Theodore Sturgeon, a novel by Clifford D. Simak, and a science-fantasy by M. John Harrison. Reading through them, I was struck by their different approaches to characterization.

The Simak novel, Cemetery World, was well-written and engaging enough. It is typical of literature from that era: the characters are given little personality, their thoughts centered on accomplishing their goals. Somewhere along their trek through an abandoned Earth made into an enormous cemetery, the hero realizes the attractive woman he is traveling with is more than a nuisance—something most men might have realized earlier on—the beginning of their falling in love. But at least to Simak’s credit, she is portrayed as heroically courageous and determined, though her personality, like his, lacks depth.

The Pastel City, set centuries after an apocalyptic disaster, reflects a sub-genre that combines futuristic technology with medieval swordplay, a tradition going back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels. Harrison is a fine wordsmith, whose prose elevates a standard quest into an enjoyable reading experience. Most impressive is his deft use of quick characterization. There is little of the introspection and lengthy backstories of modern SF. The main characters are given one or two basic traits: The hero, Cromis is a brooding, pessimistic poet; Tomb the dwarf is cruel and fascinated by anything mechanical, Grif is hot-headed and emotional. But the trick is that Harrison always keeps each of them in character, reacting exactly as they should, even when they do something unexpected. I was fascinated by how quickly I related to them given such bare-bone characterization.

I had only read a couple of Theodore Sturgeon’s short stories over the years, but knew he was considered a pioneer in SF for the depth of his characters. His novel, The Synthetic Man, set among a group of circus performers, is somewhat dark because of their alienation from society, but the concepts are fascinating and the characterization much deeper than anything in the previous two novels. The dwarf, Zena, has an especially well-developed personality. For SF, Sturgeon was definitely ahead of his time.
I came away from reading these books with a broader perspective on science fiction, writing, and characterization.

Whether a character is an Everyman like Simak’s Fletcher Carson, a person given one or two traits like Harrison’s Cromis, or someone as multi-layered as Sturgeon’s Zena, the depth of character must serve the story, and any of the three methods can be correct.


A few months ago, my wife and I took a weekend vacation to Ruidoso, New Mexico. At the outskirts of the small town of Roswell, we drove past a plain sign declaring Happy Jack’s, Beads—Books in front of a solitary building a hundred yards from the highway. My pulse quickened, my hands grew sweaty.  I blurted, in the cracking voice of a thirteen-year-old, “Hey, is that a used book store?”

My wife gave me one of Those Looks. She knows me well.

“Do we have time to check it out?” I asked.

She sweetly mentioned that it would be nice to reach Ruidoso before twilight. Or midnight. Or Thanksgiving.

“We won’t stay long,” I insisted, turning the car around. “I promise.”

My wife is a trooper, a team player, an accommodating woman whose enjoyment of used book stores dissipates, on the average, about a hour and a half before I’m ready to leave.

I skidded to a stop in front of the building. “You stay here,” I commanded, using my Band of Brothers scout voice. “I’ll check it out.  If it doesn’t smell like cat litter, the Dust Bowl, or the inside of a Marlboro, I’ll sound the all-clear.”

Flanking the building commando-style, I slipped through a side-door, eyes alert, nose sniffing.

And found Paradise.

The floors were clean, the aisles well-lighted. The cool breeze from a swamp-cooler wafted through the air. And everywhere stood rows and rows of paperback books, seen through the reflected, prismatic light of thousands of beads on display at the store’s front. Sublime joy suffused me.

I write and read Science Fiction and Fantasy. Unlike some genres, SF has traditionally been a collectors’ market; fans tend to seek out and keep specific volumes. For me, the time spent at Happy Jack’s (only an hour, I swear) was like stepping into the past, finding titles I had never seen before, studying the cover art, looking for one or two special books. I left triumphant and happy, a bag of books in hand; my wife came away with a couple novels and a sack of beads. I made her drive so I could study my new finds. Life was good.

But Happy Jack’s Trading Post got me thinking about the value of books. (And beads, but that’s another story.) Originally copied by hand, books were practically priceless, and in the early days of printing were so costly thieves would murder to steal them. Thomas Jefferson, seeing the need for a national library, sold many of his own precious volumes to the U. S. government—they were far too expensive for him to give away.

Decades later, with the advent of mass-market production and inexpensive paperback editions, books became more affordable. Reading soared; authors could sell not just hundreds, but thousands of copies. This was a Good Thing. It was also, unrealized at the time, the first devaluation of books as a medium.

Before the internet, I kept a want-list of SF books in my wallet. When we traveled, I visited used book stores, looking for specific editions of certain paperbacks. It was like a treasure hunt, sometimes in vain, sometimes rewarded with the discovery of a long-sought volume. Once, thinking I would never find a particular book, I used a Book Search Service, paying what I considered an astronomical price so I could read the story.

Ah, the glory of the past. (Sigh.) With the advent of internet sites such as abebooks.com, all but the most scarce books became available, often for less than ten dollars. Amazon’s decision to release hundreds of public-domain works as free ebooks, while nice for the consumer, undoubtedly affected the reprinting of classic novels and reinforced the message that some books have no monetary value. On websites such as paperbackswap.com, you can post books by ISBN number and trade them to other members for the price of postage. (Full disclosure: I joined paperbackswap several years ago. I use it as a marketing tool, including a printed bookmark about my own novels with any book I send.) But these transactions pay nothing to the authors or publishers, and whereas finding used books used to require diligent search, it’s now effortless to locate current editions of many novels. Used bookstores disappear; traditional bookstores struggle to survive. The world has moved on, far from Happy Jack’s Trading Post.

Such reflections made me ponder my own collection. Because I keep a list, I know I read about fifty books a year. I counted my books and found I owned a little over five-hundred. If I reread them all, it would take ten years. I realized I had been living under the old assumption that I had to retain anything I “might” read again because books were hard to find. So I started weeding through them, seeing which ones I could buy as ebooks whenever I wished, which could be had on the net for five or six dollars, and which ones I just couldn’t part with. I gradually gave books away to libraries and friends, sold some on ebay and put some on paperbackswap. I’m down to about two-hundred. It’s been a process, parting with old friends.

Did the loss of book value make me question my value as a writer? A little. I fear change. But paradoxically, though individual books can be had for pennies, trade book sales in 2012 were at 15 billion dollars. 15 . . . Billion. Not bad for a valueless commodity. I’m only looking for a tiny slice of that, and for readers who are touched by my work. So for those of us who love writing, the rules of the game haven’t really changed. Writers write for the art of writing, for love of the process, for the joy (and hard work) of creating a story, of crafting something all our own. The medium doesn’t matter. Only the words. Writers write. We put our fictional worlds out to be read.

And occasionally, we stumble into a Happy Jack’s Trading Post, where we remember why we loved reading books so much that we wanted to write them.


I suppose I’ve read the Lord of the Rings six or seven times over the years–I’ve honestly lost count. The two times before this one, I listened to the audio. This time I decided to read the print edition. One of the things that amazed me this time around was the detail of Tolkien’s geographic descriptions. People have told me they find such description dull, but I think that’s because they don’t spend the time to really think about them.


Tolkien believed you had to create the map before you ever wrote the story. Maybe that’s why if you pay attention like I did this time, you’ll be in awe of the detail he puts in. It’s like he’s visualizing the entire layout of the land, as if he were standing there describing Middle Earth the way I would describe a familiar town. And he does this consistently everywhere the heroes travel, sometimes inserting three or four such descriptions in a chapter. I wonder if he was able to do this because he was a painter as well?


My second observation is that when he chose to, despite what the critics say, Tolkien could write credible female characters. Sure, Galadriel is little more than an archetype for the Wise Woman, just as Aragorn is an archetype for the Good King. Many of Tolkien’s characters are archetypal–can you imagine having lunch with Aragorn or Legolas? What would they say? What kind of jokes would they tell? I don’t know either. Tolkien used the proper characterization for each of his subjects. But if you read about Eowyn carefully, you’ll see that though her part is small, she is one of the most well-drawn characters in the book, second only to the hobbits themselves. Raised to be a warrior-woman, she is forced to remain at home taking care of the elderly Theoden when all she wants is to be out in the work-force traveling the country battling orcs. She develops a crush on Aragorn because he represents the life she can’t seem to have, and they exchange some of the most subtle dialogue in the book. Forced to stay home while the men ride away, she disobeys the king, disguises herself as a man so she can ride with them, and helps destroy the king of the Nazgul. Wounded, we see her gradually maturing, recognizing her crush for what it was, and choosing to marry Faramir. When you think of the generation that Tolkien grew up in, this is a well-drawn picture of an independent woman.


My third observation is that, like a lot of other would-be writers, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time and thought: “I’ll write something like that,” having no understanding of the scholarship Tolkien brought to his work, creating not just one, but several working languages. An expert in his field, a scholar who worked on the Oxford English dictionary, many of his names are filled with a gorgeous verisimilitude we non-philologists can’t begin to emulate.


Re-reading the book, I can’t help but regret that his popularity produced a host of imitators, resulting in many people first experiencing his themes in mostly inferior works. I also rather wish the book had never been made into movies–it makes me wonder how many people will actual experience it in printed form. How many read The Wizard of Oz these days? Will people read the Harry Potter books twenty years from now, or just watch the movies? As good as the LOTR movies are, they can’t touch the wonder and beauty and power of the books. To experience it in diluted form is a real shame.