Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro tackles the ethics of memory. The central question of the novel concerns whether it is better to forget old hurts or to remember them. Is a shallow, immediate life lacking the depths of a recollected past–and with it the old, festering wounds that breed resentment and vengeance–preferable to a life enriched by the joys and sorrows and tragedies of the past as well as those of the present? While the narrative itself often wanders, and the storytelling is filled with half-remembered (often mis-remembered) anecdotes, Ishiguro commits fully to exploring this question, and bravely embraces an ambiguity which forces the reader to come to their own answer.

Where The Buried Giant shines is in the married simplicity of its writing and complexity of its themes. Never are you left wondering what is going on now in the story, but its themes of memory and forgetting lead to a great deal of fuzziness regarding the backstories of characters and the history of their world. The narrative moves forward clearly, but when characters contemplate their past or their place in the world things become unclear. While perhaps frustrating to readers who enjoy concrete worldbuilding, this tension highlights the questions with which Ishiguro is wrestling. The lives of our protagonists–Axl and Beatrice, an old married couple–in their present are not perfect, but they are happy. Would clearly remembering their past–which they only glimpse in fragments–make their lives more meaningful, or dredge up old wounds that might ruin their present happiness? Axl and Beatrice’s struggle with their personal history parallels the broader, grander struggle in which they become entangled. This parallelism connects Ishiguro’s exploration of the ethics of memory both to relatable, interpersonal relationships and to broader political concerns.

Where The Buried Giant struggles is in its third act. Plot threads become too neatly untangled and tied back together. Characters take actions directed by the needs of plot, rather than their own goals and objectives. While the climax and ending of the story are excellent, the transition from the ending of the second act to the climactic midpoint of the third is jarring, with Axl and Beatrice’s adventure digressing in ways which both seem pointless at the time and are revealed to be pointless at the climax. There are good character moments in this frustrating section of the book, but the narrative drive lags.

The Buried Giant straddles the line between “fantasy” and “literary” fiction in a way which might alienate some readers. Like “literary” fiction, it at times seems more interested in its thematic and philosophical content than in its narrative. Yet the novel is set within the Arthurian canon (Gawain is a main character!) and its principal narrative objective is the slaying of a dragon and the resolution of the sort of setting-based conflict common to fantasy literature (Destroy the One Ring. Seal the Dark One’s prison. Prepare for the Long Night and the coming of the White Walkers. Slay the Dragon and break her spell on the world.) Personally, I would class The Buried Giant as a fantasy novel. Ultimately such genre distinctions serve only to connect readers to books they enjoy, and The Buried Giant most reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Readers who enjoy that variety of adventurous and contemplative storytelling will thoroughly enjoy The Buried Giant.

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Why I switched from League of Legends to Heroes of the Storm

Recently my wife and I returned to the United States from Taiwan, which for me in part meant reconnecting with my gaming friends from high school and college. Back in the day we spent endless hours playing MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas), beginning with the original DotA, then Heroes of Newerth, then League of Legends and DotA 2. League of Legends was always my favorite of the bunch. It did away with some of the mechanics such as denying last hits and esoteric item builds which were more stressful and technically challenging–though, I must admit, rewarding once mastered–and focused in on the fun parts of the MOBA experience. Objectives were made clearer: understanding when to go for the Ancient Creeps or Roshan was always more confusing than going for the Dragon or Baron after a good team fight.

Part of this might be that I’m just a casual gamer. I like games that I don’t have to master to play well enough to have fun. So League of Legends captured my attention back when it was the most casual–and, for me, the most fun–MOBA around. But since coming back to the US I haven’t played a single game of LoL. Instead, I find myself playing game after game of Heroes of the Storm.

Heroes of the Storm isn’t the most technically excellent MOBA–that mantle goes to DotA 2, in my opinion. It’s not the most eSports friendly, as Joshua Calixto made clear in this article for Kill Screen. There are no last hits, no denials, no item builds (no currency, even), no leveling up of individual skills, and everyone on your team gains levels together. The concept of balance at times seems to have been thrown out in favor of a design philosophy along the lines of “make every character as overpowered as possible and let the dust settle where it may.” Yet, I find myself enjoying Heroes of the Storm more than I ever enjoyed DotA, or LoL, or HoN, or DotA 2. Even the matches that go badly don’t make me as angry and frustrated as they did in those other games.


I think the main reason is because Blizzard has, as Mr. Calixto points out, cut out all the things that make MOBAs brutally frustrating, the things that make players rage at each other when someone is new to the game or makes a mistake. Without ability leveling and item builds the learning curve for HotS is much lower, so it’s easier to help new players figure out how to play their characters. When games last around twenty minutes (though they can stretch to as long as fifty, as some friends and I experienced during one brutal, soul crushing grind of a math) it’s easier to let a loss roll of your back and try again, rather than rage at the teammate whose mistake or ignorance may have cost you the match. With these frustrating things excised, HotS is left with a refocus on the things that make MOBA gameplay fun: each map (and there are many, in contrast with DotA’s one and LoL’s three-ish) has unique objectives and mechanics which are designed to force team fights, the most entertaining and rewarding parts of a MOBA match. In this way, Blizzard has distilled the MOBA into a faster paced, more inviting game, one that draws me back for match after match, even when I should be writing.

-Jeremy TeGrotenhuis

Worldbuilding: Designing a Creature

Leading off from my last post about worldbuilding the little details, I thought I’d write briefly about creating creatures, which is one of my favorite aspects of worldbuilding for fantasy settings. In this post I will briefly discuss how I go about creating fantasy creatures, using this charming little guy as an example:

He's a cutie pie.

what a cutie pie

That is a creature which I’ve called a “Fulminan Demon,” an extra-dimensional insectoid of moderate intelligence that can deliver a deadly electrical shock as lightning jumps between the tips of its moth-like antennae. I’ll admit that it isn’t a completely original creature, but I like it, and I think the final design in the drawing turned out well.

This particular creature–and this is fairly typical of my process–originated to fulfill a different worldbuilding need in one of my stories, and began as nothing more than a name. I wanted a character in one of my stories to fight with a weapon that she had harvested from a monster she had killed, but I wanted it to be a relatively small weapon and one with some kind of magical effect.

In designing this weapon, I settled on a rapier-sized insect antennae which could be curled up like a whip and would deliver an electric shock when striking, and I called it a “Fulminan demon’s antennae” deriving the name of the demon (Fulminan) from the world “fulminous” which means “of, relating to, or resembling thunder and lightening.” I know that very few insects have curling antennae, and certainly not to the degree depicted in the drawing above, but one thing that I like to do when designing creatures is to take a trait belonging to a real animal and, to quote the film Spinal Tap, “turn it up to eleven,” and thus the tight curl of the Fulminan demon’s antennae was born.

As for the electric shock I wanted the weapon to deliver, I came up with a just-believable-enough explanation. This is, after all, a fantasy creature, and most stories I will tell about it are going to be less concerned with how its weird fantastical biology works and more with the danger presented by its abilities. So I came up with a plausible-enough explanation for how the electric shock works. Like other varieties of electric animals the Fulminan demon creates electricity essentially by twitching. Each antennae is capable of rapid vibration, and specialized cells inside the antennae create an electrical charge during these vibrations, and the charge can be released in a spark jumping from the tip of one antennae to the other by snapping the antennae out to their full extension. The demon uses this to hunt and to defend itself, as the shock is powerful enough kill humans and stun large animals.

(For the record, when a person uses a Fulminan demon antennae as a weapon, some sort of magic must be used to simulate the natural process by which the demon vibrates its antennae)

So, to provide the easily portable, monster-derived weapon I began the design of the Fulminan demon with its antennae. The design of the rest of the creature more or less revolved around “rule of cool” and “rule of weird” and most of it came about as I drew a first sketch of a Fulminan demon.

The first of these “rules” is fairly self explanatory. Take the basic idea–a giant insect with lightning powers–and add elements that seem to fit its general theme and are cool, awesome, or otherwise rad. Thus, the Fulminan demon gets wings on its back and tail (with armored elytra to protect them), a body designed as a sort of dragonfly-centaur, and two sets of compound eyes (one for mundane sight, one for seeing magic).

The second “rule,” the “rule of weird,” is similar to the “rule of cool” but instead of pursuing the rad pursues the uncanny or unnerving. The Fulminan demon is actually pretty “normal” as demons go. The only physical element of its design derived from the “rule of weird” is its hands, which I gave two thumbs, possibly because as a huge flying bug it will need to be able to grip things well. Like all of my insectoid creatures a lot of the Fulminan demon’s behavior, the way I describe its movement, and its culture (and, though they are largely animalistic creatures which live in isolation, Fulminan demons do have a loose culture) are where the “rule of weird” comes in.

And there you have it. That’s more or less the process by which I designed this particular creature, and it’s a good example of how I create many of the monsters, demons, and creatures that I build into my worlds. There is some sort of impetus (in this case, wanting a particular kind of weapon), then a first step in response to that impetus (the design of the antennae) and then filling in the gaps through sketching and applying additional research, the “rule of cool,” and the “rule of weird.” Designing more human-like races happens somewhat differently, but some of the same steps apply.

So what do you think? How’d the Fulminan demon’s design turn out? Is there anything that I’ve overlooked and should consider in the design of this particular creature, or that you feel my process necessarily fails to account for? How rad is the Fulminan demon on a scale of “pretty rad” to “rad as hell?” Let me know in the comments!

Worldbuilding: The Little Details

Recently, while giving me feedback on a story, LL Phelps of the Taipei Writer’s Group asked me about worldbuilding, and specifically how I go about filling my fantasy worlds with details. I like to think that I’m pretty good at “little details” worldbuilding, and I’ve spent a lot of time practicing working it into my speculative fiction. LL Phelps asked me if “these things just come to you as you write, or if you plan them, or are inspired by another source.” The answer, predictably, is that my worldbuilding is a mixture of all three. The larger details–geography, political structures, magic systems, etc.–I plan out almost completely before I start writing.

Hmm...gotta get the length of this peninsula just right...

Hmm…gotta get the length of this peninsula just right or the ocean currents will be all off…

Sometimes those plans are inspired by sources from history or philosophy or even other fiction. For example, one thing that I like to do is base magic systems on actual metaphysical philosophies from history. The magic system in my Writers of the Future Honorable Mention winning novelette, “Wei Hongyun and the Fog Demon” was based on Chinese cosmology, specifically Feng Shui and the Five Phases. The novel project I am currently working on has a political structure modeled after an exaggerated version of Catholic hierarchy, if church hierarchy had absorbed secular politics, and the city which is the primary setting has a layout loosely modeled after Renaissance Rome, but relocated to sit directly on the coast. Sometimes these larger details seem to spring into my head from the ether, but if I excavate them and try to trace their origins they’re almost always based in a history book, a movie, or a novel I’ve read. The smaller details, though, are only rarely lifted directly from anything. Which is to say, when I’m writing a street scene I don’t usually draw details directly from a source or a google street view or a description of medieval marketplaces.

Fortunately I majored in history and I remember enough of my education to sprinkle my stories with this sort of detail. But sometimes I have to doublecheck something, and a quick google search or prolonged hunt through Wikipedia usually proves sufficient for at least making sure I’m not–for example–injecting something from the early modern period into late renaissance urban economics. This process has also led to my stumbling on some really great blogs which provide lots of information that can be useful in this sort of small-details worldbuilding, such as Lost Kingdom’s Project Cove–which is currently in the midst of a series on medieval villages–or, a website which declares itself dedicated to “the history of domestic paraphernalia.” If you’re looking for places to begin little details worldbuilding research for fantasy settings, these are good starting points.

I hope this is helpful to those who have a hard time filling their worlds with little details! A word of warning, though. I have on multiple occasions bogged myself down by becoming obsessed with the detail of a setting at the expense of the larger story I’m trying to tell. Details are great and can make a world come alive when used effectively, but no one wants to read a treatise on medieval linen laundering methods cleverly disguised as an epic fantasy novel. What are your thoughts? How do you fill your invented worlds with detail? And how much detail is too much? Let me know in the comments. -JeremyTeG

Knight Falls

Excellent post from my writing group mate Patrick Woods over on the Taipei Writer’s Group blog.

Taipei Writers Group

391885631_1ad5886be4_bWhen I was around 14 years old, part of my English class involved quiet reading. We all had a book from the school library, and read it for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. The book I was reading made me laugh so hard I couldn’t contain it. The mirth just forced its way out as stifled giggles, snorts, and teary silent shaking. The people near by kept looking at me like I was having some kind of fit.

That book was Witches Abroad, by Terry (later, and most deservedly, Sir Terry) Pratchett, who died this week aged 66.

It wasn’t the first Discworld book I’d read. I was introduced to Discworld via Audiobooks, which back then were books on cassette. Tony Robinson read abridged versions that were about 3 hours long. I laughed my way through these, then later bought the books and realised there was so much more –…

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Girls are People Too, ya dingus! — or, How Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me Empathy

As an early twenties male who has been writing fantasy and sci-fi since my early teenage years, I identified strongly with this blog post by Robert Jackson Bennett which I recently encountered through Twitter. The basic gist of it is that many male fantasy and sci-fi writers have a hard time writing female characters because it is possible for a young man to go through life without interacting with women as other human beings due to some serious flaws in our society, and how this hurts male writers by hemming them in and depriving them of opportunities to develop empathy.

(If you’re interested in reading an exploration of the problems inherent to the fact that young men can get through life without meaningful interactions with women, go ahead and read Robert Jackson Bennett’s post. I don’t think I could do a better job on that front than he has done. Instead, this post is more an examination of my personal writing journey as a young man who once had a really hard time writing female characters)

Growing up home-schooled with two brothers and no sisters, the only women with whom I regularly interacted for the first ten years of my life were my mother, my friends’ mothers, and Sunday school teachers. Unsurprisingly, the casting of my first stories was similarly male-dominated. Looking back, I don’t think writing stories with all-male casts was a conscious decision on my part. My life was dominated by boys, so my characters were mostly boys. The girls in my life existed in ancillary roles–mothers, sisters, teachers–while the central players were my friends, my brothers and I.

Only later, when I decided to take writing more seriously and started trying to create stories that were more than elaborate fan-fiction or wish fulfillment fantasies did I begin trying to write women. And, much as Robert Jackson Bennett describes in his post, I hit a wall. Writing women and girls didn’t come naturally to me. Where it was easy for me to come up with motivations and personalities for my male characters distilled from the motivations and personalities of my brothers and my friends, my well of experience with women was much more shallow.

(Bear in mind, I’m referring to when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, just entering the public school system, just starting to have female friends, and still over a year out from my first girlfriend)

And, as I struggled to figure out how to write female characters, I kept getting hung up on thoughts like “but is that something GIRLS care about?” or “shouldn’t she be thinking about her period every once in a while? I know nothing about that…will that make this character feel unrealistic?” or “does this girl character read too much like a boy?” Because I had so little experience with girls (and because hormones made me at once endlessly fascinated with them, utterly confused by them, and terrified of acting like a weirdo when talking with them) I psyched myself out trying to imagine my way across what I assumed to be a vast rift between the sexes.

When writing male characters, their maleness hardly factored into their character. Granted, as a male writer, any gender-specific or sex-specific attributes that male characters might have had probably came through intuitively without my having to consciously impart them. But the point is that those characters didn’t start from a baseline of “maleness,” rather they started from a basic desire, an idea for a backstory, or, more often than I’d like to admit a badass drawing of a dude in armor. In contrast, the first thing I ever knew about my female characters was that they were female, and their development would get stuck there, because I found myself unable to imagine my way into what I at the time believed to be the “alien female mind.”

The Average Female: as envisioned by thirteen year old Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. via this google image search result.

The Average Female: as envisioned by thirteen year old Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. via this google image search result.

I finally got past this hurdle, not through any profound and powerfully honest introspection, but through watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” (Is that shameful? I dunno… a lot of my important realizations have come through fiction–“The Brothers Karamazov,” “A Wizard of Earthsea,” “Moby Dick,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) “Buffy” is absolutely brimming with excellent female characters, and I distinctly remember realizing that I had been obsessing over exactly the wrong questions when writing female characters while watching the episode “Grave.” Rather than asking gender-specific questions of my female characters, I should have been interrogating them in exactly the same way I was my male characters–what do you want? how has your past affected you? what about yourself do you hate? what about yourself do you love? if you could do anything, what would it be?

It’s these kinds of questions that make strong characters, not questions like “would a girl really be this focused on a single task, or should she be multitasking more, or thinking about a hundred things at once because y’know that old stereotype about men’s minds and women’s minds?”

Because, as that episode of “Buffy” made me realize, at some basic level, people are just people. We all operate on similar basic drives. We want to be loved, we want to be challenged, we want to achieve our goals, we want to like ourselves, and so on. The expression of those motivations might change from person to person, and where gender or sexual orientation or race intersects with culture the focus of those drives might change along with the means of pursuing them, but the basic motivations are not dissimilar. Even people with whom you disagree share the same set of basic drives. Even people who do horrible things are at some level driven by the same set of motivations as everyone else, only expressed in some twisted and horrible way.

Someone who did horrible things, for a very understandable reason. via yet another gis result.

Someone who did some horrible things, for a very understandable reason. via yet another gis result.

That realization is the basis of empathy, which is the lifeblood of good characterization. And, you know, a handy tool for living life as a decent human being…

Right now I’m developing a novel spearheaded by a female protagonist, and while I still sometimes wonder whether I’m writing her “realistically” as a woman, I don’t worry about whether she’s an interesting or compelling character, at least any more than I worry about any of my male characters. And the swell folks in my writing group, many of whom are women, haven’t raised any objections to her on the grounds that she’s not believable as a female. Does that mean I have achieved my ninth-degree black belt in empathizing? No. But it does mean that, when I don’t let myself get hung up on the female-ness of my female characters and just let them be people, I do a decent enough job of writing them.

It’s almost too obvious to say, so I’ll let Dr. Steve Brule summarize and leave a reminder to myself and any other men who make women the Other when they over-think writing their female characters:


How Narrative Fiction can Enhance Music, and Vice Versa.

When I was younger, my parents tried their best to help me develop a musical life. I remember my first piano lesson with my father–around five or six years old, I would guess–and both the excitement preceding it, the first few enthusiastic practice sessions, and the eventual frustration with my parent’s well-meaning encouragement to practice every day, and for longer than five minutes. I was in music lessons–first piano, then violin, then acoustic guitar–until middle school, at which point I took up the bass guitar of my own volition in order to secure a coveted position in the middle school youth group band. In college, I was part of a short-lived “tiny guitar band” with a hall mate, him on the ukulele and me on the mandolin. But after freshman year I had more or less given up on music as a form of expression, shifting my attention instead to writing.

This antenna galaxy looks kind of like a backwards bass clef. Otherwise, picture unrelated.

This antenna galaxy looks kind of like a backwards bass clef. Otherwise, picture unrelated.

But music is still a big part of my life. I listen to it when I write, when I’m on the subway, or when I’m feeling like doing nothing more than lying on the couch with headphones in. I listen mostly to either low-key folksy rock music — Fleet Foxes, Sigur Ros, and Lorde, with Daft Punk thrown in as an outlier–or aggressive, up-beat anti-establishment music–Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Modest Mouse, System of a Down. Oh, and also Kanye West, who for some reason helps me write about cavemen and dragons. But that’s another blog post.

Two of my favorite songs are “Cosmic Love” by Florence & The Machine and “Cowboy Dan” by Modest Mouse. Both songs have become more meaningful to me because of interactions between narrative fiction and musical storytelling, though in quite different ways.

“Cowboy Dan” has been with me longer. In middle school, my older brother and I would ride the bus for half an hour to attend poorly-taught Latin classes with some other homeschooled kids, and I would frequently listen to Modest Mouse’s album “Lonesome Crowded West” on those bus rides. I developed a strange and personal attachment to “Cowboy Dan.” I would frequently wonder about what had driven the song’s eponymous protagonist to his desperate state, and during high school I thrice tried my hand at writing a short story derived from the emotions and imagery of the song. None of those stories were any good, but each caused me to examine the song in a different way. One story was a straight-up western, and though the story itself was fine I hated it because it was so tonally dissonant with the song I was inspired by. A month ago I finally managed to write a story–also titled “Cowboy Dan,” and currently in the process of being submitted to short story markets–which captured the tone of the song and the emotions it made me feel, though it strayed far from the actual meaning of the song. In this way the process of arriving at my “Cowboy Dan” story helped me to understand what was important to me about the song, and I have a better appreciation of what my love for the song says about me as a person now that I have come to that understanding.

I don’t remember when I first heard “Cosmic Love” by Florence and the Machine, but it couldn’t have been before senior year of high school. At any rate, I have enjoyed the song for as long as I’ve been aware of it, but it was not one of my favorites until a year ago when I stumbled upon a reddit thread by user Ganeos-Stabro_Paran on the Malazan Book of the Fallen fan subreddit in which he listed a number of songs which reminded him of characters from the series (spoiler warning if you click that link). I can’t explain why due to spoilers, but he selected “Cosmic Love” as representative of the relationship between two characters. I listened to the song again with those characters in mind, and I almost wept. It was a perfect connection, at least in my mind. And now “Cosmic Love” has taken on a whole new meaning for me, and whenever I listen to it I get the same hollow, sad feeling I first experienced when reading that part of the Malazan series. This, despite the fact that as far as I can tell “Cosmic Love” itself has nothing to do with those particular characters, nor any particular connection to the details of their relationship. Again, the connection seems to be purely tonal and emotional, but the connection is incredibly strong.

So what to take away from this? First, music and narrative fiction are both powerful, and a lot of that power comes from tone and the way that it evokes emotions in the reader/listener. Second exploring a song through narrative fiction–whether by writing a story inspired by it, by imagining a narrative behind the music, or by connecting the music to a preexisting narrative–can make the music itself tremendously more meaningful. I’m not sure why that is, or even if it’s a universally accessible phenomenon. But, for me at least, I will be on the lookout for music to inspire stories, or stories to lend an additional weight to music.

What do you think? If you have any similar experiences, feel free to share them in the comments. Or, if you think I’m a pretentious fool, go ahead and let me know. I’ve been thickening my skin on rejection letters lately.


What’s wrong with Present Tense?

Taipei Writers Group

Recently I’ve been working on a short story to submit to this quarter’s Writers of the Future contest. The story is a gothic fantasy, set in an alternate world which is dominated by flintlock weapons as well as faerie, divine, and demonic magic. I’ve actually written two stories set in this world, and I’ve been working on an outline for a novel with the same setting.

Overall, I like it a lot. But there is a wrinkle: For whatever reason, when I write in this world, I want to write in Present Tense.

I don’t even understand why. Honestly, for whatever reason, I just like the “sound” of the Present Tense within this world. For example: “In the Clandestine Market, one can buy all manner of hidden things” sounds better to me in the context of this story and world than “In the Clandestine Market, one could buy all manner of…

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Synecdoche, New York and the Problem of Writing Realism

Taipei Writers Group

Spoiler Warning: This post discusses the content of the film Synecdoche, New York, including many plot details.

I recently watched for the first time and fell in love with Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. The film is heavily layered with themes, but one which stands out to me on each repeated viewing is the difficulty of creating a “true-to-life” work of art.Throughout the film playwright Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) struggles to make good use of his MacArthur Fellowship and create a stage play which will be a “piece of brutal realism and honesty.” Initially, Cotard focuses on coaching his actors to realistically convey the emotions and daily struggles of their characters, but over the course of the film his vision expands as he strives to create a perfect reflection of the real world within his expansive warehouse set, complete with doppelganger actors playing himself, his family and…

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The Book of the New Sun and the Importance of Craft in Fiction Writing (also, Something about Rereading)

Taipei Writers Group

As a person with an almost unhealthy craving for novelty, I do not often revisit media, even media that I genuinely enjoy. Often I will begin a re-read of a book, a re-watch of a movie or TV show, or a re-play of a video game of which I have fond memories, only to become disinterested and bored once the initial wave of nostalgia has passed. The only books which I have re-read completely tend to be either:

a) assignments for school, which I have had to dissect and mine for quotes and citations

b) books which I have read for research, to better absorb the information

c) philosophy books (or philosophically dense novels) which are difficult to understand on the first reading


d) books which I appreciate as much for their craft as for their storytelling

Books belonging to group (d) may not even be my favorite stories…

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