If you haven’t read Ender’s Game by now, and you’re someone who reads blogs from strangers for book recommendations, I’m going to assume that you’ll never read Ender’s Game. Maybe you’ve already bought it, and it’s sat on your to-be-read pile of books, gathering dust. I get that. Sometimes, a to-be-read pile of books is a frightening mountain, and I understand that choosing a modern classic anti-war novel about an 11-year-old battle expert set in a nebulous future over, say, John Irving’s new book, seems like the equivalent of choosing a Tiger Beat over the Economist. Which one will make you smarter?
Well, both. Knowledge is knowledge. Charting a pop star’s trends is a lot like following the stock market, and from what I hear, it’s good to be in the Justin Bieber business these days.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, I’m not recommending Ender’s Game.
I’m recommending the parallel novel to Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow.
Parallel novels are an amazing thing, as well as books that are set in the same universe as other books, yet still keeping that universe separate from our own. Stephen King is a master at this – his Dark Tower series is basically one long stick of tape that connects all of his universes together. With a book as popular as Ender’s Game, and the rest of the books in the series not as popular as the first, Orson Scott Card’s choice to write another novel set at Battle School makes tons of sense (money).
And yet, Ender’s Shadow isn’t a cash grab. The character of Bean is, to my mind, the most interesting character in the Ender Universe. Bean is incredibly intelligent, ruthless, and completely Machiavellian. If Card wasn’t set on making Bean a hero, he could have easily become the most superb of supervillains. And Ender’s Shadow is an excellent stand-alone novel, a meditation on heroism and what it means to be human. Card makes the reader feel for Bean as he watches coolly while Ender becomes lavished with glory and praise for things that Bean could have done just as easily.
I don’t know many other parallel novels off the top of my head, but I dearly, dearly wish for a parallel novel in the Harry Potter universe from Hermione’s point of view. Or Ron’s. Or both, switching chapters, watching Harry as he becomes the Chosen One, while Hermione and Ron are left to pick up the pieces of their lives when Harry isn’t around, mucking it up with ol’ Voldemort. I’m sure there’s fan fiction to this effect – but still. How busy can a billionaire be? Churn it out, Rowling.
Anyway, until that parallel novel comes out, read this one. It doesn’t have that moral, damning heft of being a modern (banned) classic. It’s just a good book.
Books are magical. They are also odd, cumbersome things that take up shelf space (but provide excellent insulation) and attract dust and silverfish (which should be prettier, considering the name). As I go down the rabbit hole, listening to podcasts (and my parents) trumpet the coming of the e-book, I clutch to my dusty, silverfished, cumbersome tomes and eye my iPad from the corner of the room, like it’s up to something.
Which it probably is.
The point is, as a book lover, it’s harder to justify buying physical copies of books sometimes. I’m a 20-something that’s constantly moving, and while a 50 cent book from the library bin is tempting, it also means I’ll throw my back out before I can even pretend to hate my 30th birthday, even though I love round numbers. So when a book comes along that you have to own in print, no question, it’s comforting. Print isn’t dead.
And, yet, I still only own this book as a PDF.
It’s because the cheapest copy I’ve found is still 200 dollars.
The Codex Seraphinianus is most likely the most bizarre and disgusting book I’ve ever “read.” I flip the pages on my iPad in mounting awe, all 250+, and I feel – something. I’m bewildered, and touched. Moved, and revolted. I’m amazed – flabbergasted. I spend about half an hour a week with it, sometimes on a certain page, sometimes just flipping back and forth.
It was published in 1981 (those first editions are about a thousand bucks), and its author, Luigi Serafini is reclusive and strange. His website leads to a blank white page. His creative output is small. But the dual volume book speaks (and doesn’t speak) for itself. The greatest description of the Codex is that it is an encyclopedia from an alternate universe – an illustrated guide to a world and life we understand is like our own and yet completely divergent. There is writing, but it is indecipherable. Serafini reportedly said, “The book creates a feeling of illiteracy which, in turn, encourages imagination, like children seeing a book: they cannot yet read it, but they realise that it must make sense.”
Sometimes, when I flip through it, I get this vague sense of purpose. I can’t be the only one who feels this way about the book, or other mysteries of the world; I feel like, sometimes, I was put on the planet for a reason. When I hear a manuscript described as “lost” or a text “indecipherable” or a treasure that’s “possibly imaginary,” I think – maybe – I am meant to be the one to find it, to decipher it, to make the treasure real. It’s a stupid notion – it passes quickly, and I can move on to re-watching another episode of Gilmore Girls.
But it’s amazing a book can make me feel this way. You can find a copy too – google it. It’s somewhere.
There is a delicious rivalry between Young Adult novel enthusiasts (who are above the young adult age) and those that want to rip that copy of Hunger Games out of their commuter-rail grip and throw a copy of Ulysses at their stomachs. One side sees the young adult section as the answer to the failure of the post-post modern novel, the other side sees young adult readers as worthless ninnies who can’t watch half an episode of Guiding Light without getting confused.
Neither side is right. That’s why the rivalry is so excellent – they both have to continually read novels on both sides to make good points, and if people are reading, then we all win. Things Not Seen can abstain completely from the fight, because it doesn’t fall within either of these camps. Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements is MIDDLE READER, a section that might as well be a benign bookstore tumor to both the stodgy intellectuals and the teen werewolf apologists. Unless you have a young reader in your house, I can only imagine the last time you looked at a middle reader book was the last time you thought fondly back to Beverly Cleary, and her physics-defying Runaway Ralph novels.
As a middle reader novel, Things Not Seen is strange. The protagonist, for one, is 15. For two, lots of the book is devoted to a budding romance between him and a blind girl. These two factors alone make it different than your average “Ages 10 and Up” novel.
The book centers on a paranormal event in which the main character becomes invisible. The most salient point of the novel – the theme that is most interesting, and the reason I’m recommending this book to you today – is that his parents can’t help him. They are two scientists, even – and they can’t help him. Things Not Seen is based upon the very real problem that middle readers come to face – parents aren’t superheroes. They don’t have any more answers than you do, and in the blown up, metaphorical world that Andrew Clements creates, when you go invisible, you only have yourself to figure out how to become visible again.
For some reason, this book has been on my mind. It’s a classic, even though it’s only 12 years old. It beautifully illustrates something that we have all felt at one point or another, but the family remains in tact. Go and find a copy, read it in an afternoon. Then… hand it to a younger cousin.