Earlier, I wrote an e-mail to a friend (I hope I can call him that) about the death of Poul Anderson, the great science fiction writer who passed away late on July 31st, 2001. It’s been many years since I read a Poul Anderson book, but I still have several on my bookshelves.
I described to my friend how, even though I had never met Poul, his passing seemed to weaken the infrastructure of science fiction. There was suddenly another name on my bookshelf without a body to back it up. While describing this, I realized that it wasn’t the infrastructure of science fiction that I was worried about, but my infrastructure.
I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, starting with Heinlein’s Red Planet and moving on to Bradbury’s R is for Rocket and S is for Space. I worked through much of the meager science fiction section (at that time, anyway) in the Durango Public Library and started combing the paperback exchange racks for likely books. I remember one Christmas vacation during which I set a goal to read five of John Norman’s Gor books (yes, I read the schlock, too) and I set up a makeshift tent in my bedroom, complete with beanbag chair, lamp and coaster. At that time, books were my inspiration.
Now, I have large, double-sided bookshelves in three rooms, filled with all kinds of books, but mostly science fiction. Though most of them simply sit there, holding each other up, they act as a buttress for my life. My wife will tell you that I can think of a story or passage, go to a shelf, and pull the book right down. If I lose track of an important one, I try to keep from panicking until I remember what happened to it or who I loaned it to. As material items, they are probably not worth much. As a structure for my life, they are priceless. As each author passes away, especially from the the Golden Age of science fiction, my world shudders a little. I still think of the books as my inspiration, but somehow my focus has shifted over the years from the magic in the books to the memory of that magic. The books themselves are symbols for that memory, and symbols of their authors.
I can’t help but wonder if I’m placing too much importance on these symbols of living people. My favorite authors will all die someday; a few have come close already, others have already gone. Should I allow their passing to shake my world so much?
As I think about it, that path leads to despair. Am I lashing my inspiration to the heartbeats of my favorite authors, using their works as symbols of their lives? If so, that’s wrong. An author’s work is a legacy, but it is not the sum total of his or her life, and the work can continue to be inspirational long after the author is gone. Using their books as my inspiration for writing is missing the point.
I know that I have more respect for the authors than that, and I know that I can draw inspiration from long dead writers, as I did in my poem “To Keats”, elsewhere on this site. Yes, the books are important, and I should continue to value them. But the words are the heart of the matter. Those books on my shelves are for appreciation, not inspiration. As I’ve heard “real” writers say, inspiration is everywhere. I need to get back to focusing on the magic books give me, and look to the world for my ideas.
I guess there’s only one cure for that. I’d better get to reading again, and I’d better start observing things a little more closely.