Saturday, 8 September 2012

Book 62 of 2012: The Lord of the Rings

I have a little tradition where, each year for the last eleven or so years, I reread The Lord of the Rings, this year being the twelfth time I’ve read it (my first read was in 2001, so in 2002 I made a point of reading it twice to make it easy to keep track of how many times I’d read it. Me, obsessive compulsive?) I’ve read it in single volume editions, three volume editions (I’m still keeping my eye out for a decent six volume edition); paperback, hardback and now ebook version; I’ve read it in Scotland, England, Finland, Russia and Estonia; and it’s kept me company on many a journey or quiet day at work.

Summer generally heralds my reread time for the book; longer days, more sunlight hours, time off work or holidays. Plus it avoids awkward moments like one December 31st around six or seven years ago when I realised with horror that I was still only halfway through The Return of the King and shut myself in my bedroom until seven o’clock in the evening to finish it before midnight!

I’m a big fan of Tolkien, having read The Hobbit as a six-year-old as well as being a massive fan of The Father Christmas Letters (another book I’ve started a tradition of reading each year, now I have my own copy, right in the run up to Christmas of course). In the last year I’ve read more than a few books about Tolkien and his influences and it was interesting to learn that his degree was in English Language and Literature, the very same degree I’m hoping to acquire in the next couple of years. I also share a fascination with languages and during my first linguistics course became very interested in Old English (in the final exam I chose to write about an Old English text, despite having planned to do the transcription question, and received a Distinction). It makes me wonder whether Tolkien’s writing has had more of an influence on my life that I’ve really realised.

This has the potential to be a very long and rambling book review, so I’ll try not to waffle too much. The Lord of the Rings is easily one of my favourite books. It’s certainly my favourite fantasy book and probably, if I had to choose one book to be marooned with on a desert island, the one I would pick, which maybe explains why I always try to have it in my bag whenever I’m going away somewhere. I have a little bit of a collection of copies of The Lord of the Rings, it’s hard to explain why; I like having all the different covers (except the ones from the films which don’t do much for me because I can be a bit of a cover snob), it’s kind of cool to see how the prices have changed over time (the edition published the year I was born was £4.95, the copy I purchased to take to Russia was £14.99), and because it’s one of those books I read so frequently it’s inclined to get a little bit battered (especially when you’re jamming a single-volume edition into a handbag).

Last year I was trying to set myself a personal record for most books read in the year, and also using a small shoulder bag for work which wasn’t designed for large fantasy tomes, so I read the book in three volumes. I’ve only got one three volume edition, the one I got when I decided to read it after I saw The Fellowship of the Ring. Personally I prefer to read it in the single-volume editions however my copies of these aren’t exactly practical; the oldest is a little older than I am, somewhere in the region of twenty-six, it’s cover has been taped back on twice and it’s looking a little worse for wear; one is a Reader’s Digest edition I have from my Grampy’s book collection, it’s got a lovely red-brown cover with gold lettering, it’s a bit worn too and the paper is very thin; I’ve got an illustrated version which weighs about half a tonne and while the pictures are lovely to look at, it’s not portable at all (but that’s the one I’m going to use when I read it to my kids as a bedtime story!); then there’s the copy I have from when it was first released as a single volume (with practically no appendices) and the copy I bought to take to Russia. I suppose I could have used one of those, but instead I decided to treat myself and spent £13 on an electronic version for my Kindle.

One good thing about reading different versions of the same book is that it seems to make it easier to pick up on things that you’ve overlooked before. You’d think that after having read it so many times and being so familiar with the story I would’ve seen all there was to see, but that’s really not the case at all. A bonus of having the Kindle is that I’m able to highlight the passages that I love so much easier (uh, kind of ended up with 76 pages of notes and highlights at the end of this book, oops), I don’t end up with half a dozen pieces of post-it sticking out of my book or hundreds of little bookmarks threatening to damage the pages.

Each time I read it I seem to find myself focusing on (and loving) different characters and parts of the book. This time around it was the hobbits, specifically Merry, Pippin and Sam. Sam is one of the characters who has grown on me with each reading of the book; I vaguely remember finding him a little bit spineless during my first couple of readings but that’s gradually changed and he’s now easily one of my favourites. I’ve always loved Merry and Pippin for the light-hearted relief that they bring to the events (I’m always slightly surprised when I realise that they weren’t just made like that for the films, ditto for Gimli).

I’ve also come to enjoy more of Tolkien’s poetry and songs now as well. I know that when I first read The Lord of the Rings I had a tendency to skim over most of the songs (with the exception of a handful that appear in the films in one form or another so I could remind myself of the film version rather than the book one). Maybe it’s because I’ve read more about Tolkien (and more of his other works, such as the first books in the Hirstory of Middle-earth series that I read last year); or maybe it’s because I’ve studied a little more poetry and I’ve learnt to appreciate it more; maybe my tastes are changing as I get older. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Certainly I’ve highlighted at least one or two lines from each poem or song in the book this time around. I was definitely pleased to note the emphasis in alliteration in one or two of the poems/songs as well – Old English poetry relied heavily on alliteration and I think being aware of that, and Tolkien’s background, made me appreciate it more.

In the past I’ve read this book very quickly (as evidenced from my ability to read the whole of Book Six, plus appendices) in the space of about five hours one night), but this time it took me a little bit longer. I think that this was due to a number of factors; I had work (and while my Kindle is perfect for transporting large books to and from work, if we’re having a laugh in the canteen I’m not about to whip out my book no matter how gripping I’m finding it), I also caught a fantastic cold from my lovely husband and that made me feel a bit rotten (I’d say about 90% of my reading time these days is in bed with a couple of hours at night and an hour or so in the morning, with more on weekends) when I’m not well I just want to snuggle up and sleep, never mind reading.

I’ve also noticed that reading electronic copies of books seems to make me go slower. I think it’s because you don’t get a tangible sense of how far through the book you are, or how close to the end of a chapter even. I like the percentage display in the corner of the screen but it’s not quite the same as having a good chunk of book in one hand and another chunk of book in the other. In some ways a Kindle is easier to pick up and put down. When I’m putting a book down I have to mark the page carefully and set it down safely so the bookmark doesn’t fall out. With my Kindle I just turn it off, knowing that when I come back to it I’ll be at the right place (if I’m really wanting to make sure I get to the right place I can even highlight the next paragraph I’m to read and then just unhighlight it when I’m ready to go again).

The maps and family trees weren’t as clear in the Kindle version as in the book versions. I was hoping to be able to zoom in on the maps by making the text size larger, but alas, that’s not the case. In the map showing the whole of Middle-earth it’s quite faint so you online get a very general impression of what the map looks like. It’s be a little bit frustrating if I was reading it for the first time, as it stands I’ve got all my different editions and it wasn’t so difficult to pull out a my illustrated copy if I wanted to have a really close look at the map. I’ve probably read it enough times, and studied the maps for long enough that I could probably draw the map from memory better than a map of the UK. I’ve also got a map book somewhere in the spare bedroom that I inherited from my Grampy that I must remember to dig out and put on the shelf ready for my next reread.

The footnotes were also a little bit of a sticky point. There would be a little asterisk with a line beneath it which was incredibly difficult to hit at times (sometimes I’d make the font size larger to make it a bigger target). Then all of the footnotes were on their own individual pages at the very end of the book. As I’m pedantic and like to read from cover to cover I then had to skip through a bunch of footnotes that I’d read before.

On the whole though, I was very impressed with the quality of the ebook. I suppose because I’ve just been reading free ebooks I’ve gotten used to a slightly cheap/amateurish feel with some of them. This one had a nice front cover and a back cover as well. No obvious errors and it was well formatted. It was also created from the 2005 anniversary edition of the book which meant that it had a new introduction that I’d not read before and the page numbers tied up with the Reader’s Companion that we were given by a family friend several years ago.

I’m really pleased I decided to go with the ebook version this time around (though I’m still considering reading one of my single volume copies for next year’s reread). I’m thinking I’ll probably invest in The Hobbit in ebook format at some point, though maybe not this year as I have a paperback copy in mind for my reread before I see the film, and I’ll certainly get The Silmarillion and possible The History of Middle-earth at some point. Not to replace any copies in my collection, you understand, rather to compliment the ones I have and make reading them a little bit more flexible.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace – all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.
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