The Never Ending Book

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On Monday, our guest-blogger C. Alexander London wrote about being an accidental adventurer. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

By the far the question I am asked most often by my young readers is, as well as by teachers and librarians: “When does the next Accidental Adventures book come out?”

It’s a flattering question for an author, and one of the many blessings of writing series fiction. If the characters and the story resonate, readers will demand more. Having only published the first book (We Are Not Eaten By Yaks) in a planned quadrology about the TV-addicted children of world famous explorers, it is gratifying to know that readers are eager for more.

The hype surrounding The Hunger Games trilogy or The latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book or, of course, the mother of them all, Harry Potter, shows just how eager fans of a popular series can be for its continuation. Younger readers, who struggle with the constant state of change and loss that is childhood, yearn for familiar characters and the persistent worlds that exist in well-made series. It’s only natural. There is a sadness that comes with finishing a beloved book, whether you’re the writer or the reader.

“I grow fond of these characters I bring into being,” the acclaimed English novelist, David Mitchell, told an interviewer, explaining why he brings some characters back in book after book. “In my adult life I have spent more weeks in [their company] than I have with my own flesh-and-blood parents or brother. Letting them dissolve into nothingness feels too much like abandoning an inconvenient cat by a reservoir.”

This dissolution into nothingness is feeling well known to readers, the hollow feeling when the pages have all run out; the longing for more time in that imagined world when the author has no more to say.

Series books can keep this dissolution at bay, for both reader and writer, for years at a time. It was easier to bear sending Harry Potter back to the Dursleys when you knew he’d be back at Hogwarts in the next publishing cycle.

Of course, there is a dark side to the love of these series. A recent article in the New Yorker, “Just Write It,” about George R. R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire trilogy, describes the madness that can descend on fans when the next book in the series is delayed, how adoration can quickly turn to resentment and the toll that can take on an author’s relationship with his readers.

It can be painful for an author, struggling to deliver. The more successful the series, the more pressure the storyteller is under to meet the needs and expectations of fans. And for the fans, there is always the lurking sense of the doom that their beloved world—whether it be Hogwarts or the conflict-ridden districts of the Hunger Games—must come to an end. After the 7th Harry Potter book, many people I know felt a real and profound sense of loss.

There is, however, a technology that has shielded the readers of one series from this sense of loss: Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of the five books of Moses.

Every year, Jews read aloud these holy books and every year, at the end of the reading of the fifth book, Deuteronomy, Moses dies. Moses is the closest person that Torah has to a protagonist and, by some accounts, is himself the author of the whole shebang, or at least, the amanuensis for the Creator. And then boom, he’s dead, after a year of reading and study that has created more arguments than 1000 Tolkien message boards combined.

So what do the Jews who have been reading this series with more faith and fervor than even the most die-hard Twilight fans do to prevent that devastating feeling of completion?

They party and they start over.

Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the annual reading of the Torah, also celebrates the beginning of the annual reading of the Torah. After finishing the final passages of Deuteronomy, the first passages of Genesis are read.  The last breath of Moses goes right into the breath that creates the universe, that brings light into darkness and sets off what is, for believers, the first story ever told.

And then, to top it off, there’s dancing.

That empty of feeling you get when you finish a really good book doesn’t ever come, because you never finish. You read it again, and you dance. When the Rabbis are faced with the inevitable “what next?” they can answer with the creation of the world.

This didn’t happen by accident. It was in the 14th century that the idea of going right into the book Genesis after Deuteronomy was introduced. It was an innovation to give comfort at the end of reading and an affirmation that study and learning of Torah never ends.

As a thoroughly secular author, I do not pretend to have illusions of holiness for my books—there are wedgies and lizard poop and talking yaks, after all—and I don’t think my books could bear 2,000 years of rereading (maybe 200?), but Simchat Torah, does offer some help for secular authors and readers.

We rely on our own sages of literacy—librarians and teachers—informed, professional, and sensitive to the needs of readers, to find their own innovations to keep the cycle of reading going. There are summer reading campaigns and parties; there are new social websites for book lovers; there are always new series to discover.

No beloved series can last forever, but a reading life can, as one book breathes into another.

C. Alexander London is the author of We Are Not Eaten By Yaks: An Accidental Adventure, and the forthcoming sequel, We Dine With Cannibals. As Charles London, his grown-up alter ego, he wrote One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community.

Posted on May 25, 2011

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