Tuesday, May 2, 2006

I've been reading lately...

Maybe because my novel is finished, and I still have yet to plunge into the next one, maybe because World of Warcraft is starting to lose some of its appeal, maybe because going to the megabookstore has become both a favorite Friday-evening family event and what my wife and I do on the rare occasions we get dates, but I've been reading some books. It's pretty cool, this reading thing. You might think I read a lot—it sure seems like a lot of "our kind" (more on that in a minute) do, but the painful truth is that I buy more books than I read. I have too many other things competing for my attention, including writing books. And given that my day job involves writing books, it's sometimes hard to spend a lot of time outside of work with words. 

But I love words, and books. I can't get around that. And now that I've started reading more, it's feeling really good, and I don't want it to stop.

And right now I just want to blather about some of the books I've been reading. (I am flat on my back today, as I was yesterday. I did something inexplicable to my back—I think it was nothing more elaborate than sitting on the floor to play Xiaolin Showdown with my son, but I'm pretty well immobilized. Fortunately, I have a laptop,which allowed me to spend most of the day yesterday playing WoW. This morning, though, was server maintenance, so I read instead. Hence this post.)

A couple of months ago I read The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It was a really interesting premise—a man who involuntarily travels through time, visiting his wife in her childhood as well as his own childhood and some glimpses of the future. But it actually left me depressed for like three days afterward. I'm still not entirely sure why, but I think the main part of it is that I was dissatisfied with Claire spending her whole life waiting for Henry, including a period of many years after his death. Hope that's not too big a spoiler for those of you who haven't read it yet. Still, the book was well-written and enjoyable.

I've been making my way through The Tales of the Last War, the Eberron short-story anthology that includes a sort of prologue to my novel. It's very cool to read other authors' takes on the world and the war, and it is definitely inspiring my work, though I haven't finished it yet.

On Saturday I read A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby, to whom my only previous exposure was the movie version of High Fidelity. That was quite good. During a relatively melancholy period of my life a couple years ago, I referred often to the sentences that open High Fidelity: "What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?" I had observed my tendency, when feeling blue, to put on melancholy music (made so much easier by my iPod), which only fed the misery—to the point where I could never be sure whether I had actually been feeling blue before I put the music on or not. Then I created a playlist called The Happy Drug, and I've been feeling much better, thank you. 

Anyway, you'd think that line about misery and my experience with The Time Traveler's Wife should have warned me off of Nick Hornby. That, and the fact that the book's cover copy clearly states that it's about four people who meet on a rooftop, planning to throw themselves off. But it was actually a very enjoyable book, with no lingering depressive aftereffects.

I've also been reading Scientific American recently, thanks to my discovery of the Scientific American podcast. I am not a scientist by training—in fact, I took no hard science in college at all, meeting the requirements (or guidelines, at that time) by virtue of the AP physics I did in high school (as well as AP calculus and the one semester of multivariate calculus I took my first semester of college). Nevertheless, I enjoy both the magazine and the podcast a great deal. 

And that's what led me to the book I'm reading now, which was what prompted this post and the couple of wacky things I'm going to talk about in a minute. The book is Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, by David Berreby. (I'm sorry, folks, but I'm hopelessly frustrated with the Amazon affiliate system, so you're just going to have to look the books up on your own. However, if you'd do me the courtesy of clicking one of the links to the right to get to Amazon in the first place, I'd sure appreciate it.) 

The book was reviewed in Scientific American Mind and discussed on the podcast. It's basically a neuroscientist's approach to the question of how and why our brains seem inclined to divide people into categories—fundamentally, to decide who is "Us" ('like me") and who is "Them" ("not so much like me"). It is not a frighteningly scientific book—in fact, I spent the first several chapters wishing he'd hurry up and get to the point, because I felt like he was ccarefully laying groundwork that I didn't need him to go over. I'm getting into the meat of it now, though, and again, finding it very interesting. 

At some point in this last chapter, though (Chapter 10, for those of you following along at home), I started thinking about "D&D players" as a human kind of which I am a member. I certainly appreciate that talking to other D&D players makes me feel included, like there's a common language we share. And I've heard other people talk about what a great relief it is to find other players after a long period of isolation—almost like a homecoming, such a relief to find other people who understand what you mean when you're talking about paladins and mind flayers. 

Andy Collins posted a bit on his website recently about "lifestyle games," those games (including D&D) that, essentially, define a kind of person in a way that family games generally don't. (To speak of "Sorry! players" as a meaningful human kind would, I think, be a little facetious, although "Scrabble players"—or at least, "serious Scrabble players" has more weight to it.) And it's certainly the case that the folks in charge of the D&D brand and marketing have begun to embrace that concept recently, of which the D&D bumper stickers are but one sign. 

But whenever I think about that idea, and the related concept that "geek chic" is gaining acceptance in the U.S., that, somehow, it's becoming cool to be a nerd, I think about the guy at GenCon in 2003, who wasn't attracted to the cool shoulder bag with the D&D logo that we were giving away with a purchase of the 3.5 core books. He wasn't comfortable admitting his identity as "the kind of person who plays D&D," and I know there are lots of people like him out there. And I think Berreby's book makes some key points about why that is.

"All people are members of human kinds, and so whenever human kinds are the subject, the conversation feels personal. Reading the news in the morning, we're pained to learn that studies show 'our people' are fat, or do poorly on math tests, or don't spend enough time with their children. We're proud and pleased when our athletes win at the Olympics, or when we read that our troops acted nobly. We're scared when we learn about a human kind that threatens ours." (p. 27)

"Ever felt anxious that you're not a good mother? Or said some act—burning the flag, torturing prisoners—was 'un-American'? You were referring to the map of human kinds to place yourself.
"That act makes for strong emotions. We want other mothers to be good to their children, even if we never meet them; we want soldiers of our nation to behave decently, even if we'll never know what they did. We want to feel good about our human kinds and, through them, ourselves." (p. 44)

I think that's the key thing. Many of us have had a lot of exposure to people we'd have to include in "our kind"—D&D players, or fans of fantasy fiction, or gamers in general—that we're a little uncomfortable identifying ourselves with. It's not just a question of the stereotypes that other people have of gamers, but of our own exposure to people we'd just as soon not be lumped in a group with. If I tell you I'm a gamer, or if I walk down the street with the D&D logo emblazoned on my bag or drive around with a D&D bumper sticker on my car, I am inviting others to group me in with a human kind that a lot of people have had very limited, and not very positive, exposure to. 

Because of my job, it's almost impossible for me to avoid identifying myself as a D&D player. What's been surprising to me since I started this job, over six years ago now, is how rarely that has ever been a negative experience for me. My experience in The Sound of Music last fall is a good example. So here I am, a D&D designer working with an explicitly Christian theater company. Hey, I'm a Christian, I don't have a problem with this, but I sort of expect to meet some raised eyebrows, at least, since conservative Christian churches have typically been among the least welcoming for "my kind" of people. (Among other kinds.) What do I find instead? The director's brother works for GenCon. The guy who's playing the Captain has a brother-in-law or nephew or something (I can't remember now) who's into D&D. The young woman playing Liesl—her husband is into Magic and D&D. Two of the stage crew are active players. I ended up bringing in autographed copies of a couple of my books for all these people, and never once met with a, "Isn't that Satanic?" sort of response. In fact, about the worst I've ever heard is, "Wow, do people still play that?"

Surprise, surprise. Maybe the marketeers are right, and "geek chic" is in. It's certainly true that wearing my hobby on my sleeve has prompted a lot more positive interactions than negative ones. There was the guy on the street in Key West, Florida who saw my 3.5 T-shirt and struck up a conversation, and actually knew who I was once I told him my name. My optometrist used to play D&D, back in high school. And of course there's the good Christians in The Sound of Music. Not to mention all of you who bother to read my random, bed-ridden ramblings, many of whom I will never meet except by email.

You know what? It turns out that "our kind of people" can be pretty darned cool. 

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