I’m on the hunt for a very particular edition of a very particular book.
Between the the ages of 7 and 10, I had a favorite book that I would take out nearly every week from the school library: All About Ghosts. It was part of Usborne Publishing’s World of the Unknown Series – a sort of precursor to the TimeLife series for kids. Along with the ghost book there was also a volume about UFO’s which I took out quite often and a volume about monsters, which my school didn’t have.
I recently found some scans from All About Ghosts over at a site called the Haunted Closet. The person who runs the blog has really done a great job of highlighting some of the very best parts of what made the books so special.
So now, I’m on a mission. Not just to get my hands on the book, but to get my hands on a 1977 edition. At some point during the the last 36 or so years, Usborne replaced the Amazing cover of the original with this:
Yeah, not quite as cool. I’ve found a few listings – particularly on ebay.uk but from what I can gather everyone seems to stock the 1998 edition.
We don’t have cable television. As a result I get almost 100% of my news from online sources, primarily Google news. However sometimes I stay at hotels, as I did last weekend in Charleston, SC. While I was there I happened to catch a good half hour of CNN, Fox news, etc. This was during the peak of the Malaysia Airlines disappearance hype. It was amazing to see how the anchors on all three of the major 24-hour news channels were able to receive no new information, yet continually act as though there was something exciting and important happening. They were making it up as they went along. It was terrible, hilarious and more than a bit sad.
It’s not news that our media is broken. The real “news” would be some useful approaches to fixing it.
Alain De Botton has recently come out with a new book called The News: a User’s Manual. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but in the meantime I’ve watched this great little talk he gave as part of The School of Life’s Sunday Sermon series. In it he discusses several disconcerting trends that have taken over mainstream news in the last couple of decades. He also offers up simple philosophical approaches to remedying the situation – both for those of us who digest the news, and those out there who make a living cooking it up.
Over the course of thirty minutes, De Botton makes the case that the news has become fundamentally broken. Central to the problem is that “real news” the important stuff that used to be at the front of the newspaper, has become confused with fun or interesting items that used to be found near the back. Media today has thrown the items in a blender. The result being that twerking and celebrity divorces are getting equal coverage with war, famine and disaster. What’s worse, so much of the information we receive is being delivered free of any context. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to do with this information, why it’s being told to us, how we’re supposed to feel. This lack of commentary has made everything simultaneously an emergency and completely devoid of any real meaning at all.
Another issue De Botton takes a crack at is fear-mongering. The amount of news in the world – that is the amount of genuinely newsworthy occurrences – has not increased. But what has increased is the amount of media flooding our consciousness. As a result, the news tends to generate a state of hysteria where the world appears much more frightening, dangerous and strange than a it really is. This is a problem that has been commented on in the past by writers such as Barry Glassner in his classic book on news and hysteria Culture of Fear. The fact of the matter is, the items that are reported by newspapers and cable TV are exceedingly rare. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be news. I believe this is a message that needs to be disseminated more widely. Fear has become one of the driving forces in our society – whether it’s our approach to raising our children or our approach to foreign policy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with people who are confessed 24 hour news junkies and realized we are living on two different planets. There’s being infinitely more dramatic than mine. This is planet filled with terrorists, kidnappers, murderers and and bath salt riddles psychotics. Of course the reality is that by all measures, our world is more peaceful and more safe than ever. But you’d never know it after finding out about the many many things that are out to kill you on the six o’clock news.
Obviously news is important. From watergate to apartheid to the NSA, the news has opened our eyes and been a powerful agent of social change. Hopefully, by applying a bit of thought to how digest it, the news can stay a force of good in our lives.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is remarkable, not just for the breadth of his imagination or the impact he had on the world of science fiction and fantasy, but because along with being a fantastic author, he was also a businessman. In some quarters a mixture of business and art is frowned upon. In fact there’s a name for it: exploitation. And it’s usually derided as something to be automatically regarded less seriously than pure art, which, in the imaginations of critics at least, has no obligation to commerce. But whatever.
At thirty-seven Burroughs had been through several unsuccessful businesses. After reading some stories in a pulp magazine, he figured he could do better. Thus he began his most successful business venture: being a writer. He had success right out of the gate with A Princess of Mars, the first of many stories he would publish featuring the character John Carter and his adventures on Mars aka Barsoom. The story was accepted to be published as a serial in All-Story magazine, but later went on to be published as an expanded stand-alone edition.
As the first book in a multi-volume series, A Princess of Mars does a great job of introducing us to John Carter and telling us exactly how he came to be on the red planet of Barsoom.
The first thing you read when you open the book is a note by Burroughs himself, talking about Carter as though he were a real person, a distant relative in fact. He presents the story itself as a diary he found among Carter’s possessions after his death. This lends the whole book an air of authenticity I don’t think it would have otherwise had.
The majority of the book is a first-person narrative belonging to John Carter. Without mincing words, Carter is a bit of a show-off. He talks a lot about what a badass he is. About how brave he is. About how he can kill martians with a single punch and doesn’t hesitate even for a moment to do it. In fact, Carter is painted as such an uber-hero that you never really feel like he’s in much danger.
It’s a real tribute to Burroughs’ skill as storyteller then, that despite Carter’s penchant for bragging and violence, you still end up getting sucked into his story. Even if the story is a bit all over the place. A Princess of Mars is a standard rescue the princess tale, but it’s laid-out less like saturday afternoon matinee fare, and more like a travelogue. And Carter seems to meet new characters and arrive at new destinations without rhyme or reason or consideration of pacing.
Along his journey he meets a wild cast of characters and races including Tars-Tarkas, a brutal warrior among the green martians known as the Tharks. The scenes between Carter and Tarkas are too short, but in many ways prove to be the most affecting in the book as they show the ways in which shared philosophies can bridge cultural chasms, no matter how wide.
In the end, A Princess of Mars is a weird and brutal entry into the early pulp cannon and an essential read for anyone who ants a grasp of science fiction in the early twentieth century.