Turning The Page

This month I was going to write an article about page-turners. By this I mean books which compel you to continue reading them. Rather than put such a book down, you feel drawn to turning the page and reading just a little more. At 1:30 in the morning you suddenly find that you have read the whole thing in one session. Not surprisingly, such books are often advertised as "hard to put down".

The motivation for me to write this article was that in a recent review I wrote of a Vernor Vinge novel, I gave a rather mixed review of the book but finished by describing it as a page-turner as described above. What I wanted to do was clear up any misunderstanding by my use of this term. The problem being that it is often used to describe works which are otherwise rather lightweight - i.e. having no other literary merit. This was not the impression I meant to give of the Vinge novel - rather I view the attribute of being a page-turner as being fairly independent of other aspects of literary merit. A book may be (for example) very clever, OR it may be a page-turner OR it may be both (or neither).

The above paragraphs were basically the introduction to the article I was going to write. From there I was going to go on and discuss what makes a book a page-turner and detail a number of authors who produce work of significant quality which are also page-turners. I was probably going to throw in a couple of counter examples as well to illustrate my point.

What happened then was that I read Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card. I have always enjoyed Card's work and consider him to be a prime example of the type of author I had in mind for this article. Although Card is a practising mormon, he has not tried to preach his faith in his previous work such as Ender's Game and the tales of Alvin Maker. Of course if you look hard enough, manifestations of his beliefs can be found in his work, but that is true of any good author regardless of their background. The important thing is that Card did not use his work as a vehicle for preaching his beliefs.

At first look, Lost Boys appears to be a supernatural thriller about an evil menace which is trying to take a young boy away from his family. That's what the covers indicate anyway. I thought that perhaps there was a linkage between this book and the film of the same name - Card did do a very impressive novel version of The Abyss. I know better than to trust book covers, but this one was pretty clear about what the book was about, and since I enjoy Card's work I bought the book and started to read it.

The book is about 500 pages long - the horror story content can be found in about 5 of these pages scattered through the book. The rest of this work is basically a series of mormon morality tales. The book centres around a mormon family who go through a series of domestic trials which they solve through their faith, God and their essential goodness. If you didn't know better, you might think that this was just Card's view of normal family life. However at the end of Card's short story collection Maps in a Mirror, there is a section of pieces explicitly labelled as mormon inspirational work. Those stories are so like the chapters of Lost Boys that there can be no doubt what Lost Boys is meant to be. Interestingly enough, in Maps in a Mirror Card writes "Mormon fiction will be the most alien experience you've ever had".

The rather disturbing thing about Lost Boys is that it still incorporates all Card's skill as a writer. In particular his ability to write a page-turner. Even though the nature of this book is personally irritating to me and the whole packaging of it very misleading, I could not put it down. I read 250 pages in one session even after its true nature had become apparent. I'm not sure what conclusions I can draw from this. Certainly its a rather salutary lesson as to how propaganda can be made palatable. It also reaffirms my negative feelings about the people who write cover blurbs. I suppose that the only point I can make is that you should take care when buying books and take even more care to separate the medium from the message.

As far as Orson Scott Card goes, I will continue to read his work but this episode has left a rather sour taste in my mouth. Unless you plan to travel to Utah, I strongly suggest that you do not buy Lost Boys. If you want to try Card's work read Ender's Game or the Homecoming series.