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When Umberto Eco sought the feedback of friends and colleagues for his manuscript, The Name of the Rose, many, while praising the creativity of the narrative, commented on the difficulty of the first 100 pages, which described life and practices in a medieval monastery. Editors, fearing readers would give up reading before the mystery actually began, also suggested Eco rework the dense opening. Eco refused. As he explained in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, “if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the mountain.” In framing the sort of mindset necessary to get through this part of the novel as a journey, Eco alludes to the kind of perseverance he expects.
I got thinking about these difficult 100 pages and the sort of perseverance required to get through them earlier this month when I was loaning some books to a friend for summer reading. I handed The Name of the Rose over and commented on how much the novel means to me. “But the first 100 pages are really hard—the author tried to weed out people who shouldn’t read his book.” After thinking about that for a moment, my friend handed the book back to me and said, “Maybe not.”
I’ve seen the same responses for not attempting to read Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, even Stephen King. So what makes some people able to persevere through long and difficult material? Put another way: does being a geek—an enthusiast of science fiction and fantasy—make me more likely to persevere through rich, complex narratives or does a natural perseverance for rich, complex narratives make me a geek? It’s probably a chicken and egg thing. However, I have been thinking a lot lately about how much geekdom can teach us about perseverance and, more specifically, what being a geek has taught me about persevering.
For me, Eco’s introduction is essential world building I had come to expect with fantasy and science fiction. It was the “lay of the land” that clarified for the reader the rules of this world. Sure, as some of it was in untranslated Latin, it was tough, but in terms of what Eco was attempting, it made perfect sense to me as a geek. And, in a wholly unsystematic survey of friends and colleagues who have taught The Name of the Rose, people who identified as “geeky” were not turned away by Eco’s “initiation.” (The friend who opted not to borrow the book had never read fantasy or science fiction, never seen The Lord of the Rings or any of the Harry Potter films). Fantasy and sci-fi require this sort of contextualizing because those worlds don’t necessarily (or obviously) resemble our own. We need to know something of the inhabitants, the landscape, the systems of governance and societal organization. We need to know something about how hobbits live to make sense of the story. We’re willing to engage with this sort of groundwork because we know it’s important to make sense of what comes next.
There’s another aspect of perseverance I see at work in my geekiness: the perseverance needed when engaging with a new fandom. More than other fictions, those commonly embraced by geeks are often huge multiverses. I can’t even imagine how a novice would enter into the Star Wars world at this point—there’s just so much material to get through! And there are a dozen geeky things I could say the same thing about—Doctor Who, Pratchett’s Discworld novels, comic books, Star Trek. It boggles the mind!
Yet, I, like most of us, have a huge list of things I want to watch/read/play—titles that are recommended to me by people I like and trust (or Kyle). I can’t even count the number of Area of Effect writers’ meetings I’ve left with new titles to check out. More often than not, I’m told something like this: “It will take a while to get into it. Trust me, it’s worth it.” And it usually is. Although I’m not always to engage with all these titles at once, I know those worlds await me. Often times, getting into a new “world” takes times and patience. If it’s a well-established world, entering can be daunting. But, like our own world, perseverance is required. Sometimes you have to understand the larger world before the adventure can begin. Other times, you’ll get a little bogged down with seemingly unimportant details. But when you do keep at it, when you make it through the set-up, an amazing world opens up for you.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
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