Ben Babcock's Reviews > Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
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Dec 25, 2009

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bookshelves: 2010-read, essays, literary-pretentious, memoirs, non-fiction, owned
Read from June 27 to 28, 2010

I began this book as a sometime reader of Michael Chabon. I klepped The Yiddish Policemen's Union from my dad's shelf, and I've also read Wonder Boys and Summerland at some point. (I actually liked the movie of the former better than Cabon's book, oddly enough.) Chabon is one of those writers who is at the periphery of my awareness, someone whose books I respect even though I only accord them a lukewarm enthusiasm when it comes to the prospect of reading one. He has a way with words, a talent for tone and diction, that I much admire.

This skill is apparent in Maps and Legends. The book itself is something of a cipher at first—as a product of McSweeney's, it is bound in a format simultaneously advertising and obscuring the content of the book. The jacket of this edition is alone worth a paragraph. Although the multiple layers can be annoying to handle, they create a beautiful effect that shows a love for the physical form of a book itself, parallel Chabon's tribute to literature and storytelling found between the covers.

Often collections of essays make me ambivalent, and Chabon's is no exception. My praise of Chabon's style holds true. He has mastered that heavy, didactic, descriptive method of discourse that makes me unabashedly jealous. Such writing can also be pedantic and quickly outstay its welcome, of course, and Chabon is guilty at times of overindulging his allusive abilities. If his passion for this subject were not so evident from his essays, I pass harsher judgement. As it is, I think it is a matter of taste. Some will endure—and even enjoy—the book; others will cast it aside with a vague sense of distaste or a definite feeling of dismay. Chabon's writing is not for everyone, and this book is no exception.

For those who choose to remain, all of Chabon's essays are interesting, but not all are created equal. In particular, I enjoyed: "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story", "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes", "Ragnarok Boy", "My Back Pages," and "Diving into the Wreck". In the first essay, Chabon discusses his fascination with transgressing the boundaries defined by genre, likening himself and other authors to the Trickster gods of many mythologies. Likewise, "Ragnarok Boy," celebrates the richness of Norse mythology, a subject on which I have been ruminating since reading Norse Code .

I loved "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes" for its exploration of Conan Doyle's motives behind writing Holmes stories—money—and the enduring effect of Holmesian mysteries on the "genre" of mystery and on literature in general. This essay is a true gem of the collection. It sparked in me a desire to re-read Holmes, something that any analysis of a work should do. More than passion, Chabon's sense of wonder is infectious and amplifying. He feels like I do: that we are ridiculously, wonderfully gifted with this ability to preserve stories in written form; that a well-stocked library or a cozy, stuffed bookshelf is a treasure trove of adventures just waiting to be read. When I buy or borrow books, I feel like I'm getting away with a crime—this amazing experience cannot be legal! But it is, and I love nothing more.

As a reader, Maps and Legends affirmed my feeling that stories are magical. As a writer, it reminded me of the responsibilities I have as a practitioner of this magic. An unwritten story is something with infinite potential; a writer must craft it carefully, honing every plane and edge with only the mind's glimpse of an end product as a guide. The journey is non-trivial, but when done right, the rewards for both the reader and the writer are proportionally spectacular.

Chabon claims to loathe the phrase "guilty pleasures", and while I understand his reasoning, I have to disagree. It is true that "guilty pleasure" can refer to something one fears censure over enjoying (much as I enjoy reading young adult fiction targeted toward socially-obsessed adolescent girls). But a "guilty pleasure" can also be something like that extra scoop of ice cream, something so flagrantly self-indulgent that we look both ways before allowing ourselves the moment.

Maps and Legends is the latter type of guilty pleasure. At least it was for me, and I think it was for Michael Chabon as well, no matter how much he protests. Sometimes he lays it on thick, but I'm inclined to forgive his exuberance as the self-conscious fanaticism of his inner boy, who can't quite believe he actually achieved his dream. Maps and Legends a self-referential, meta-aware celebration of literature and its role in one's life, from formative childhood through rocky adolescence all the way to adulthood. Because some of us, though we grow taller, do not grow up. Our sense of wonder remains firmly intact, persistently in place, ever guiding us to explore those uncharted places.

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