On the Sacredness of the Books That Shape Us: My Ordinary Experience Reading The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

IMG_3567.jpgHis Dark Materials is one of my most beloved series of all time. I have visceral memories of reading it for the first time–how I felt after reading the cliffhanger at the end of The Subtle Knife, knowing I’d have to wait a year or more before finding out what happened next. I remember sobbing at the end of The Amber Spyglass. No book had ever made me cry so much. No book had ever made me feel so much.

A boy I liked in high school once told me that I reminded him of Lyra, which felt like the best compliment I had ever gotten. One of my best friends and I wrote notes back and forth, referring to Lyra and Will as a way to talk about our own feelings. For a long time, those books were deeply precious to me; they felt like belonging.

I reread the series as an adult was a bit sad to discover that rereading them so many years later, all that magical intensity was gone. I enjoyed reading them, but I didn’t have a physical reaction, that ache in my gut. So I picked up The Book of Dust with excitement and trepidation. I knew it was a new book set in the same world as His Dark Materials, overlapping but not reliant on the earlier story. But it still felt like visiting an old friend, and I wondered if the magic would be there, or dulled, or non-existent.

Reading The Book of Dust turned out to be somewhat ordinary. I found the first half extraordinarily slow and almost gave up. It takes place when Lyra is a baby, being hunted by various factions on either side of the war that concerns His Dark Materials. She comes into the care of two children, Malcolm and Alice. When a massive flood strikes England, they travel with her on Malcom’s canoe from Oxford to London, trying to ferry her to safety. They face all nature of obstacle and dangers.

The flood didn’t hit until halfway through the book, but when it finally came, I was hooked, and read the rest of the novel in two days. It was enjoyable. There was action and adventure, thoughtful world-building, imaginative obstacles, the right amount of tension, intriguing characters. It was a solid fantasy.

But The Book of Dust didn’t make me feel much of anything. I enjoyed it–mostly and especially the second half–and because the world in which it takes place is dear to me, reading did, in part, feel like coming home. But it didn’t move me deeply. After I finished it, I returned it to the library without a thought. I’m looking forward to reading the second volume of this new trilogy, but I doubt I’ll think much about Malcom and Alice and baby Lyra in the interim.

I’d thought that this would make sad. But it doesn’t. Some books stay with us forever. We can return to them again and again, and each time, the experience is familiar but new. The magic doesn’t fade, but shifts and evolves. The Lord of the Rings is such a book for me–I reread and reread it and reread and it always feels like coming home, like reading a part of myself. The telling only grows. It as familiar to me as my own hand, and yet, every time, it moves me. I get that achey swell in my gut and I always, always cry.

With other books–His Dark Materials, in my case–it isn’t the book itself that stays with us, but the experience of reading it. Some books arrive in our lives at just the right time, and the magic is powerful and intense, but static. His Dark Materials will always be a part of me, but it’s as much the memory of how deeply my younger self was affected by those books as the books themselves that make them meaningful to me. Those books shaped how I thought about myself and the world, how I thought about love. They gave me joy and confidence, something to treasure and believe in.

It seems right, then, that The Book of Dust, for me, was not a a part of that earlier magic, that it didn’t feel like reading The Golden Compass. It was just a book. A good one, but not an extraordinary one, not a part of something that has shaped me.

It’s comforting, actually, knowing that the sacredness of His Dark Materials cannot be marred–not by rereading the books and not loving them, and not by finding The Book of Dust merely ordinary.

Finding magic in books can happen at any age. I fell in love with Saga last year and the immensity of that feeling was similar to what I experienced reading The Golden Compass for the first time. My experience reading The Book of Dust reminded me that it’s a feeling that can’t be forced. I cherish it when I find it, and when I don’t, I just wholeheartedly enjoy the story.

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