Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Favorite References

As an epic fantasy writer, I’m fascinated by the ways societies develop, rise, and fall, and the ways that people react to all these stages. So my favorite references include The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (I think we’re up to IV now), because it literally catalogs the vast array of psychological types and personality variants that make up the people of any society. Also, I like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, despite some misgivings; it’s still good research, and an interesting analysis of how some societies reach technological/resource dominance, or fall apart from stupid decision-making despite this dominance. By the same token, I’m fond of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn — not only is it the first history text I’ve ever enjoyed reading, but it’s an interesting examination of how perspective skews reality; history truly is written (and heavily revised) by the victors.

This kind of stuff is the epitomy of epic fantasy, IMO; Tolkien’s Mordor was based on the German war machine, after all. So how better to develop fantasy ideas than to examine all the ways in which reality can be interpreted and reinterpreted, individually and on the “big picture” scale?

On a more personal level, I’m fascinated by how people resist oppression within restrictive societies. This means I read a lot of books about and autobiographies of revolutionaries, but also weirder stuff. For example, I like Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden — a nonfiction collection of women’s sexual fantasies, written at the height of the Sexual Revolution (1973). Seriously racy, and controversial even today. But it’s also an interesting examination of what repression does to the human psyche — how people naturally yearn for B when they’ve been taught their whole lives to want A and C.

I ref mythology too, and have read Hamilton’s book and the usual. I’m fond of Richard Cavendish’s Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia because it contains gorgeous color panels of artwork depicting the various pantheons and cosmologies of different cultures. But I’ve made a conscious effort to step beyond the usual Greco-Roman and Northern European mythologies that these books tend to concentrate on. It’s hard to find good scholarly material on other mythologies in English; unfortunately, time and experience have shown that Western scholars often “get it wrong” when summarizing and analyzing non-Western stuff, for various reasons. So when I can, I try to find the myths of other cultures as primary sources, though usually in translated form. Most recently I’ve read The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales, collected by Diane Wolkstein. I also seek out storytellers, even when I can’t understand them; one of my favorite travel experiences was listening to an old Italian storyteller in the common room of a quaint old medieval-looking inn, on a recent trip to Sicily. Had no clue what he was saying, but the way he said it was a work of art in itself. More recently I got to hear a storytelling competition by Navajo children “on the rez” in Chinle, AZ — and man, those kids were fierce. Hope some of them grow up to become writers.

(Why is it that I never manage to do these Quickies quickly??)

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