There are not too many other locations in my life that induce a wave of comfort, wonderment, joy, and being, as when I am within the stacks of a bookstore, library, or comic book shop. It’s as if I am traveling close to a large gravity well which slows down my relative time and continues normally for everyone else. When someone asks me what my plans are for a Saturday or any other day off I would say, “I’m going to a bookstore” or “I’m going to the library.” Of course I can only do this a few times a month as to not spend all my time in one of these black holes and maintain some kind of social life.
When I’m there I look at every shelf, at every rack, in every box. It’s unavoidable to spend hours in a place surrounded by this media and come out the other side like an absent minded time traveller asking “What day is it? What years?" I peruse books or comics that are new to me and visit familiar ones that inject me with nostalgia like seeing your favorite rerun of The X-Files, Warehouse 13, or whatever you like. The cover art of a book is an art form unto itself and that should be treated as well. The covers can themselves invoke that feeling of “just around the corner.”
This past weekend I went to one of the large chain bookstores; well the only large one still remaining though it will remain nameless. To be honest, I have no problem with these bookstores and only wish there was more to choose from to drive competition and variety. However, the one large chain still remains and this is the world we live in so I’ll accept that and be thankful that books haven’t been replaced entirely or banned yet. It’s dramatic I know, but it has happened within the last 90 years so pay attention.
One of my first stops in this love affair is to the Science Fiction / Fantasy section, to get my fix of imagination, adventure, provocation of thought, and lessons in humanity. As I look for new books to add to the growing list of titles to my ever shrinking time to actually read, I reminisce in past novels I love that remind me of the pleasure when something is new and brilliant. Going through the shelves I say hello to Anderson, Asimov, Asaro, Bradbury, Burst, Campbell, Card, Clarke, Cline, Corey, del Rey, Dick, Flynn, Foster, Gaiman, Guin… wait, back up. The name of names to me must have been overlooked. When I didn’t see any books with the name in the E’s I stepped back and looked to make sure I was in the right place.
After an honest, though dramatic, glance around to see if someone was there to verify my confusion, I said the name in my head, Ellison. And again like the Last Roll Call during a military funeral, Ellison? Harlan Ellison? Harlan Jay Ellison. I had a moment of disbelief and then followed by a bit of gloom. Not because my venture to nostalgia was interrupted by an absence but mainly, a random person wouldn’t see the name while perusing the stacks. The lack of random exposure would be lost to them and they may miss out on some greatest stories and superior writing of our American culture. This proven method of finding treasure would not include the treasures of Ellison.
I recall the conversations I have with anyone that is overly enthusiastic about what they read, listen to, watch, etc. They, or more accurately, we tend to find it a felony that someone does not enjoy the things we do, and if they do, their method of enjoyment or level or enjoyment is subject to our approval. I have taken great strides to be more accepting of other people’s ignorance of a subject or their difference of my understanding of it. In other words, I’ve stopped being an asshole about my fandom. After all, there is enough in this world to get bent out of shape about, someone’s taste or preference shouldn't be my concern.
The point here is that I now take into consideration the idea of what it means to be a classic piece of literature and how an individual might get exposed to it. When I think of classic stories it is solely the stories and writers that matter to me or whose influence was for the betterment of our fleeting culture. As there are only so many rotations of the sun to be experienced by a single person, there are only so many spins of the earth in those rotations that a person has to enjoy the good writing of only a fraction of the writers and stories available.
Being of the Generation X, I was required to read from a pre-approved Ohio Department of Education list of books and stories in school. Instead of listing any of them from the canon, I’ll get to the point so you can go about your day and have more time to read something that entices your imagination. The question I often ask myself is of the list of books a school system approves and requires, "How does a new writer or story break into that list?" And as discussed above, we only have a finite amount of available time to read these, so if we add some, what gets dropped? Not so much from the canon but from the curriculum.
As to why these inner dialogues happened when looking at the absence of any of Harlan Ellison’s novels, I consider him to be one of the most important writers in American culture. I would say the world but I can’t speak to his importance in other countries. It is a difficult thing to measure: importance, influence, relevance, and ability. Almost like looking at a mosaic of someone’s work and seeing what other medias they worked, artists that reference them, and any other number of criteria, do I think they are worthy of the term classic. Of course, my opinion doesn’t matter.
So for those that need the accolade to require something more quantifiable, we can look to awards won or nominated, proliferation of works, and number of titles sold (basically the raw market data). As for awards, Harlan Ellison has won more awards in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre than any other, but also in the Mystery, Horror, the Writer’s Guild, and other general writing awards. Which for me, shows that he not only is a known and well respected writer in the Science Fiction genre, but is to be considered just a writer. And I don’t mean just a writer as if that is a job that is a dime a dozen, I mean he is a writer first, genre is inconsequential. Through not only his imaginative tales and not just his style, the content and humanity in his stories transcends gender, ethnicity, and social status.
I have to admit, this article is a fan piece. It’s me gushing about Harlan Ellison. I felt I needed to put it down in writing, if not only to affirm my admiration for Mr. Ellison, but more importantly remind people of or initiate people to this great writer. For those of us that are fans of Harlan Ellison, we have seen him as more than just a writer. Like many people, I admire that transcends their main profession to talk and share their thoughts and ideas in commentary (people like Henry Rollins, Michio Kaku, etc.), Harlan Ellison is a force to be listened to.
I have never met Mr. Ellison but when it comes to him, I ignore the old adage of not meeting your heroes, because I feel as though I have met him, or at least his personality through his work. His writing, commentary, and interviews I find are as honest as they are consistent. The man seems not to lie and will admit when he is wrong, which is the ultimate form of humility. It’s one thing to be careful and speak with the grace of a sage and be seen as correct. It is another thing to be passionate and speak with your heart and have to correct yourself from time to time. Life is too short to not be passionate, and what a boring existence it would be without passion.
To the meat of this all: Harlan Ellison is getting up there in age and it will be a sad day when he moves on. Which is why I’m taking his advice I remember from an episode of Harlan Ellison’s Watching which aired on the SciFi Channel’s Buzz Feed way back in the 1990’s if you can remember a time before the world wide web. In an episode, he talked about Lifetime Achievement Awards going to writers after they died and what a shame it is that in an artist’s lifetime, they are not honored. I couldn’t agree more, but as I do not have an award to give nor does Harlan Ellison need another award so I can only offer my admiration.
Adding onto another one of his episodes about great authors disappearing into recesses of cultural nostalgia. Writers and their stories can disappear more easily than most other forms of art because to read is not to be a passive observer. You have to engage your brain to obtain the information. A song or a movie can be enjoyed in only a few minutes or a few hours with the viewer doing nothing more than showing up. But a story, that takes more of the most precious commodity, time.
So with nothing tangible to give to a writer that has written some of the greatest and endearing stories, entertained with some of the funniest and most thought provoking commentary, and has shown me how great writing is comes from the need to write; I can only give Harlan Ellison my thanks, admiration, and hopefully some comfort that people like me and so many others will make sure his work and his reach will stays with us. That’s the best I can do for now. And to the readers that haven’t discovered him yet, I give to you the name that should be in the E’s of any book store, Ellison, Harlan Ellison.