Friday, September 22, 2017

In praise of Time Life Books

Remember Time Life Books?  Back in the days before the Internet, we had these things called books, as the late Peter Falk would say.  Really.  Apart from watching television, we were confined to the written word.  And access depended on where you lived.

In our case, we lived in a small town with fewer than 3,000 souls.  And that was the largest town in our county.  Sitting in the center of our rural county, and a half hour away highway driving from anything close to a small city, we had little in the way of literary resources.

That smaller city, a dying Midwest population with around 30,000 people, had a Waldenbooks in the small shopping mall on the opposite side of town.  That, and our own small, local library, was it.  That's where we got books.  And the depth and breadth of available subjects were limited accordingly.

So something like Time Life books was golden.  My Dad bought a couple series, mostly about America's landscapes and nature books (Dad was a conservationist before environmentalism became the religion it is).  I also was given a year's worth of books from the WWII series.  Despite the adult level approach of the series, I ate up those books because, well, that's what I had.  Of course there were other series, including the Old West, which featured a commercial with a memorable quip about "John Wesley Hardin, a man so mean, he shot a man just for snoring!"

Since I was never into 'fantasy' for most of my younger life, I only paid scant attention when, in 1984, Time Life released a series called Enchanted World.  As the name suggests, the focus was on folklore, mythology, Arthurian legends, Greek myths, Beowulf, and a host of subjects and tales that comprise that loosely defined genre of 'fantasy.'  I saw some commercials featuring the late, great Vincent Price, but otherwise didn't really follow its release.

By then it was difficult not to be exposed to the genre.   It was toward the end of what I call the 'Great Fantasy Renaissance'.  That was a pop culture movement that exploded on the scene in 1977 with Star Wars.  Following Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy, which had previously been relegated to the fifth tier of entertainment, suddenly found itself pushed to the top of everything.  From Star Wars and Alien, to a million Swords and Sorcery movies in the 80s, space and fantasy video games, supernatural literature and television and even news stories, and of course the mack-daddy of all deepest, darkest fantasy - Dungeons and Dragons - fantasy was everywhere.

In the early days, it didn't have any negative connotations. As I've said, I first heard about D&D from three boys, two of whom were athletes, one captain of the football team and class president.  It was as common as break dancing, and probably more broad in its appeal.  Though by the mid-80s, for a host of reasons, D&D's popularity was beginning to wane.  And with it, the whole fantasy genre.

Being a day late and a dollar short, I only began to think about fantasy because of its omnipresence in society in those days.  Also because of the role it played in the new video game technology.  And I give a HT to our 11th grade English teacher who piqued my imagination in the fall of 1983 when we covered a unit on Beowulf.

It was toward the end of that time that my best friend received a subscription to the Enchanted World series for Christmas.  He read the first volume, 'Wizards and Witches', and enjoyed it.  But being a socially sensitive fellow, and seeing the decreased respect for people who indulged in activities associated with witches and dungeons by the mid-80s, he was none too happy to have the books in his house.  So one day, after he received his third book (he had received two, but apparently a third volume on 'Christmas' came as an extra gift since his parents ordered it at Christmastime), he offered them to me.

I didn't have much interest in such things, but I was beginning to be curious.  And so I took the books and read them.  Because I wasn't familiar with too many things fantasy, myth or folklore, many of the stories were new to me.  Since the first volume (Wizards) dealt with a historical Medieval feel, I was all the happier.  I read that, and the others.  Over the years I found several other volumes to add to the collection.  I think there are only a few I don't have. And I enjoyed them all - though later ones began to run dry as they were just the same stories they already covered in different contexts.

The series, though, was still a boon for me.  It exposed me to a genre I had never cared for, and increased my interest.  I didn't dive headfirst into fantasy, but through this series, I at least learned to appreciate the genre and that side of literature and what can be gleaned from it.  I also came to realize that those who did indulge in that genre often - not always, but often - were more informed, better read, and I must admit, more educated than others about a wider range of topics.  Which has challenged me to make sure I at least know a little about as many subjects as I can, including the genre of fantasy.  For that, and the general information it provided in a world before Google, I must thank Time Life for the introductions to so many interesting topics.

Just thinking as I was downstairs and saw the old series on a bookshelf.  And in time for the autumn festivities to begin.

Another, possibly more evocative, commercial that caught the spirit of the series:

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