Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Left Behind: Prelude

So as some of you may recall, a while back I mentioned that I had run across a copy of Left Behind, the first in a series of books that is supposed to tell the story of what happens after the rapture. I asked if people wanted me to read it and provide some sort of commentary, presumably for their amusement. The response was, overwhelmingly, yes. So, given that I routinely do what other people ask me to,* I figured, hey, why not? And so I read it.

As you might guess, this is the first installment in what will become a regular series. How regular, you ask? Well, there are twenty five chapters so if I do one a week (say, on Thursdays), we're good for about six months. Get comfortable.

Now, before we begin, we need to have a serious conversation for a moment. As I set out on this effort, I had to confront a few ethical issues. First, whereas most of the religious shenanigans I chronicle on this blog are brought to my attention by the believers in question, Left Behind is a different story. I chose to spend my own time reading this thing and did not do so at the behest of anyone except you, the readers, who apparently revel in my suffering. As such, is it really fair for me to be snarky? The answer I settled upon is, "Yes, but..."

The "but" part is that I don't consider this to be a review of the book. I am not a book reviewer and, in any case, I am not philosophically inclined to be fair. I'm serious about that- while I normally try to approach most things with an open mind, I have to admit honestly that I don't have a goddamn chance of pulling that off in this case. Moreover, y'all should be smart enough to realize that fact even if I were to claim to the contrary. So, my commentary should be taken as being specific to the book and only apply to born again faith in general to the extent that it mirrors this particular work of fiction. I will leave it to others to debate the extent to which it does mirror that faith in general. That said, the "Left Behind" books were planned to be aggressively mainstream, and so they're fair game for me to talk about.

Another issue I dealt with was that of the intended audience. Was this book meant for people like me?** Was it meant for mainline Protestants? Catholics? Or was it simply intended for the born again folks themselves? Were these books intended to preach to the choir, as it were? Having finished the book, my conclusion is that they were, indeed, meant for those who were already "born again," and, as such, I am really not in the intended audience.*** Nevertheless, I read the book and my commentary is therefore only a recounting of my personal reactions to what was written. So, basically, this entire series of posts should be regarded as my own, potentially jaundiced, set of opinions about the text.

Now, the way we'll proceed is as follows: each week we'll do a new chapter, unless I'm busy, bored, or whimsy leads me in another direction. When I comment on something I will include page and line numbers so you can see what I'm talking about. This information will be in bold. Quotations from the text, if necessary, will be in italics. My commentary will be in, you know, English. Keep in mind that I read the entire book while taking notes in the margins (yes, really) and so most of my comments will be taken from those notes. For those who want to follow along, I am apparently using a 1995 Tyndale House Publisher's, Inc. edition. It's big, paperback, and feels like it's printed on newspaper. I'm quite certain it isn't a first edition since the back includes advertisements for later books in the series and spinoff series,**** but there is absolutely no edition information in it. The ISBN number is 0-8423-2912-9. I will also include a special "Left Behind" tag for every installment in the series, so that you can navigate it easily. Don't say I don't try to be helpful.

So are we doing chapter one today? Oh, hell no. That comes next week. Today, though, I do briefly want to remark on two things that struck me before I even started reading and provide a basic overview of my sense of the book. Let's start with the overview: how do I feel about Left Behind? Well, in my opinion this book commits the worst sin a novel can commit. I don't mean that it's offensive, or that it's badly written,***** or that it's confusing, or even that the characters are not believable. These are all sins, true, but not the worst one that a novel can commit. No, that penultimate sin is simply this: Left Behind is boring. I mean, really boring. Hella boring. The first 150-200 pages can safely be described as "excruciatingly dull" and the following pages only seem less boring by comparison. This book is so goddamned boring that I would rather study for comprehensive exams than read it. It's so boring, I would rather grade student papers with titles like, "Anomie is bad"****** than read this book. It is that dull.

This is such a grievous sin in my view because I have a pathological fear of being bored. I am the sort of guy who, after packing four novels for a cross-country flight, contemplates whether or not I should have packed five.******* So, for this reason more than any other, reading Left Behind was a truly horrendous experience. I would compare it to flying from Washington D.C. to San Diego, non-stop, without even an inflight magazine to keep you occupied. And even then there's at least the faint possibility that you might crash to keep you alert. So, given my dislike of boredom, bitching about how dull Left Behind is will be pretty frequent over the next bazillion installments, so you may as well get used to hearing it.

My first specific point is, appropriately enough, aroused by the first page where usual books include favorable quotes from book reviewers. Left Behind carries on this grant tradition... sort of. I say sort of because the page looks like this:

"One of the best books I've read in ten years!"
Mark Blocher, Grand Rapids.

"What a great story! I really enjoyed the character development and felt I had made some new and personal friends."
Ray Bentley, San Diego

"A fictional thriller that illustrates one of the great truths of the Bible. You will have a difficult time putting it down."
Sammy Tippit, San Antonio

Now, if you're anything like me, what you're wondering at this point is, "Who the hell are these people?" We apparently know where they live, but their authority for recommending books is entirely mysterious. The above are actual quotes from the actual first page of the book so I guess they're important. Using the wondrous power of google, I was able to determine that Mark Blocher teaches at Cornerstone University, Ray Bentley is pastor of Marantha Chapel, and Sammy Tippit runs the appropriately named Sammy Tippit Ministries. Why was this information left out of the printing of Left Behind? Hard to say for sure, but my best guess is that they didn't want to frighten away us secular types by emphasizing how much the god fearing love the book.******** Put differently, by leaving off the affiliations those who were in a position to know these chaps already would be enticed, and those of us who weren't wouldn't be scared away. Win-win, indeed. And for anyone who is curious, it's this sort of thing that makes it so hard to decide what audience this book is really meant for.

The second thing that struck me before I began reading was one of these quotations in particular, but not one that was on the first page. No, this quotation was so good they put it on the back cover, and it reads as follows:

"Incredible! More intriguing that Clancy and Grisham."
Dave Tippit, San Antonio

As you might guess, I think Dave Tippit is Sammy Tippit's... brother? I'm not really sure, but he does seem to be involved in Sammy's ministry. In any case, while I have not read any Grisham I have read some Clancy and, to be honest, that dude can write. So, while Dave is certainly entitled to his opinion, is it really fair to say that Left Behind is more intriguing that Grisham or Clancy?

Well, to think about this let's consider another piece of information given to us by Left Behind, a sticker on the cover that reads: "Over 7,000,000 Sold in Series." Now, in the back of the book there are ads for four more in the series so let's assume that that seven million is evenly distributed over five books, for a per-book average of 1.4 million books. Sounds pretty darned good. Next, let's consider Tom Clancy who in 1996- one year after Left Behind was published- came out with Executive Orders. That book's first hardcover printing was two million copies. If this is more or less typical of the total sales of a Clancy novel (and the figures I found were only for the first hardcover printing of one book) then any five Clancy novels should accumulate at least ten million copies.

How about Grisham? John Grisham's novel, The Runaway Jury, was released in 1996, a year after Left Behind, with an initial hardcover printing of 2.8 million copies. Of those printed, in excess of 2.76 million sold. That novel is now ranked as number ten on a list of the top ten best sellers of the DECADE. Even if this is atypically successful for Grisham, we could cut the printing by half a million and still end up with 2.3 which, over five books, would add up to 11.5 million copies.

So, given that this approach to estimating popularity and sales is, if anything, skewed in favor of Left Behind (i.e. I'm accepting their figures as entirely accurate and assuming that there's only been a single printing of each book to produce that seven million figure) I think it safe to say that, whatever Dave Tippit's personal opinion, the market does not agree that Left Behind is "more intriguing than Clancy and Grisham." Having read the book, I'd prefer any Clancy you care to name and am forced to wonder if some of those seven million copies they tout have been achieved using a Bridge Publications like policy of buy-and-return. But that is, of course, idle speculation.*********

And with that, boys and girls, I reach the end of today's post. Tune in next week when we tackle the first "exciting" chapter of Left Behind.

Make sure and bring caffeine.

* Wow. Even I can't keep a straight face for that one.

** That is to say, atheists.

*** I could be wrong, though. Chick tracts are apparently meant for unbelievers like me but, from having read many of them, I would assess them as appropriate for mental vegetables with a lot of time on their hands so, hey, there you go.

**** Including, I shit you not, "Left Behind: The Kids." The description reads, "Four teens are left behind after the Rapture and band together to fight Satan's forces in this series for ten- to fourteen-year-olds."

***** It is badly written, though. In point of fact, when I started this little project I debated trying to coerce Tina of Scatterplot into accepting donations of books from the Left Behind series in my stead at the ASAs. In this original plan, I would then have offered to take those books and produce further reviews. Now that I've actually read Left Behind, however, I think folks would also have to contribute a hefty monetary inducement to convince me to ever read another one of these literary failures.

****** "Anomie is bad. My cousin stepped on an anomie once. It stung her foot and she had to go to the hospital. The End."

******* This is not a joke, I've actually done that. Ask my wife.

******** Yes, rather than scare us away with too many quotations from religious leaders, they decided to rely on their leaden prose to do the trick.

********* Technically, I'm not wondering if there was an organized buy-and-return policy for the Left Behind books. More what I wonder is whether there were such strong social pressures to read this "Christian fiction" within segments of the evangelical community that sales figures ended up much higher than the market would otherwise have produced.

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Blogger TDEC said...

Maybe you should have tried the video game version instead (Left Behind: Eternal Forces). I once saw an entire (albeit short) play about the game, and based on the life-size projections it is at least...thought-provoking. Besides, it gives an interesting view of the dynamics, in the most practical sense (can you form team? Does anyone get to play Satan's army? Do civilians get killed? How do you recognise the good guys? and so forth), of this belief in the rapture.

Thursday, July 16, 2009 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, not to nag, but whatever happened to the Turner Diaries? Did you ever finish that series? If so, why don't I remember?

I think we should collect a pool for how far Drek gets before skipping a week and one for how many chapters he gets through before giving up.


Thursday, July 16, 2009 3:19:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

I wondered if anyone would remember good old "Turner Tuesdays." What actually happened is that the online source for the "Turner Diaries" went offline. So, I no longer have an electronic copy of the text to work from and damn if I'm going to go buy one. Even if I could find it.

If someone finds me a new electronic copy I'll consider resuming the series but, for the moment... no dice.

Friday, July 17, 2009 9:32:00 AM  

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