Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
I have a friend who defines puberty as the period between the moment you figure out just what it is you want and the moment when your body, your parents, or the law will actually permit you to do it. How were we to fill up all that time until we got there? My friend turned to David Bowie and the Clash; I read fantasy novels.
Most fantasy books for young adults are shabby, formulaic affairs, but that didn't matter. Reaching that last page and swimming back up into reality, where the light was too bright but the colors somehow not bright enough, was a heady, frankly erotic feeling. If I'd smoked when I was 12, I'd have lit a cigarette.
I rarely read that way anymore, just as my friend rarely reaches seismic ecstasy with just some earphones and the first Pretenders album. But every now and then, I crave a hit of that adolescent intensity. When I do, I go to Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. It doesn't matter that I didn't read these books until I was out of college. They suck me under and spit me out, feeling as drained and fulfilled as a hormone-crazed bookworm half my age.
Pullman has created a baffling, sometimes frightening world of warrior polar bears and cowboys in dirigibles, creatures with elephant trunks and wheels for feet. But his greatest invention is the daemon. In His Dark Materials, daemons are essentially your soul embodied, an animal familiar that everyone possesses and cannot live without. Women have male daemons, men have female ones; they are your friends, your protectors, your co-conspirators — truly, your soulmates. In childhood, the daemon changes forms easily; moth to cat to lizard, whatever serves the mischief of the moment. It's not so different than growing your hair long and joining a rock band at fifteen; Lyra, the young protagonist of His Dark Materials, stretches her wings and sharpens her claws alongside her daemon, Pan, in order to start figuring out who she is. Gradually, though, the daemon susses out what his true form is going to be, once his human reaches adulthood. Lyra meets a sailor who took up his vocation, despite a tendency toward seasickness, because his daemon took the form of a dolphin. The man must follow where his soul leads, even if he takes not quite the joy he once did in her spinning leaps through the water into the light.
This is why His Dark Materials is magic. What pulls me in and leaves me gasping is not the fantasy, but the reality — of the dizzying submersions of adolescence, and the heartbreak of setting them aside. Let my friend have his punk rock odes to rebellion; Pullman's daemons are what remind me what I was like, when everything in the world was still waiting to be done.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.