March 24, 2014:
The other day around lunchtime, John, my oldest and closest friend, who I’ve known since I was five, sends me a text message telling me to screw off and follows it by calling me an a**hat. I laugh because I know he’s not serious. But I understand why he’s calling me that. Three months ago, when I visited him and his family for the first time in two years, I had brought him an early birthday present, a novel I had read in 2011 called Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. It’s a book I had greatly enjoyed and something I thought would be cool to discuss. Because we’re both nerds for eighties nostalgia, I figured it would be as much up his alley as it was mine. And I was right. He told me to screw off because he had already read four chapters and it was only lunchtime.
Here’s the thing: John doesn’t usually read. For him to read anything, it has to have stats, a score sheet, and take less than five minutes to finish. In the old days it had to be bought from a rack, come with a glossy finish, and feature a dude holding a ball of some sort. Nowadays it has to be something he can read online. The last novel he read was whatever he was forced to read in high school. He does not like reading. It makes sense then that I had done something to violate his way of life. It was not as simple or quick as watching a movie.
It began innocently. He was about to sit down when he noticed the book sitting not far from him. He had a few minutes to kill, so he picked up the book to see what it was about. He got to the end of the first chapter and said, “Oh yeah, I gotta see where this is going.” So, he went on to Chapter 2. Then the third chapter. Then the fourth chapter. Then he cursed at me in a text message. Then he went on to read the next three chapters.
Over the course of just a few days, he texted me updates on what he was reading next. After he had finished reading Level Two (the book’s second act), he called to talk about it. I promised not to spoil anything. He told me his theories. He focused primarily on a sequence when the hero plays a perfect game Pac-Man. He wanted to know if the reward the hero wins has any effect later in the story (but he didn’t want me to actually tell him; he just wanted to know). A couple of days ago, he finished the book. He loved it. It was pretty much the only thing we had talked about in the last week (with just a quick mention of a PS4 peripheral that reminded him of the book).
If that’s not endorsement for Ready Player One, then I don’t know what is. If you’re a reader, and you love the eighties, and you like video games, and love adventure stories, and get a kick out of puzzles, and dig pop culture, and like movies, and like stats and score sheets (oh yeah, this book has those, too), and love suspense, and hate corporations, and love comeuppance to those who deserve it, and I could go on, then this is the book for you. If a nonreader can’t stop reading it, then you know it’s good.
Of course, I can’t end this review without mentioning a few of his criticisms, and there were criticisms. Two chapters focus on a romantic subplot. He almost put the book down there. There’s also an atheistic diatribe early in the book that leads nowhere (meta!) that is there for no other reason than to express the author’s religious views (I assume it’s his view, for the hero never speaks of it again). It doesn’t really do anything for the story. In a particularly tragic event, the hero gives very little emotional investment to the impact it leaves. People basically die, important people, and to cope, the hero goes back to playing his video game. My friend had a hard time swallowing that. And for a book about eighties video games and general pop culture, there’s a shocking absence of Nintendo references. I pretty much felt the same way about these lingering issues, too.
But the few criticisms take little away from the overall quality and excitement of this novel. If you can’t take the word from a nonreader that this book is awesome and necessary, then you have unrealistic expectations for your literature. You should change your standards right now.
On a related note, I had once recommended my favorite book, Syrup, by Max Barry (who was one of the author endorsements for this book), to a coworker, who in turn recommended it to another friend, who picked it up while he was waiting for his wife to finish cooking dinner, and read the first chapter, and kept reading, missed dinner, missed bedtime, and didn’t stop until the next morning when he had finished it.
Let this be a lesson to everyone: Never pick up a recommended book when you have other things to do because you might just lose track of time and find yourself reading on through your alarm clock. If your friend thinks you’ll like something, trust him on that.