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As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality Paperback – 1 Jan 2012

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Product details

  • Paperback: 293 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (1 Jan. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195343174
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195343175
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 2 x 15.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 906,811 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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an engaging and adventurous literary history ... [a] lively and intelligent work (Patrick Curry, Times Literary Supplement)

Brilliant... As If reminds us that, through real play in imaginary gardens, we can enhance the lives we lead in this alienated modern world. (Michael Dirda, The Washington Post)

Mr. Saler counterpunches vigorously against the whole edifice of literary snobbery... His book should be essential reading in every graduate school of the humanities. But it's much more fun than that recommendation suggests. (Tom Shippey, The Wall Street Journal)

Riveting stuff...Open[s] up a new vision not just of the literature of the fantastic, but of us as well. (Rick Kleffel, Bookotron.com)

This is the best cultural study of fantasy I have ever read. A powerful, liberating argument, woven together from an impressive array of sources, all treated well and fairly. Saler routs the assumption that enchantment and reason oppose one another. (Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games)

If modernity can be called an 'iron cage,' as it was by Max Weber, the para-modernity explored by Michael Saler is an Escher staircase. Composed of oxymoronic juxtapositions-animistic reason, detached immersion, ironic faith, and enchanted disenchantment-it transports us nowhere, but the journey is filled with such wonders that we keep moving along. As If is itself a triumph of imagination and wit, as well as an exemplary exercise in cultural history. (Martin Jay, author of Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme)

Michael Saler's dazzling book adds a new historical dimension to our understanding of imaginary worlds and literature; through As If a surprising illumination of our modernity becomes possible. (Simon During, author of Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic)

Saler's book uncovers and identifies precursors to the shared imaginary worlds of our time. His argument is clear, his examples entertaining; the cumulative effect is startling and ultimately very useful, in that we are given a new and positive way to understand not only several currently emerging art forms, but also our entire cultural moment. I now see my kids' activities in a new light; it even seems as if our future could be good. (Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Galileo's Dream)

About the Author

Michael Saler is Professor of History, University of California at Davis. He is the author of The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: 'Medieval Modernism' and the London Underground (OUP 1999) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2000 British Council Prize in the Humanities.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Tevis Fen-Kortiay on 19 Jun. 2015
Format: Paperback
Avid Tolkien readers discover that there are hundreds of books about Tolkien, but only a handful are worth reading. Most of the best are by Tom Shippey, so I bought 'As If' on the strength of Shippey's encouraging Wall Street Journal review ("Mr. Saler counterpunches vigorously against the whole edifice of literary snobbery... His book should be essential reading in every graduate school of the humanities...").

Unfortunately the book itself is almost entirely the usual empty grad school B.S., apparently designed largely to meet the needs of what Saler explicitly refers to as 'The Academic Ghetto.' Early hints that the book is optimized for the Academic Ghetto rather than everyday readers include the heavy use of grad school jargon ('foregrounded' where a non-grad student would say emphasized, 'heuristic' when he means method, 'dialectic' when he means discussion), plus quotations from people who write briskly-selling, jargon-heavy, turgidly empty books like the current reigning pope of academic bullsh**, Harold Bloom.

Saler's thesis is this: Why did readers in USA and England suddenly start buying adventure novels around 1900 AD? His answer is that the industrial revolution and science had killed much of the sense of enchantment of the world, triggering a new development Saler calls 'Ironic Imagination,' which allowed people to enjoy stories without believing them to be literally true.

There are three immediate obvious problems with Saler's thesis:

1. From 1870-1900, both England and the USA passed literacy acts. Surely there's some connection between nonwealthy people suddenly knowing how to read and those same people becoming interested in books?
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael Cunningham on 19 Mar. 2012
Format: Paperback
`The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imagery. [...] [S]o naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time.'[1]

The above extract, from a letter by Tolkien, offers an appropriate combination of narrative formulas examined in greater depth by Saler within `As If'. Taking a cue from the recent developments in both corporate and leisure aspects of the software industry, Saler looks at the continuity and typologies of Secondary Worlds and their seeming ease of accessibility in affording individuals a virtual key of sorts. A key by which one may escape from perceived entrapment within an `Iron Cage' constructed of bars of monotony washed grey with Society's apparent absence of any sense of magic or enchantment. Saler begins by meticulously examining the concept of Secondary Worlds. From literary beginnings when the landscapes of literary fiction began to blur with those of reality as liminal boundaries meshed within the minds of respective readers, through to the virtual on-line worlds.

`As if' borrows its title from Vaihinger's manifesto of `Factionalism', and Saler, in part, extends that work. Two introductory chapters present the case for Saler's arguments as he defines and evidences the progression of facets that imaginary seekers who first sought to address the disenchantment of a Post-Darwinian industrialised world began to utilise. The remaining three chapters examine the literary style and works of three of the most influential Secondary World architects: Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R Tolkien, respectively.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ye Olde Ed on 25 Jun. 2012
Format: Paperback
Sherlock Holmes devotees are not alone in their acceptance of a fictional creation as real; moreover, such an idea an intellectually respectable pedigree. You knew that instinctively, of course, and "As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality" charts the development of imaginative reality and explores the psychological and social reasons for its success, concentrating on the creations of Conan Doyle, H P Lovecraft and J R R Tolkien. By exercising what Professor Saler calls ironic imagination, we can live for a while in a different world, sharing it with kinsprits, but we never actually disconnect ourselves from mundane reality. It's little wonder, really, that so many writers of fantasy and science fiction - Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, August Derleth, Robert Bloch and others - have been enthusiastic players of the Holmesian game.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 5 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating quick read for scholars or members of fandoms 24 July 2012
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Fascinating and enlightening look at the prehistory of fandom, from the late 19th Century to the mid-20th. I hadn't realized that fanfic, zines, convetions, cosplay predated Star Trek, aside from the bookish Worldcons. Saler reveals a world of Sherlockain fandom, Lovecraftian mult-author shared worlds, and a tension in Tolkien between the "as if" and the "just so" that continues through modern MMORPGs.

As If is short, and an easy and quick read. Even so, there are redundancies, and the two back chapters, psychologically focused biographies of Lovecraft and Tolkien, don't fit seamlessly with the more theoretical and socio-cultural introductory and Holmes chapters. The turn to the personal, and reading works through the author's life, is an odd departure for a work focused on the early history and role of shared imaginary worlds. Still, the chapters are interesting, and pass quickly, but the meat of the book is in its well-reasoned beginning.

This is well worthwhile for anyone with an interest in fannish things generally, or fan studies specifically - the academic parts are graceful and painless, and yet will give even the most jaded and overburdened scholar some fascinating new ideas and conceptual tools.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Secondary Worlds explored in depth 19 Mar. 2012
By Michael Cunningham - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
`The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imagery. [...] [S]o naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time.'[1]

The above extract, from a letter by Tolkien, offers an appropriate combination of narrative formulas examined in greater depth by Saler within `As If'. Taking a cue from the recent developments in both corporate and leisure aspects of the software industry, Saler looks at the continuity and typologies of Secondary Worlds and their seeming ease of accessibility in affording individuals a virtual key of sorts. A key by which one may escape from perceived entrapment within an `Iron Cage' constructed of bars of monotony washed grey with Society's apparent absence of any sense of magic or enchantment. Saler begins by meticulously examining the concept of Secondary Worlds. From literary beginnings when the landscapes of literary fiction began to blur with those of reality as liminal boundaries meshed within the minds of respective readers, through to the virtual on-line worlds.

`As if' borrows its title from Vaihinger's manifesto of `Factionalism', and Saler, in part, extends that work. Two introductory chapters present the case for Saler's arguments as he defines and evidences the progression of facets that imaginary seekers who first sought to address the disenchantment of a Post-Darwinian industrialised world began to utilise. The remaining three chapters examine the literary style and works of three of the most influential Secondary World architects: Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R Tolkien, respectively.

Saler is adept at scene setting and maintaining interest as he demonstrates how modernity and disenchantment began to seep from the machinations of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century, followed by the Age of Enlightenment wherein tales of the fantastic began to be perceived as bothersome distractions in a time of empirical scrutiny. From here Saler draws out and clarifies the essentialism at the core of `Just So' stories (in essence, the logical interpretation of experience), to that of `As If' stories (those which evolve and sustain worlds of the imagination). Here, Saler further illustrates how an author may become almost secondary in the sense that they may become of less importance than that of their fictional character(s) or narrative landscapes. However, Saler also notes that Lewis' Narnia was not able to wholly enrapture reader's imagination because that Secondary World possessed a narrative link to the Primary World, and as such its autonomy was fractured. Additional elements of the Secondary World are also remarked upon, such as paratexts: footnotes, charts, appendices, photographs, as well as other material an author may wish to add to embellish a sense of authenticity and depth to their Secondary World.[2]

Saler's introductory chapters draw to a close by examining the expansive nature of Secondary Worlds as a hungry readership continue to evolve and experience those worlds through role-playing games - from the table-top variety through to the vast on-line worlds and communities of the internet. Here the consensual hallucination propagated within public spheres of the imagination facilitates communal growth to such an extent that Secondary Worlds may be realized as a `real' experience, albeit one held in check by the ironic imagination as fantastic elements intermingle with those of reason in a mutually beneficial process producing aspects of realism and logic amongst the fantastic.

The author chapters then open with Arthur Conan Doyle and his well known creation of Sherlock Holmes. Saler outlines the establishment of fan societies and their dialogues concerning Doyle's creation; even to the point of journalistic musings that even alluded to Holmes being a real person and discussing him in depth while ignoring his creator: Doyle, whose narrative was kindling a spark of glamour and magic within the minds of readers as they themselves projected a nostalgic and glowing vision of Victorian London on top of its layers of squalor and poverty.

H.P. Lovecraft and his Secondary World are examined next. Lovecraft's Secondary World was haunted by aeon - aged nightmare entities that inhabited other worlds, deep chthonian depths, and even fractured minds. Saler lightly reflects upon the cosmologies and aspects of Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos - as it later became known. Rather there is more focus on Lovecraft's reactionary conservatism within his narratives. A missed opportunity by Saler is his omission of Lovecraft's `dreamland tales' such as evoked in `The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath' and `Through the Gates of the Silver Key'. Tales that contain a flavour of Dunsany and involved out-of-body travel that occurs during the protagonist's sleep. The underlying motive for the construct of the Dreamland would appear synonymous with the reasoning for some of the Secondary Worlds already espoused by Saler. Especially when one considers one of Lovecraft's literary fragments, `Azathoth' which opens opining that `[w]hen age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smokey skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of the Spring's flowering meads [...] there was a man who travelled out of life on a quest into the spaces whither the world's dreams had fled.'[3] Unfortunately Saler does not tarry too long speculating over Lovecraft's narrative creations before moving onto the largest author chapter in the book; that of J.R.R. Tolkien. Given the expansive nature of Tolkien's narratives and his continuing influence on nuances of the epic fantasy genre, it is hardly surprising that Saler devotes just fewer than forty pages to him. Of course, Tolkien himself examined the concept of enchantment and the Secondary World and extracts from his lectures `On Fairy Stories' and `The Monsters and the Critics' are given place within the chapter. The richness of Tolkien's `The Lord of the Rings' is further illuminated by Saler's commentary on characters being aware of their part within a greater narrative, as well as the fragments of songs and tales from Middle-earth's antiquity which help to create a larger narrative historicity for the reader. Tolkien's nationalistic values are also examined within the wider context of shifting contemporary attitudes and cultural upheavals such as the First World War. Saler also includes mention of the malign `Hobbit Camps`, established by right-wing Italian extremists for the purpose of politically grooming youths, and how elements of the American white supremacy movement sought to align themselves with Tolkien's Secondary World. However, Tolkien's remark to Rayner Unwin in a 1955 letter that he thought `[...] of the `Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue...' may have caused Saler to take the remark beyond the geographical displacement of a people and almost, it seems, to a physiological comparison that reads as somewhat tenuous.[4] Although on the same page Saler also reprints Tolkien's consternation in terms of Nazi ideology to a German publisher in 1938 concerning their question of his `arisch' origin that also includes Tolkien's prescient remark that `[...] the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.'[5] With Tolkien it is evident that Saler has found a rich seam from which to mine and, in turn, build upon regarding the creation and narrative integration of Secondary Worlds within public spheres of the imagination, and this in itself is reflected in a very thought provoking chapter that also contains nuggets of ancillary information. Saler also devotes a number of pages to the development of the Tolkien Society, its purpose as well as publications and discussions.

`As If' closes with Saler's summation of the benefits of imaginary and Secondary Worlds, not just in terms of escapism but how a reader may absorb values and ideals present in a narrative world, and transmute them into their own lives - such as environmentalism expressed through Tolkien's vivid landscapes. While Saler's work is not for the casual reader it does however remain relatively accessible as Saler's evident passion for the subject outweighs the academic gravity of style, and ensures that `As If' provides a bold and assured historical timeline through the enchantment of disenchantment. The book is further served by an extensive collection of endnotes.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. `The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien', Unwin Paperbacks, 1990, p. 239

[2] A note of interest here may be the artificially aged map within H. Rider Haggard's `King Solomon's Mines' and the `Leaves from the Book of Mazarbul' by Tolkien which is lavishly reproduced in Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin, 1979, plate 23

[3] Lovecraft, H.P., `Dagon and Other Macabre Tales', Granada, 1985, p. 407

[4] Tolkien, J.R.R. `The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien', Unwin Paperbacks, 1990, p. 229

[5] ibid p.37-38, see also p. 55-56
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I really liked how Saler traced the evolution of our society from ... 26 Jun. 2015
By Margaret Carmel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
While being dry and difficult to read at times, this book really changed my perception of the fantasy genre. Instead of just being pure escapist stories, they allow us to live in this double consciousness of believing while keeping our reason. I really liked how Saler traced the evolution of our society from the Victorian belief in the novel to our era of double consciousness that we have today. An angle that I wasn't expecting from this book was his study of the three authors themselves and how that often contrasted with what they were writing. The study of Tolkien and Conan Doyle were especially enlightening because it really showed some ironic points in their fiction, as well as evolution over time in their beliefs. I found the Lovecraft section the hardest to follow mostly because I am not at all familiar with his work.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Mostly empty grad school B.S., a few good pictures, two huge lies 19 Jun. 2015
By Tevis Fen-Kortiay - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Avid Tolkien readers discover that there are hundreds of books about Tolkien, but only a handful are worth reading. Most of the best are by Tom Shippey, so I bought 'As If' on the strength of Shippey's encouraging Wall Street Journal review ("Mr. Saler counterpunches vigorously against the whole edifice of literary snobbery... His book should be essential reading in every graduate school of the humanities...").

Unfortunately the book itself is almost entirely the usual empty grad school B.S., apparently designed largely to meet the needs of what Saler explicitly refers to as 'The Academic Ghetto.' Early hints that the book is optimized for the Academic Ghetto rather than everyday readers include the heavy use of grad school jargon ('foregrounded' where a non-grad student would say emphasized, 'heuristic' when he means method, 'dialectic' when he means discussion), plus quotations from people who write briskly-selling, jargon-heavy, turgidly empty books like the current reigning pope of academic bullsh**, Harold Bloom.

Saler's thesis is this: Why did readers in USA and England suddenly start buying adventure novels around 1900 AD? His answer is that the industrial revolution and science had killed much of the sense of enchantment of the world, triggering a new development Saler calls 'Ironic Imagination,' which allowed people to enjoy stories without believing them to be literally true.

There are three immediate obvious problems with Saler's thesis:

1. From 1870-1900, both England and the USA passed literacy acts. Surely there's some connection between nonwealthy people suddenly knowing how to read and those same people becoming interested in books? Saler mentions the literacy laws in passing, but firmly pushes them to the background in favor of his dubious thesis.

2. What Saler calls 'Ironic Imagination' – the ability to enjoy a story without believing it to be literally true – the rest of us already have a word for: imagination. What Saler calls 'Imagination' – taking any story as literally true – the rest of us already have a word for: delusion. Saler has coined his new term, 'ironic imagination,' to describe an experience which has existed for at least thousands of years and for which Samuel Coleridge already coined the term 'suspension of disbelief' way back in 1817. His book takes perfectly ordinary, usable words, redefines them incorrectly, then present this clumsy verbal sleight-of-hand to readers as a revelatory insight into human consciousness. He tries to drive the thing home by using his term 'ironic imagination' hundreds of times, on every page, as if simply repeating a claim over and over somehow makes it true.

3. That is simply not what the word irony means (irony is when a thing's true nature is precisely the opposite of its apparent nature, not simple detachment). Saler seems to have come across the term 'ironic detachment,' decided that although 'detachment' was the actual idea he had in mind, 'irony' sounded more trendy, and he'd have a better chance of fulfilling his daydream of fame and attracting the benedictions of Oprah (a daydream he shares with readers on page 197) if he deliberately mangles the English language.

Students who seek a college degree in science fiction/fantasy always seem to pass through 2 distinct phases:

BEFORE: "I've persuaded the university to grant me a degree for reading science fiction/fantasy books! Ha-ha, I've cheated them! "

AFTER: "The university charged me half a million dollars for a degree on reading science fiction/fantasy books, which I have learned is of no value in finding a job, nor indeed of any value whatsoever! ONOZ!, they've cheated me!"

...they also discover that spending 8 years of one's life reading science fiction and fantasy novels in no way guarantees that they will find a single thing to say on the subject which anyone else finds either entertaining or informative. Mr. Saler seems earnest and well-meaning enough from his TED talk (available on YouTube), but with this book, at least, he comes across as so desperately impatient for fame and success that he's willing to bully his readers with pompous academic jargon rather than clear communication, offer a grandiose-sounding but empty thesis (that the willful suspension of disbelief did not exist till 1883, and Saler is the first to name it), and finally to court controversy by taking a weak pot-shot at Tolkien.

95% of this book is the usual modern humanities grad school mix of unsupported claims and empty no-duh statements ("In broad outline, modernity has come to signify a mixture of political, social, intellectual, economic, technological and psychological factors, several of which can be traced..."), but there are one or two outright lies that will enrage the hypothetical reader who makes it past the first few chapters. Most striking of these is Saler's claim that Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' is allegory – even though Tolkien explicitly said in his forward that he strongly dislikes allegory and LOTR is absolutely not allegory – and that the entire point of this allegory is that Sauron and Saruman represent America! Saler’s two pieces of supporting evidence are: (1) Late in life, Tolkien twice drew a connection between the evils of industrialization and America [although as Saler acknowledges, Tolkien is on record as strongly resenting the encroachment of industrialization in England for many decades before he ever drew a connection between factories and America], and (2) Saruman's nickname while he industrialized the Shire was Sharkey, which according to Saler "connotes an American gangster's nickname," ergo Tolkien’s readers are meant to infer that Saruman = USA. F**k off!!

Two stars rather than one because Saler obviously wrote this with enthusiasm and love for the subject, I enjoyed the photographs of maps and other supporting elements from 1900-era adventure novels, and the chapter on Sherlock Holmes fans as the world's first hardcore literary nerd fan society was worth the time it took to read.

Overall Reaction: Mostly empty grad school B.S., but the claim that Tolkien devoted his entire life to writing an allegory on the evils of the U.S.A., then for some reason explicitly lied about it in the forward to his own book, goes beyond empty time-wasting pretentious Academic Ghetto posturing and becomes something genuinely irresponsible and offensive. Like most avid readers I sometimes find a book disappointing, but I can't remember the last time a book made me furious. Bleh. :-(
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Happy camper 26 Feb. 2015
By Esperanza Martinez - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Shipped right on time. Good Price
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