Thursday, November 6, 2008

Michael Crichton passes, but a young boy's first reading experience lives on

Michael Crichton, pictured at left and who died of cancer Tuesday, was never among America's best writers. His books, however, from Rising Sun to Congo, from Sphere to The Andromeda Strain, along with his successful forays into television and film (most notably, the perennially followed ER), were among the most popular and bestselling of his time.

As embarrassing as such an admission once was throughout college and grad school and well into early adulthood, when it was far more cool to cite and envy Kafka and Foucault, it seems appropriate now to mark Crichton's passing by mentioning without reservation or hesitation that for one of us here at PDX Writer Daily, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park will forever remain one of the most notable books of all time. It has the unique distinction, in fact, of being the first real novel I ever truly read.

I won't lie: it took me a whole year to read Jurassic Park in the eighth grade. An. Entire. Year. As a young boy, I apparently found it difficult to focus on anything for more than about 48 seconds, even well-described and tense novel scenes involving dinosaurs and goats and people and cars. But over the course of those twelve months in 1991, I slowly plodded my way through the adventures of paleontologist Alan Grant and paleobotonist Ellie Sattler, as brought on by the misguided visionary billionaire John Hammond and his experimental dino park. (I should also go on record as saying that I was then thoroughly convinced that I would become a paleontologist when I grew up, which, as you might expect, did not work out so well.) My father, who had purchased the book for me as a surprise and was living out of state, would call a few times a week and check in on my reading progress, to which I'd usually respond with details I looked up in the current chapter just before we spoke. Caught unprepared, I would usually lie and tell him that it was going really well and that "there were dinosaurs everywhere!"

As slowly I as read, though, I eventually and inevitably finished the book on which I then wrote the proudest book report of my school career: a 3/4-page hand-written anaylsis of Ian Malcolm's line, "We were so busy thinking about whether or not we could, we never stopped to think about whether or not we should." The faint philosophical ramifications of this quote kept me busier thinking and pondering than anything I had hitherto encountered. I was, quite simply, astounded... and hungry for more.

By the time Jurassic Park's sequel The Lost World was released in 1995, I had learned, it seems, how to read more quickly. I remember I bought the book in the first week of its appearance on shelves and read the whole of it in under seven days (a record!), finding it exciting and extremely difficult to put down.

Here's the only thing I regret: though I have kept both books all these years (they are proudly though understatedly nestled on my shelves between Hemingway, Plath, Orringer, Eggers, Doerr, Shakespeare, and all the others), I threw away the dustjackets. Why did I do that? I can't remember now, but it's probably only a matter of time before I reread them both as a sort of personal archeological experiment.

I wonder what I would get out of the books now, having read hundreds of others since then? As Crichton's speciality was in presenting his readers with literary warnings about the perils of technology and human endeavor, I sense that I would probably find at least one line in there somewhere to mull over for the better part of a year.

So, though I've never seen even one episode of ER and have absolutely no intention of buying Crichton's last novel (which will be posthumously released in May 2009), I nonetheless grieve the loss of he who, with the gates of Jurassic Park, opened the world to me.


  1. I share a similar experience, when I read Crichton's Andromeda Strain at the age of 18. Thinking about it as another crappy sci-fi novel (as most of them are) in the first place I had to totally change my mind because of the thrill induced by this book including its subtle philosophical implications. I even looked up some of the references given in the book, because their titles seemed that fascinating and everything seemed so real only to figure out that these were invented ones. In combination with Richard Preston's Hot Zone, which I read shortly before, this year was dominated by deadly viruses and similar stuff, and, though I did not became a virologist, I made my way into the natural sciences, which seems to be partly due to Michael Crichton's story-telling abilities. It's really sad, that he had to go that early!

  2. I happily name Michael Crichton as one of my favorite writers. A writer myself, I have always admired the 'game changing' aspects of his books. Many of his titles - whether as novels or ultimately films - left a lasting impact on aspects of our thinking about particular subjects. Typically, they were ahead of their time - like Disclosure, or State of Fear.

    Good writing is not all about the beauty of the words that fall on the page, or the "worthy" nature of the subject. That's ego talking.

    To me, good writing is in the ability to lure an audience into listening to your story and the lasting impact of that story afterwards. For me, he scores on both counts.

    I suspect there are secret thousands of literary snobs who read and loved his books as much as me.