Many years ago (probably around first grade, when I was about six years old), my father started reading to me from The Hobbit every night before I went to bed. I got very excited about the story, and so I began to read ahead during the day. I usually only read a page or two, but of course my father noticed: "Is this where we are?" he would ask. "Yes," I would reply, pointing to the appropriate place on the page "right down here."

Once my dad and I had made it through the book together (well, mostly together), I decided to read it again by myself. It was a pretty long book for a kid my age, but I made it through and enjoyed it just as much as I had the first time. I have a very clear memory of going up to my mother and talking to her about how much I liked The Hobbit, and how I wished that there were more books like it. Just imagine the thrill I felt when she took me over to a bookshelf and pulled down THREE more books by Tolkien and handed them to me! (I don't remember exactly when that happened, but must have been fairly early in second grade if not before: sometime during second grade, I did a project with a math mentor of mine in which we enlarged part of the map of Middle-earth in my father's copy of The Fellowship of the Ring onto a big poster. I was already thoroughly in love with The Lord of the Rings by that point, which means that I'd read it through at least once before the project began.)

The next big step in my Tolkien experience came with a "babysitter" and (during fourth grade) official school mentor I had named Mike Meile. Mike is also quite a Tolkien fan, with a particular interest in Tolkien's languages. In addition to vaguely school related topics (with an extremely creative bent to them), every class period of ours ended with five minutes or so of Mike teaching me how to write in Elvish. It was a blast. (He also introduced me to the notions of fusion and curved space, among many other things; I won't say that I understood them all, but hearing about them was great background for my current career.)

I'm really not sure when I first read The Silmarillion; I suspect it was in elementary school sometime, as I remember losing my paperback copy after free-reading one day in seventh grade (my first year of junior high), and I'm fairly certain that I was rereading it at the time. I know that I read Unfinished Tales fairly early in junior high during a summer reading program at my local library; I also made a valiant effort to get through both volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, but with limited success. (I loved "The Fall of Gondolin", though.) I think that my next new Tolkien reading came in tenth grade, when I read most of books VI through IX of the History of Middle-earth series as research for a report that I had to do for class. (I learned a lot, but sadly not precisely what the teacher was looking for. Ok, not at all what she was looking for.) After that, I continued to slowly but surely make my way through the HoMe books; I've now read them all (more than once). I was also rereading LotR and The Hobbit repeatedly this whole time; I lost count of my rereadings somewhere around fifteen in ninth or tenth grade.

In the fall of my freshman year at college, I discovered Usenet, and in particular the newsgroup rec.arts.books.tolkien. I was entranced: here were a bunch of (generally) reasonable and well mannered people who enjoyed discussing Middle-earth in the greatest detail. After lurking for a while, I posted actively for a few months (late in 1994) but then basically left until midway through my senior year. At that point (early 1998) I picked it up again and it became one of my chief hobbies. The sometimes intense discussions on the groups are a lot of fun, and they've done wonders to develop my debating skills (and my patience, and sometimes my skills as a peacemaker).

Thus, when I realized that the groups really needed a new Frequently Asked Questions list, I figured that I could do a decent job of striking an impartial balance. In some cases it was harder than I had thought, but in the end it got done, and my "Tolkien Newsgroups FAQ" has now become as "official" as the groups' older FAQs (whatever "official" means for an unmoderated Usenet group). My "Tolkien Meta-FAQ" seems to be appreciated, too; it's a convenient interface to several other FAQs. I've also written a popular "Custom Tolkien Book List" that generates a list of Tolkien's Middle-earth books with order and annotations based on the reader's own preferences, an essay on Tom Bombadil that's very popular and comprehensive, and a number of other essays and Usenet posts that people have found interesting as well.

By 2005 or so, other aspects of my life began to occupy too much of my time to remain quite as involved with the newsgroups as I had been. I still participate on and off (particularly when I'm not busy teaching), and I try to keep my FAQs up to date (I make sure they're posted regularly to the groups). And of course I continue to read and reread Tolkien books regularly: there's just something about Middle-earth that draws me in and makes me want to experience it as fully as I possibly can. There's something that makes it wonderful to share that experience with others, too. Maybe at some point I'll write an essay on why I love Tolkien. Until then, my comments will have to simply hint at the answer.

This essay copyright ©2001-2009 by Steuard Jensen.
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