Reviews: How Star Wars Conquered The Universe & Quiet

Since the start of 2015, I have read two books that really had an impact on me.  I feel that both titles would be great additions to any high school library collection:

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How Star Wars Conquered The Universe by Chris Taylor. 9780465089987. 2014. Grades 11-Adult.

On May 25, 1977, “Star Wars” premiered on the big screen.  Its creator (George Lucas) had barely gotten the film ready in time, while the principle actors expected it to be nothing to write home about.   Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and Star Wars is now so much more than a movie.  It is a cultural phenomenon.  Comprising six feature films (with at least a seventh on the way) and countless TV/videogame/merchandising iterations, names such as Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Han Solo are recognized by the general public both young and old.  Phrases such as “may the force be with you” and “I am your father” are commonplace, while most everyone knows what a light-saber is and can speak in Yoda’s strange syntax (“help you I will”).

In How Star Wars Conquered The Universe, author Chris Taylor attempts to explain just how we went from a single movie back in 1977 to today’s Star Wars-obsessed culture.  In order to accomplish this goal, Taylor focuses on three distinct areas, each of which also serves as a pseudo-biography of George Lucas:

The book opens with a study of pre-1977 science fiction fare.  Space serials like Buck Rogers & Flash Gordon (while crudely made and simply told) inspired a young Lucas to pursue writing/film school and planted the idea for a “space soldier” movie in his creative mind.  This material is probably the “slowest” section of the book, but it is fascinating to see the evolution of a young Lucas, as well as crucial to understand the history of the genre in order to appreciate what Star Wars would eventually bring to the table.

From there, Taylor dives right into the making of the Star Wars films themselves, including their writing, casting, locations, filming, post-production, and release.  This is the real “meat” of this book, as it deals with the nuances of the Star Wars universe itself.  It is fascinating to see how the scripts/characters changed as the process went along.  One might think that ideas like Star Wars suddenly just “spring to life”, but this book reminds readers time and time again how much collaboration & revision was needed to reach the final product.  The “original three” films get the majority of the ink, but the later prequels are also discussed in more than a little depth.

The final section of the text tackles a number of issues simultaneously: the future of the franchise (now owned by Disney), Lucas’ meddling in the previous films, and a more esoteric study of why we as a culture are so drawn to the Star Wars myth.  This is where Taylor gets to free-wheel a bit and add much of his own flavor to the Star Wars discussion, but by no means does it turn into “fan boy” or “hater” talk.  Instead, one can easily tell that Taylor is an intense Star Wars fan who has also taken the time to truly study the material and be as objective as possible.

Of course, what one must remember about this book is that it isn’t “official” by any means.  Basically, this is Taylor looking at the career of George Lucas, the making of the Star Wars films, and connecting the dots when needed in order to make logical jumps/assumptions.  In order for this to work, the writer must have a firm grasp on the material and not let personal biases take over, two things that Taylor succeeds at marvelously.

While high school readers may struggle a bit to get through the opening “sci-fi history” section of this book, once the story narrows its focus to George Lucas and his Star Wars idea the pages will begin to fly by.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. 9780307352156. 2013. Grades 11-Adult.

Here in America, we live in an “extrovert-ideal” society.  As children, we are told to interact with others as much as possible and group work is a large part of curricular activity.  The outgoing, braggadocios child is often praised, while the insular, soft-spoken child may get sent home with concerned words on the report card.  Even into adulthood, those who “get noticed” for promotions and rise to the top of companies are those who project an aura of extroverted behavior, while the introverts often lag behind despite producing similar (or in some cases even higher) quality of work.  In short, talking/connecting (even if knowledge is lacking) is held in higher regard than silence/contemplation (even if the knowledge level is excellent).

Those are the types of issues that Susan Cain tackles in Quiet.  Though the book could easily turn into “extrovert-bashing”, Cain does a superb job of keeping it focused and generally free of personal bias.  She accomplishes this by corralling her thinking into two distinct tracts throughout the text:

1. Cain makes the point over and over again (using research and study trials to back up her claims) that introverted people are basically just misunderstood in American society.  There is nothing “wrong with introverts”.  Rather, it is the cultural patterns of thinking about behavior that cast them as different/strange/inadequate, not their actions themselves.  In terms of overall life performance, Cain gives numerous examples of how introverts can be just as successful as extroverts.  Both personality types just approach life from a completely different angle.  This is very comforting to read for introverts, as they have likely been told that they are inadequate at some (or multiple) points in their lives.  Cain, however, is here to say that they are only “inadequate” under the current set of American social/cultural ideals.  In other places of the world (like Japan, for instance), the personality tables are often turned.

2. Cain also makes sure to not go too far and say that introverts are better than extroverts.  Instead, a large portion of her text is devoted to the notion that a strong, functioning society needs both personality types in order to succeed.  A world filled with extroverts would quickly devolve into posturing, ego-fighting, and potential chaos as everyone tries to be seen & heard.  A introvert-only community would lack the correct pacing and right amount of human interaction.  In short, Cain makes a convincing argument that it “takes two to tango” when it comes to the right amount of introverted/extroverted-ness in society.

As an adult, this type of character study is fascinating.  However, I also feel that it can easily be picked up by even a studious middle school-er and be enjoyed/understood.  The reason?  The concepts that Cain expounds upon are ones that even a 12+ year old can understand: some people are quiet, some people are loud…why does this happen?  Even the scientific experiments described by Cain are done in a way so as not to confuse the reader.  The language used is about as simple and straightforward as it can be.

Zachv1 Blogger: Zach K.