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Today is the birthday of the American writer Jack Vance (1916 – 2013). If Jack were still with us he’d be 100 years old today: it’s his Centennial! Jack’s books have given me countless hours of amusement, wonder, and escape over the last four decades, since I first found The Dying Earth on a paperback rack at a local drug store in Camillus, New York. I paid $1.75 for the slender volume of loosely connected stories, took it home, and was miraculously transported to the strange far-future fantasy inhabited by Turjan of Miir and Pandelume, the lovely but unfortunate T’sais, Guyal of Sfere – and of course, Chun the Unavoidable. The next week I returned to the drug store and found The Eyes of the Overworld, and trudged with Cugel and Firx across a strange and outlandish world, often laughing at Cugel’s intrepid antics or cringing at his relentless scheming. I was hooked. Jack’s stories were an unfailing source of delight and as I got older his characters became a part of my interior world, with whom I could find respite at times from the stress and pressures of my daily life.
When I was a child growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, there was a boxed set of books on a shelf in my parents’ study. The cardboard box contained four paperbacks and was decorated with strange symbols and the word TOLKIEN on a field of gold. The entire package was shrink-wrapped and had never been opened, and it sat there there for a long time – weeks or months, I guess, maybe even a year or two – sitting on the shelf with the other books next to it, quietly minding its own business and waiting for me. Sometimes I would pass by it and notice it, read the titles and wonder what it was, what was TOLKIEN, and what was a hobbit, anyway?