The Happiest Days of Our Lives

By reading this, you place yourself into a population which knows who Wil Wheaton is. He's "that kid who played Wesley on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'" Suffering from that cruel flavor of one-shot-wonder curse that only happens to actors on successful TV shows, his graduation from TNG yielded no second-order limelight. He turned to writing, and thus to the internet, where I first stumbled across him writing about Linux distributions on his website years ago.

"The Happiest Days of our Lives" is Wheaton's third book. It isn't a big book. In fact, in the age of a profligate internet, it's positively tiny. Weighing in at 136 pages, if you judged it on word count you might think you were getting gypped. So here's the thing. If you thought Portal sucked because it's 3 hours long, don't buy this book (and you're not invited for dinner). If you're the kind of person who thinks any given song in Guitar Hero just isn't worth it, because it's only 3 minutes long, not only shouldn't you buy this book, and not only aren't you invited to dinner, but do I even know you?

But, on the other hand, if you're willing to look past something as simplistic as length, and those two comparisons made some kind of sense, then you should buy this book.

"THDOOL", as the Wheaton-mob refers to it, is a collection of short stories, which I put in the category of "creative autobiographical non-fiction," a genre I just made up to describe what most of us would recognize as something like blog posts. This isn't an indictment. Despite the cavalcade of idiots who regularly appear talking about the decline of intellectual discourse and the demise of the English language, I would argue that the internet, and blogging in particular, has brought a primacy to the written word that hasn't been seen since the middle ages, when angry monks guarded literacy as a kind of virginal chastity, only to be let go with incantations and promises. It's also resurrected the short story as a format.

Wheaton comes from this mold, this breed of "holy crap, I'm a writer?" which includes the countless millions the chance to show the public how badly their high school poetry sucks. But the Internet has also let new writers develop their craft, build an audience, and discover their voice. Wheaton's discovered his.

In his early career (not the acting one) he grabbed the writing thing hard, landing the occasional regular gig (he did a few back pages of Dragon that I still have on the back of my toilet). Eventually, he appropriated the title of "geek" and wrote two good-but-not-brilliant books, the better and most recent of which was "Just a Geek." "Just a Geek" was interesting book for "Star Trek" fans (as was an earlier effort, "Dancing Barefoot"), because Wheaton's struggle with growing-up-Wesley features prominently in the book. But it's ultimately, to use the most damning words I know when referring to a writer's work, a bit workmanlike.

To be fair, "workmanlike" is how I think of the bulk of my own writing. This is in no small part because most of it is done as a workman: on someone else's dime. I obviously strive to do my best, but ultimately my goal is to be clear, effective, and get the job done. "Just a Geek" has that feel to it. It's clear, effective, tells a story, and gets out. This is not an easy task. In fact, this staring down of the page is most often the very hardest part of the day. But while "The Happiest Days of Our Lives" shares the autobiographical creative non-fiction format of "Just a Geek," it breaks through the workmanlike barrier into being a fine piece of work in several critical ways:

  • Wheaton has decided he knows how to write. There's a confidence that comes from knowing that the words will figure themselves out, and that the ideas are the hard part. It brings a conversational tone to the prose, without seeming chatty and regurgitated. Wheaton's grown as a writer enough to let go.
  • He's gotten over "Star Trek." Yes, it's mentioned. Yes, it's featured in two of the short stories. But no, it's not the point. In fact, the best parts of the book are where you completely forget who's writing, because you feel like he's writing about you, in that same way a good novel puts the reader into the shoes of the protagonist.
  • He's entertaining. While "Just a Geek" was interesting, it was often inelegant. "THDOOL" inverts this; it's consistently well written, and has the occasional turns of phrase here and there that makes you happy just to have read the paragraph.

The barefoot dash across the parking lot, stopping at least once on the white painted lines, before making it into the cool Thrifty drugstore, where ten-cent scoops of double chocolate malted crunch awaited. The cool linoleum and slightly dry-but-cool air-conditioned air inside is as much a part of summer as swimming and staying up late on weeknights. It was especially wonderful if a day in the swimming pool and chlorine-burned eyes put little halos around all the lights inside and made each breath of cool air burn in my chest just a little bit.

  • He's not afraid. The two best stories in the collection focus on the trauma of elementary school and his love for a stray cat. Seriously. The former made me hotheaded and angry, the latter made me cry. Yes, actual tears (although I admit I am a complete sap).

It's important to make these points, because if you read anything about his book, these four points - which are about the highest praise I know how to give - get lost in the shuffle. Wheaton will forever get lumped into a bucket with "geek cred" painted on the side. Yes, he's "one of us." You need look no further than his blow-the-doors-off keynote speech he gave at PAX this year. Sure, it was funny. I mean hell, he opened with "My name is Wil Wheaton, and Jack Thompson can suck my balls." But it was also well written, well delivered, and something of an anthem for us over-30 geekdads. But we should pause for a moment and acknowledge the craft: the guy knows how to tell a compelling story.

That pause is difficult. It's hard to separate the work – the book – from the fact that he does seem so much like everyone I grew up with and to be blunt, so much like me. His stories of agonizing over Star Wars figures in K-Mart, of escaping into the safety of Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 12 – these are my stories. They are the stories of everyone I knew growing up who didn't think I was a spaz. They are our stories.

Here we sit in the crucible of the internet, invented, maintained, loved and obsessed over by geeks. Yet why is it we still look for our muse? I'm not sure I have the answer. I don't think Wheaton does either. But I do know that there is an intersection between the geek-as-consumer and the geek-as-creator that lies like a giant exposed central nerve, at least in organism in which I live. Sure, there are plenty of people writing about tech, and many of them write very well. There are scads of bloggers and pundits and comics and storytellers. And many of them (myself included, I hope) do a decent job of torturing words onto the page now and then.

Wheaton's different, not in an "oh my god he's so dreamy" way, but in the sense that blue and green are different. It would be easy to think that Wheaton has somehow parlayed a child-star gig into a kind of ambassadorship to planet Nerd. It would also be wrong. Wheaton's strength is not his provenance, it's that he is slowly mastering the craft of echoing the lives of a certain generation with simplicity, un-feigned humility and striking clarity.

Comments

Wil is good people. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio of his speech at the last PAX and he was kind enough in the past to answer a couple of questions I had about the writing process and how he handles it. As a geek and gamer, I'm pretty proud to count him amongst our number.

I'll have to check this one out. Regardless of the size of the to-read pile, there's always room for one more. Especially for what may be a one-sitting read.

For those of you who must have meatier tomes, I suggest "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss. One of the best long-books I've read in some time (maybe ever).

I'll admit that I only recently came to find out who Wil Wheaton is; I'm not a Trekkie, and I was getting him confused with some other guy named Will who's on "Attack of the Show" or something like that. So, for that reason alone, I found this review useful. Thanks for helping me dispel my confusion.

Also, rabbit, did you make that "idiots" link to Andrew Keen's book in the hopes of starting a movement that will cause Google to return Keen's book as a top result for the query "idiots", or am I the only one who thinks about that sort of thing when I create hyperlinks?

Wil Wheaton has always been a joy. With him being so open it has felt like i've grown up along with him. I'll definitely be picking up this new book.

BTW he's also a wicked poker player. I loved his coverage of the WSOP, too bad he stopped.

I wish I was that smart. Alas, I am a moron. But he's worse. You should see Larry Lessig's rebuttal. (Keen savages Lessig in his book.)

Thanks Rabbit, you just sold me on the book. I ordered it from Monolith press and have requested that my public library pick up a copy as well. (For those of us who like fringe materials, sending an email to your PL is a great way to let them know. They do work to find materials that everyone likes, but recommendations are appreciated, if not universally purchased.)

I've had run-ins with people who despise short books and opt instead for epics like A Tale of Two Cities, or The Fountainhead. I have no problem with this. I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities as much as the next guy and if someone has the time to read The Fountainhead, why not? The only time I become uneasy about this, is when people become completely self righteous about how "long books are superior". I always hate reminding people that Lord of the Flies was only 208 pages, which isn't very long in my opinion. Nice write-up Rabbit, I'm going to check this book out.

I thought about posting something in the comments to Wil's post regarding this review. I then realized how much I fear posting in the outside world.

I hear that outside these walls there are misused homophones and all sorts of other terrorist acts.

Did anyone else read this article with a thumping Roger Waters bassline in their head?

wordsmythe wrote:

I hear that outside these walls there are misused homophones and all sorts of other terrorist acts.

Don't be afraid. There are also homographic homophonic autantonyms. They're beautiful.

trying to keep a full dosage of gaming-related news and gamer/geek related content (or just dabbling), i first found out about Will the blogger when i read about PAX. I was surprised that some1 from Hollywood had walked down the geek path. When I had a chance to listen to the audio (and then see some footage on YouTube), i realized what a great guy and 'from the neighborhood' vibe he emits.

I've never been a trekkie, never really connected, and i see/remeber Will from Stand by Me, the you boy who ached to become a story teller. the fact that he is now "first a writter, then an actor" (his words), and the topics he so greatly writes about (if you havent, go read his blog, its superb in every way), makes the movie all that much more enjoyable now that i see it again.

Will's stories make you reminice the way talking about a 21-year-old movie in your pre-teen years makes you reminice.

I'm definitely going to order the book. Thanks for the recommendation Rabbit, it was very well written. After having just finished The Historian, I need a short book!

rabbit wrote:

I wish I was that smart. Alas, I am a moron. But he's worse. You should see Larry Lessig's rebuttal. (Keen savages Lessig in his book.)

Oh man, I love Lessig. That rebuttal was hysterical. Thanks.

for us over-30 geekdads

Hey! I resemble that remark! It's weird to think that we're a group now...

Wheaton's strength is not his provenance, it's that he is slowly mastering the craft of echoing the lives of a certain generation with simplicity, un-feigned humility and striking clarity.

Where there's a Wil, there's a way.

Nyles wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I hear that outside these walls there are misused homophones and all sorts of other terrorist acts.

Don't be afraid. There are also homographic homophonic autantonyms. They're beautiful.

Man do I love Dinosaur Comics.

Hobbes2099 wrote:

some1

Awwe Really? Did you just type that? I mean, I shortcut as much as anyone, but there's a world of hope between brb, afk and some1.

(This is something of a ritual, where we humiliate coffee grinders for making an early post. Especially if they say something actually interesting (like you did). Otherwise we ignore you. Welcome!!)

wordsmythe wrote:

Man do I love Dinosaur Comics.

When someone shows up halfway through a conversation, but with an insightful comment, it's like, what are you, Utahraptor? Stop being so conversationally consistent.

My brother in law got a signed copy of the book at PAX and sent it to me in Iraq. I read it in a day, and immediately re-read it. I can't say anything better about it than what's already been said. It's like Chicken Soup for the Geek Soul, except not trite and generally meaningless.

Nyles wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Man do I love Dinosaur Comics.

When someone shows up halfway through a conversation, but with an insightful comment, it's like, what are you, Utahraptor? Stop being so conversationally consistent.

Yeah, I have a feeling my comments are more like the voices from off-screen, but not consistently one or the other. Sometimes I'm a raccoon.

rabbit wrote:
Hobbes2099 wrote:

some1

Awwe Really? Did you just type that? I mean, I shortcut as much as anyone, but there's a world of hope between brb, afk and some1.

(This is something of a ritual, where we humiliate coffee grinders for making an early post. Especially if they say something actually interesting (like you did). Otherwise we ignore you. Welcome!!)

Wait, were you waiting for me to make the comment first, Rabbit? Aww, that's so sweet of you!

The "Dancing Barefoot" link needs fixing.

Thank you sir.

"The only time I become uneasy about this, is when people become completely self righteous about how 'long books are superior'."

Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck
112 pp

The Stranger, Camus
144 pp

The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald
160 pp

subaltern wrote:

The only time I become uneasy about this, is when people become completely self righteous about how "long books are superior".

Good Lord. Two of the books that I've enjoyed reading least were monster-long books. They were Charles Dickens' David Copperfield and Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule. I expect I'd probably get a great deal more out of David Copperfield now and enjoy it more than I did than when I was assigned to read it the summer before 9th grade honors English. Goodkind I found to be a bad plot acted by characters who weren't just flat - they were point values.

Quality is entirely different from quantity, which is part of why I really enjoy a well-written short story.

Plus one of the best long books in the English language (Moby Dick) suffers humongously from the lack of an editor (Chapter 74: The Sperm Whale's Head: Contrasted View).

rabbit wrote:

Plus one of the best long books in the English language (Moby Dick) suffers humongously from the lack of an editor (Chapter 74: The Sperm Whale's Head: Contrasted View).

Forget teachers, our culture needs to value editors more! All praise the red pencil! Stet heil!