Look at this! We’ve come to the second installment of my monthly feature here at Reads & Reels and I’ve written it and I didn’t even get burnt out or forget to write it again or anything :). I will now take a moment to pat myself on the back – go me. That being said, in this series I reflect on what I’ve turned to – books, movies, TV shows, comics, or whatever – in the last month to serve as a much needed distraction from the piles of ever-expanding assignments to grade, lessons to plan, and the boring parts of adulthood (booo paying bills, booo cleaning) that fill much of life. This month my recreational salvation came in returning to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
I’ve spent a lot of time within the pages Outlander recently but, at first, I wasn’t sure how to approach writing this. I didn’t want to just do a review, you know? And I certainly didn’t want to spoil anything if you haven’t read it yourself because if you haven’t WHAT ARE YOU DOING EVEN READING THIS?? Go find a copy of Outlander and start reading! Like, now. So what I’ve settled on is a bit of an examination of my history with this novel/series, touching on a) the experience of rereading favorite novels and b) my relationship with the Starz series that has adapted this work and world. Sound fun? Well, you’re still reading so I’ll take that as a “yes.”
By way of a brief introduction, should you be unfamiliar with the story, Outlander begins with Claire and Frank Randall going on a sort of second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland after the end of World War II. While wandering the countryside one day, Claire finds herself transported through time from 1946 to 1743, via the standing stones on the hill of Craigh na Dun. As an Englishwoman, when she’s discovered by a band of Highlanders she’s seen as a Sassenach, Gaelic for “Outlander.” She is rescued from English soldiers by these Highlanders and is taken back to their clan after using her skills as a nurse to help heal their clansman Jamie Frasier. As a nurse, Claire finds herself quite valuable in the 18th century and she does her best to ingratiate herself with her rescuers/captors as she tries to figure out how to return to her husband, her life, and her own time. And then things get intense and crazy and captivating and you can’t even put it down!
I don’t want to say more because a) I’m nowhere near as good a writer as Diana Gabaldon and you should absolutely experience Claire and Jamie’s story through her words and not mine and b) as I said above, no spoilers. I will say the first novel in her series was released in 1991 and it was then adapted in the first season of Starz’ Outlander series in 2014, with the fifth season set to premier on 16 February 2020.
Outlander came to my attention by way of a recommendation from Lauren. Lauren is on a very short list of friends, family, and loved ones in whose taste and their knowledge of my taste I trust so completely that I will read or watch anything they suggest without hesitation, simply because they’ve suggested it. That being said, I was still a little apprehensive when I picked up Outlander. It’s like 10,000 pages long! And it’s the first book in a series of books that are all 10,000 pages long! (Note: obviously the book isn’t 10,000 pages long, nor are any of the books in the series, but that’s what it feels like when you look at it before you start.) This was a commitment. It was a commitment to start and I knew, if I liked it, it was going to be a commitment to finish this series.
Once I started reading I realized there were few things easier to commit too.
I devoured the first novel! I couldn’t put it down. I have never read a novel where I connected more completely to the characters. If they were in a good place when I closed the book, so was I. If they weren’t, I was restless until I could return to the book to see what happened. The characters within this novel were so rich and so real they soon became stamped on my heart. I’d find myself thinking of them during the day as I do real people I know. But I’m digressing. I said this wasn’t a review 😂 .
Anyway, I suggested it to my friend Kelly who began reading it herself while I was still immersed in the first novel and she read so fast she caught up to me! We finished Outlander within a half an hour of each other. Then Mom – who now had the rave reviews of someone who wasn’t a history nerd, thanks Kelly – jumped on board too. I’ve since recommended the series to Hannah and she’s read through all of it as well. Basically I can’t stop recommending this series to people and I can’t stop reading any of these novels once I start them either!
I began Outlander (the first time) in the waning days of the summer of 2014. I knew school was fast approaching as August was flying by but I couldn’t stop after the first novel! So I jumped into Dragonfly In Amber which I finished in September and then had to roll right into Voyager. Basically, Kelly and I kept going from novel to novel until I had to admit it was interfering with things like grading and planning and life…but nothing is more exciting than Outlander XD. How could real life compete?!!? So I ended up having to save the novels for things like Christmas vacation, spring break, and summertime when all my days and nights could be given over to reading. I’d finish the series with Written In My Own Heart’s Blood in September of 2017.
But what about rereading? Rereading is always tricky for me because, on the one hand, I love returning to a favorite story. Who doesn’t? But on the other hand, there are SO MANY amazing books I’ve never read and SO MANY I want to read. How do I justify rereading anything with so many new stories still unread?
For me, rereading often boils down to how I’m feeling in the moment. Yes, I get there are SO MANY things I haven’t read and SO MANY things I want to read. But the idea of never returning to favorite books always feels wrong. The very idea is preposterous! Picking up a favorite novel (or, in certain cases, a favorite nonfiction book) is like sitting down for coffee with an old friend you haven’t seen in ages and realizing it’s like you’ve never been apart or pulling on a favorite pair of jeans or favorite hoodie. It just fits and it feels like home.
Outlander is one of the books for me. The books I return to again and again – anything by Paulo Coelho (but especially The Alchemist or The Zahir or Brida or Veronika Decides to Die or By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept or…well, you get the idea), Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, or anything by Kurt Vonnegut, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – are books I have a relationship with. I learn more from them each time I read them. I grow with them and they teach me more each time I open them. I first time I read The Zahir, as a kid barely out of college, I’ll admit I wasn’t ready for what it was teaching me about the idea of love – true, brilliant, beautiful, honestly unconditional love without possession. But when I returned to it in my early thirties, it taught my heart and soul something I couldn’t imagine and now can’t imagine living without.
With Outlander, it’s a story I love. It’s a story I fall into. But here, right now, what was most important is it’s a story I know. So this time around I can pull myself away from it when I have to and that is proving key. Outlander is a balm, an anxiety-reliever, a happy detox at the end of a busy day of teaching and even longer nights of grading. I make the point of giving myself some time – a half hour, an hour, maybe just a chapter some nights – before I go to bed to just relax and escape into the Highlands of Scotland with Claire and Jamie. It’s as brilliant and beautiful and exciting as the first time I read it but, unlike the first time I read it, this time I can put it down when bedtime comes :).
It’s just…it’s what I need. And I don’t think it would be able to serve the same purpose if it was a new book. Because if it was a novel I’d never read before and it was as good as Outlander (haha, yeah, right, you’re right…but just for the sake of the example let’s pretend another novel could be “as good” as Outlander) then I couldn’t put it down! I’d be up until all hours of the night reading and I’d be neglecting my grading and planning because any conscious hour not spent inside that book would feel like a waste. And if it was a novel not as good as Outlander or significantly worse, than it wouldn’t be able to distract me from the grind of the day nor pull me away from the work I have to do for some much needed (yet, sadly, often neglected) self-care time before bed. Also if the novel was lame it would come to feel like homework because if I don’t finish it I couldn’t count it in the reading contest with Hannah (for years my friend Hannah and I have divided the year up into three rounds and we count every page and every book we read and the winner in each category gets a delicious soft pretzel from the other on tally reveal day) and it would hang like an albatross from my neck while not helping to distract me from work either.
So yeah, rereading Outlander has been hugely helpful. And that’s one of the reasons I’ll always come down on the side of pro-rereading books.
But how about watching adaptations of books? What of Starz’s critically and fan acclaimed Outlander series?
I haven’t watched it. I won’t watch it either. I know. I KNOW. But hold on and give me a second to explain.
I do enjoy reading the book and then seeing the film/TV show adaptation. In fact, in college that was a major pastime of mine – being sure to read the book first so I could then see (and judge) the adaptation. In rare cases, I’ve even found myself liking the film/TV version more (The Reader and Good Omens come to mind). But, while I enjoy watching and evaluating an adaptation, the more I love a book the harder a critic I am of the film or TV show based on it.
Given how much I love Outlander I know – I KNOW – there is absolutely no way any adaptation could live up to my expectations. Those characters, that world, that story live so vibrantly in my mind nothing could capture it all the way it’s stamped on my heart. By the same token, I’d never watch any sort of film based on The Alchemist. And even adaptations of books I love – like Joe Walsh’s version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement – that are damn near perfect still can’t quite measure up. And Atonement – my goodness! The way Joe Walsh shot the scene in the library and then Cecelia coming out onto the terrace to look for Lola in her green dress, I couldn’t have imagined something closer to how I saw it in my mind. And Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy were PERFECT for how I pictured Cecilia and Robbie in my head. But the ending came apart (more the fault of the genre than the director) and it just couldn’t live up to it. I love Atonement and I think the film version is perfect…but it’s not quite good enough. And I love Outlander infinitely more than I love Atonement.
What I’m trying to say is, if even a film as perfect as Joe Walsh’s Atonement can leave me frustrated by adapting a book I love, there’s no way I can watch Outlander and not get mad about it. Yes, everyone’s told me how great it is and yes, everyone’s told me how well cast it is. But I know it will disappoint me. So why would I watch something when I know it’s only going to upset me? That seems needlessly masochistic and life is hard enough as it is. Plus, I always have the books to return to when I find myself missing Claire and Jamie.
Which is exactly what I’ve done! As winter (and the school year) drags on, I’ve slipped back through the standing stones at Craig nah Dun with Claire to 1743 and couldn’t be happier. No matter how long my day is, there’s nothing like Outlander (and I’m sure, in the months to come, Dragonfly In Amber and Voyager and Drums Of Autumn and…) to give me a little peace of mind and put a smile back on my face. It’s like coming home.
Michael J. Miller writes and rambles about comic books and comic book movies (not to mention Doctor Who and Star Wars and whatever else randomly pops into his head) on his blog My Comic Relief. He teaches theology at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA – including classes on Star Wars as modern mythology and the intersection of comic books and social justice. Should it be your thing, you can also find him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief but he tweets sporadically at best because social media can be exhausting.