UPDATE: This focus group experiment is happening. If you’re interested in joining, follow the link to the reading project in the sidebar. If you’re between 10-17 you can join.
I still remember how it all started for me. I was 11, living in Stuttgart Germany on Robinson Barracks military base, and I had been reading sports books by John R. Tunis and a series called “Clint Lane, West Point Plebe” and I was getting restless. I wanted something new — was ready to graduate, I felt, to some other type of book — but I wasn’t sure what.
And so, being methodical, I started at the A’s in the post library and began working my way toward the Z’s.
I had gotten to the B’s and was nearing the end of it when I saw a book whose title caught my eye. It was a hardback that had been re-bound, and so the title was handwritten in white ink on the blue spine of the re-bound book: “Llana of Gathol”. To be honest, the reason I stopped is that — seeing it was a handwritten, re-bound title, I just wondered if there was an inadvertent miss-spelling, because “Llana” looked like it should be “Lana”. I picked up the book and opened it up. As I did so, it fell open to an illustration: (this scan courtesy of Bob Zeuschen)
I didn’t know what it was … but I was intrigued. I opened the book to the first page and here is what I read:
No matter how instinctively gregarious one may be there are times when
one longs for solitude. I like people. I like to be with my family, my
friends, my fighting men; and probably just because I am so keen for
companionship, I am at times equally keen to be alone. It is at such
times that I can best resolve the knotty problems of government in
times of war or peace. It is then that I can meditate upon all the
various aspects of a full life such as I lead; and, being human, I have
plenty of mistakes upon which to meditate that I may fortify myself
against their recommission.
When I feel that strange urge for solitude coming over me, it is my
usual custom to take a one man flier and range the dead sea bottoms and
the other uninhabited wildernesses of this dying planet; for there
indeed is solitude. There are vast areas on Mars where no human foot
has ever trod, and other vast areas that for thousands of years have
known only the giant green men, the wandering nomads of the ocher
Sometimes I am away for weeks on these glorious adventures in solitude.
Because of them, I probably know more of the geography and topography
of Mars than any other living man; for they and my other adventurous
excursions upon the planet have carried me from the Lost Sea of Korus,
in the Valley Dor at the frozen South to Okar, land of the black
bearded yellow men of the frozen North, and from Kaol to Bantoom; and
yet there are many parts of Barsoom that I have not visited, which will
not seem so strange when there is taken into consideration the fact
that although the area of Mars is like more than one fourth that of
Earth its land area is almost eight million square miles greater. That
is because Barsoom has no large bodies of surface water, its largest
known ocean being entirely subterranean. Also, I think you will admit,
fifty-six million square miles is a lot of territory to know
Hmmm….I thought. One man flyers….dead sea bottoms of Mars……this is pretty cool. Next to it on the shelf was a paperback: “Tarzan and the Lost Empire” with a very cool illustration on the cover.
It took me a few seconds to realize that the author of both books was the same — Edgar Rice Burroughs. Suddenly a sense of having discovered something special came over me, and without reading more, I put both books under my arm and headed for the the librarians desk where I signed them both out, and began a lifelong love affair with sense of imaginative transport to fully realized other worlds that Edgar Rice Burroughs, better than any other, was able to provide. I quickly exhausted all the books available from any of the post libraries in Stuttgart — as well as the paperbacks that could be bought at the Stars and Stripes Newstands. Both Ace and Ballantine paperbacks were putting out the ERB novels in those days at a rate of about one a month — and in both cases you could send in to Ace or Ballantine for a price of 40 cents (plus 5 cents for handling) and they would send the books out to you in the mail.
Flash forward to 2012: After…um…well….a whole lot of years, we are now on the cusp of seeing John Carter finally make it to the cinemas after repeated, sustained previous efforts at development failed, leaving fans like myself frustrated and disappointed. While on the one hand we’re celebrating the “arrival” of John carter, we are also on edge because what we really want is for at least the first three books to be made into three movies, and that won’t happen unless the first film does extremely well — good enough to be at least in the top 10 of films released in 2012 in terms of box office.
Against this background — it’s very hard to market John Carter to 10-15 year olds who have no idea what it’s about and who have an enormous array of choices. Disney’s marketing machine is impressive, but is it geared to capture this audience?
Could the books — the first five of which are now available for free online in the US as they are in the public domain — have an impact?
And even if this can’t help the outcome of the movie — can the release of the movie be leveraged to gain a new generation of ERB readers, just as the Ballantine and Ace paperbacks gained a new generation in my youth — a generation that included avid ERB fans James Cameron, Carl Sagan, George Lucas, and most of the top sci-fi novelists of today?
And so has been born the idea of doing a focus group study (maybe several) of 10-16 year olds and see what happens if they read “A Princess of Mars”. Will it speak to them the way it spoke to me, and toso many others? Will it do for them what it did for so many — ignite the “I like to read” factor in a way that would lead them to read not just the exceptional adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs — but other literature, of all types — a lifetime of reading that might not have happened had not ERB supplied the kindling that lit the fire in the imagination and overcame the “reading is a pain” reaction that so many have.
So…….we will do an experiment. Feelers have gone out, a teacher is on board, and 10-15 year olds willing to take a shot at reading “A Princess of Mars” are being sought. Those here in the SoCal area will have an opportunity to go to a special screening of John Carter on the lot at Disney on March 3, a week before the film opens nationally.
Are you a 10-15 year old? Or do you have a son or daughter or grandson or grand-daughter who hasn’t been exposed to ERB yet, and whom you might want to put forward to join in the experiment?
The minimum requirement is – read Princess of Mars and fill out a questionnaire…….it could change your life!! I guarantee you — you won’t be bored.