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The Great American Read: The Lord of the Rings


The Great American Read is a new eight-part series from PBS that explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through America’s 100 best-loved novels. Join the conversation with PBS and WUCF! 

Read the list of 100 books.
Vote for your favorite.
Share your love of reading using #GreatReadPBS

The series returns to WUCF on September 11 at 8 p.m.
For more information and to vote, visit pbs.org/greatamericanread

Ever since I can remember, I always loved to read, something my mom passed down to me. She was an award-winning poet, a journalism teacher and she was always reading a book. When I was in the third grade, my mom helped me find the longest book on my approved reading list. It was The Hobbit.

I was instantly in love – in love with the reluctant hero and the all-knowing wizard. This was the story my soul had been searching for, and I began to judge a book’s worth by whether or not it contained a map. When I was in middle school, my mom gave me her special-edition copy of The Lord of the Rings. I began to realize that there was something bigger than The Hobbit, bigger even than The Lord of the Rings, and I was fascinated by the work that J.R.R. Tolkien had poured into creating this world.

I began trying to emulate Tolkien in my own small way. I created glyphs for a made-up ancient language and imagined how they might evolve into a modern script. I created maps and letters in these different languages, making them as authentic as possible. I ground up every plant and flower in the backyard to see what color “ink” I could make out of it. Fashioning an old document? Better bury it in the flower bed for a couple of weeks. Composing a sorrowful letter from the front lines of an epic battle? Then I need to carefully drip some tear drops on its surface. Not just water – there needs to be salt because that might change how the ink reacts. You know what, I should just use real tears. It’s no wonder my fascination with old documents continued into adulthood: after graduating with a degree in printmaking and bookbinding, I spent years repairing paper and books in the Special Collections and University Archives department at the UCF Library.

After reading The Lord of the Rings, I began rabidly consuming every scrap of paper that Tolkien ever touched. The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales created a mythos more real to me than anything the Greeks or Romans could cook up. In school, I loathed having to memorize dates for history class, but Tolkien’s history of the world was so much more than just a series of memorized events. Everything flowed from one event to the next, and everyone had a motivation. Could I tell you when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue? No, but I could recount to you in detail the Narn i Hîn Húrin, Tolkien’s tale of the children of Húrin from the First Age. I’m convinced that, in my heyday, I could’ve held my own against Stephen Colbert in Tolkien trivia … as long as I didn’t have to recall exact dates. Slowly, my passion for Tolkien’s stories allowed me to find similar stories in the “real” history I was studying. Now, at the Orange County Regional History Center, I get to focus on that same kind of history that I love: the sometimes overlooked and often quirky personal stories that have brought us to where we are today.

I wish I had at least 1,000 more words to explain how Tolkien shaped me. I would tell you about my custom retainer with Tolkien’s signature, or the letters from Father Christmas that I’ve begun to write for my own children. I have Tolkien to thank for opening doors into other worlds such as Narnia, Mossflower and Faerûn.  And, above all, I have Tolkien to thank for showing me how powerful and immersive books can be and for making me the person I am today.

Whitney Broadaway is the collections manager at the Orange County Regional History Center and has been creating museum exhibits and preserving collections since 2006. She was previously the book conservator at the University of Central Florida’s Special Collection and University Archives, is an internationally exhibited artist, and has a fine arts degree in printmaking and bookbinding from UCF.

Content written by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of OCLS and its staff.

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