Lately I’ve been taking a break from my Shakespeare Project–I’ve been on the road, and my Yale Collected Works of Shakespeare volume is massive and not exactly travel-friendly–so I’ve been reading other things. Most recently I picked up an old paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune that was on one of our shelves and have read it for the first time since my college years.
I enjoy rereading favorite books, and Dune is a good example of why. When I read it as a youth, I was pulled in by the story and read it as fast as possible, wanting to find out what happened to Paul Atreides (aka Muad’Dib) and his mother Jessica and the evil, repulsive Baron Harkonnen. Reading it again, knowing how the story ends, allows for a much more leisurely journey, appreciating the really good writing and–especially–the monumental task of creating such a fully realized world, as Herbert did with the desert planet Arrakis, its melange, its sandworms, and its Fremen.
It’s an amazing accomplishment that, perhaps, isn’t as obvious to a young reader as it becomes to someone who has read a lot over the decades. There simply aren’t that many books out there that have captured an entire previously unknown civilization–its culture, its people, its ecology, its economy, its religion, its institutions, and its politics–so completely. Most fiction builds on the foundation of our existing world and its history and doesn’t have to create a civilization from the sand up, as Herbert did. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are another example of that kind of accomplishment that show just how rare such books are, and how difficult they are to create.
And writing Dune clearly took a lot of work. The back story of Herbert’s creation of Dune should encourage unappreciated writers to keep at it. According to the Dune Novels website, it took Herbert six years to research and write Dune, and the book was rejected by 23 publishers before being accepted for publication. You can imagine how dispiriting it must have been to get those rejection letters are so much time and effort. Yet, according to one ranking, at least, Dune went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time and continues to hold that spot, nearly 60 years after it was published. Herbert’s years of labor produced a sci-fi classic that people will be enjoying for decades to come. I wonder how the publishers who casually rejected it feel about their decisions now?