BETTER TO HAVE LOVES
by Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril is not an autobiography in the conventional sense. Made up of notes, letters, and essays written by Merril during her life and compiled by her granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary, the book does not have a cohesive narrative generally associated with an autobiography. In fact, Merril and Pohl-Weary refer to the book as Merril's memoirs, and it does read more like someone rambling through their memories than someone trying to relate the story of her life.
Merril presents the life she chose to lead in an unapologetic fashion, which is refreshing, but it can also distance her from those who disagree with some of her activities or political causes. She also presupposes knowledge by the reader of the things she knew, therefore does not explain the difference between a Communist and a Trotskyist when discussing some of the political rifts that formed in the organizations she was a member of. Similarly, although in later chapters Merril repeatedly refers to her need to leave the United States, she never cites any specifics about why she felt the country was becoming more repressive, aside from some general comments about, for instance, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
One of the interesting things about Better to Have Loved is the distance Merril has clearly attained from the fannish culture she started. When discussing the creation of the fannish pantheon, she evinces the belief that many of the things begun by the Futurians are now lost in the memories of those who were there, seemingly unaware that they are still active parts of fandom which still inspire new generations of fans.
Pohl-Weary includes numerous photographs and reproductions of papers from Merril’s life. Unfortunately, they are usually reproduced at such a small size it is difficult to read the text or see the details of the picture. The captions are similarly smaller, but the resolution of the type is much more conducive to reading. While many of the photos and book covers are placed at appropriate places to accompany the text, in other places, their inclusion just seems random.The memoirs include numerous letters written by Merril to various friends and associates and those received in response. However, Merril made little attempt to provide context for any of the individual letters, which means that many of the references in those letters will be elusive, at best, to a reader who is not already knowledgeable about the people, places, events, and times cited by Merril.
Throughout her career, Merril had an affect on the field of science fiction and its associated fandom, although she tends to downplay that role throughout the book with what appears to be real modesty. However, it would have been more interesting to get Merril's point of view about the long-term ramifications of what she did for the field besides a short throwaway comment that some people saw her as "the heinous person who had brought the New Wave to the United States." (p.163).
After reading Better to Have Loved, the reader does not really come away with the feeling for understanding the motivations behind Merril's life and decisions. Instead, what comes across is a strong-willed woman who did not care for the mores of the society in which she lived, but had a view of what society should become. Once she arrived in Canada and became associated with Rochdale College, she apparently gained a much needed outlet for philanthropy of an intellectual nature.
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