I imagine there are plenty of nearly-fifty-year-old guys who grew up reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien. I think my folks gave me a paperback copy of The Hobbit when I was in the 5th grade. I know I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in 6th grade. I even had a Lord of the Rings party when I was 12 - we all dressed up as our favorite characters (even my parents and my 6th grade teacher humored). I've since re-read both books often - as well as The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, The Father Christmas Letters, and all of Tolkien's other works. I'll admit it - I'm definitely a Tolkien geek!
Lately, I've come across a copy of The History of the Lord of the Rings Part I: The Return of the Shadow by Tolkien's son Christopher. This book, part of a series of 12 volumes, compares the many versions of Tolkien's manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings. As an aspiring writer (admittedly nowhere near the caliber of Tolkien, but aspiring nonetheless), I'm as fascinated by the writing process as I am by the world that Tolkien created.
As a kid, I assumed that Tolkien was simply describing another world - one that he could see. Middle Earth was created from whole cloth - it was all inside his head (the geography, the ethnography, the languages, the history) before he put pen to paper. As I read The Return of the Shadow, I realize how the process of writing - for Tolkien as for me - is iterative. Each draft of the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring evolved significantly in the writing process - and the entire work took years to complete. I've been writing a much more mundane professional paper - but every time I read it, I make changes. Reading Tolkien's drafts has helped me realize that this is a normal process.
As I think back to how I perceived Middle Earth as a child, I realize that the feeling of reality that came from reading Tolkien's books came from the quality of the writing. Long before Peter Jackson's movies came to theaters, I could picture the Shire, the Misty Mountains, and the plains of Rohan in my mind - largely because of Tolkien's descriptive powers. I understand now that these descriptions were understated enough to seem real, yet vivid enough to paint a picture. This combination makes Tolkien's writing tremendously powerful for me.
When I think about the authors whose work I treasure, they all seem to have this ability in common. Tolkien, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig - each of these writers can transport me to their worlds, to their communities, to their minds. What an incredible gift!