Lego: A Love Story, Jonathan Bender

Wiley, 2010, 296 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 978–0470407028

As an adult who has rediscovered the joys of Lego bricks over the past six months, I’m better placed than most in appreciating Jonathan Bender’s journey as described in Lego: A Love Story. Not that rediscovering Lego as an adult is an unusual phenomenon. Adult Fans of Lego (AFOLs) even have a term, “The Dark Ages”, to describe the period between the time we stop playing with Lego as children/teenagers, and the time we pick them up again as an adult.

In my case, I abandoned Lego bricks as an early teenager after being a big Space set fan (partially motivated, if I recall correctly, by my younger brother taking up my bricks) and then kind of … didn’t care for more than two decades even though my feelings toward Lego were never less than entirely positive. It took my daughter reaching her brick-playing years for me to rediscover Lego, first through Disney Princess sets (for her), then Creator sets (for me). We’re now pleasantly expanding our respective collections via the Friends (for her) and City (for me) lines, and we’re both trying our hands at original creations. Reading about Lego is an associated side effect of this rekindled passion.

So when Bender describes the end of his own Dark Ages in Lego: A Love Story, I’m right there along with him. As he picks up the bricks, we get to see him think about his childhood Lego passion, discover the world of adult fans, gradually join the world of Lego conventions and collectors, and wrap it all up with his feelings as he becomes an expectant father.

There are other, more strictly informational books about Lego out there. If you want the official history, grab The Lego Book, a lavish Dorling Kindersley production that can be supplemented by separate tomes on sets and minifigurines. If you want a more detailed history of Lego and a factually exhausting description of nearly every line ever launched by Lego, Sarah Herman’s A Million Little Bricks will be enough. But if you want to get into the head of an AFOL, then Lego: A Love Story is for you. It’s informative, fascinating, partially heartfelt and truly says more about Lego than a dry history of the toy could ever do.

It’s not perfect, mind you. At times, it feels very deliberate—the kind of artificial experience that is motivated by a book contract along the lines of “I will spend a year immersing myself in the world of Lego, make heartwarming parallels with my own life and deliver an emotional conclusion.”  The book even has a Chekhov’s Lego set ready to be assembled at a thematically appropriate moment that we can see coming far in advance. This is a documentary with an archetypical plot and at times we can see the bare planks of the structure. (It doesn’t help that, looking at Bender’s online presence, he focused a lot on Lego from 2009 to 2010, and then went very quiet on the topic—I can certainly understand that raising a young child as a writer requires focus, but it doesn’t help the feeling that part of the book is hobby-for-hire.)  Many smaller flaws do stem from this framework. Some of Bender’s early experiences in getting back to Lego feel faux-naïve (wow, they invented a brick separator!), as would befit someone wrapping a too-neat structure over a chaotic process. Later on, some promising plot threads are also abandoned midway through (such as the author wondering if he fell in with the bad boys of adult Lego fandom), which is perhaps inevitable for a book focusing on such a short duration. There’s a delicate balance between being new enough to the hobby to talk about it as a discovery, and being seasoned enough to talk about it with the authority of experience—but Bender does get most of it right despite a few slips along the way.

On the other hand, there is a lot to simply love about Lego: A Love Story. Bender’s thought processes as he gets in deeper Lego fandom are near-universal, and his ability to clearly describe some of the more subtle pleasures of Lego fandom (assembling an original creation that matches the initial vision, for instance) is eloquent. As a journalist working on a book, he gets to go places that other AFOLs would envy: Legoland in Denmark; behind the scenes at Legoland San Diego; a visit at Lego’s corporate U.S. headquarters in Connecticut; peering inside a Bricklink store, helping organize a Lego festival with other AFOLs; and so on. He packs a lot of stuff in the year covered by this book (see above for: writing to fulfill a contract) and we readers get to read along voraciously. Bender’s background as an improv comedian makes for good prose and amusing moments, enlivening a decent journalistic overview of Lego (the company, the toy, the phenomenon) with enough personal moments that he almost comes across as an old friend by the end of the book. Bender is not a Lego employee, so a few darker passages do hint at the less wholesome side of Lego (like all hobbies, it requires time and money that can always be spent on other things) even though they are not explored in depth—like most AFOLs, Bender see Lego building as a wholesome pursuit, and isn’t particularly interested in presenting another side to the Lego story. (Seriously; who hates Lego?)

What I can’t tell you is whether someone without any interest in Lego will enjoy the book. I suspect that it may help illuminate what goes on in an AFOL’s mind (hence a marginal recommendation for spouses, family and friends of committed AFOLs). I’m certainly convinced that AFOLs will like it, but I’m not entirely sure that this is the kind of book to make Dark-Agers rush to the store to pick up new sets again. On the other hand, I did enjoy quite a bit of it … so why worry about others’ reactions? Much of the same can be said about Lego enthusiasts.

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