Gerry Morrow estimates he has read "The Lord of the Rings" at least 20 times since sixth grade, when a friend introduced him to J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy adventure.
While that may seem excessive to some, Morrow is not unusual among hard-core Tolkien fans, who return again and again to the intricate, incredibly detailed fantasy world Tolkien created. So it's easy for Morrow to explain why he reads the 1,168-page trilogy a few times each year.
But a lot of fantasy books chronicle the adventures of mystical creatures in magical realms, and few have the following devoted to "The Lord of the Rings." What gives Tolkien's trilogy the enduring appeal that eludes other fantasy authors?
It's Tolkien's attention to detail. "It's not like you're reading a story; it's like you're reading about a new place. It sounds kind of cheesy, but there aren't a lot of stories like that," says Abigail Johnson, 19, a college student from New London. "It wasn't like he was making up fiction; it was like he was writing down something that happened. He completely created this perfectly detailed world. He didn't leave anything out."
In a way, Tolkien was recording history. He populated Middle-earth with a variety of cultures scattered over different geographical regions and then created 10,000 years of deeds by historical heroes and villians, to which he often refers in "The Lord of the Rings."
And none of Tolkien's historical references require extensive background knowledge, because they are all annotated in the appendices to the trilogy and related books, like "The Silmarillion" (Tolkien's history of the First Age of Middle-earth before Bilbo, Frodo and Gandalf embarked on their quests).
"You can involve yourself and investigate at whatever depth you want," says Michael D.C. Drout, a Tolkien scholar and assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. "You can keep looking into it deeper and deeper and still find new things."
Some fans go searching for new things through fantasy role-playing games, where they can wander in character through the Middle-earth of their imaginations.
"People seem to be able to take some of the various characters in his books and say, `Hey, that could be me,'" says Dan Madsen, president of the Lord of the Rings Fan Club, which is based in Denver and owned by Decipher, a Virginia company that makes fantasy games (www.decipher.com). "That's why Tolkien's books have inspired some fantasy role-playing games over the years."
There is also a moral component of "The Lord of the Rings," and readers can identify with characters who must make difficult decisions in the face of temptation, Drout says.
"The book is filled with all sorts of different examples of power and how people use it and abuse it," Drout says. "Tolkien again and again and again says you can't do evil in order to achieve good at some unspecified later time."
Such messages resonate with fans such as Morrow, who says he is a Christian.
"It's like the eternal struggle between good and evil, and how you don't need some big superhero-type guy to change the world," Morrow says.
The book's moral and other messages have, of course, found their own little corner of the Internet, which has become a repository of arcane Tolkien lore. There are numerous online chats and message boards devoted to "The Lord of the Rings" where readers discuss their theories about characters or events in the books. Recent messages have centered on virtually every aspect of the movie, from whether Liv Tyler is pretty enough to play the elf Arwen to how New Line Cinema has handled marketing for the film.
A fan website, www.theonering.net, has even set up so-called line parties - semi-organized outings to see "The Fellowship of the Ring" on opening day. The website boasts of 400 such gatherings, with more than 3,500 people participating. In Connecticut, there are line parties planned for movie theaters in Danbury, Plainville and Waterford.
"I have kept track of the movies like religion, checking for spy reports and updates online every week," says Richard Tirrell, an all-state swimmer and honor student at Farmington High School, who organized the Plainville line party.
Ultimately, immersion in "The Lord of the Rings" represents an escape into a world with few shades of gray - something fans freely acknowledge.
"Why would you read it three, four, five times if you already know how it's coming out? Clearly, it's the experience of being there," Drout says. "You feel like you're living it again in some way."
But even more than that, reading "The Lord of the Rings" is like visiting a pristine place that few people have discovered.
"It's kind of this little secret world that not everybody knows about," Johnson says. "It's like studying a whole new world with 10,000 years of history and all these languages. By reading it, you kind of have this special privilege of getting to see it, getting a little peek at it."