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Sunday, August 30, 2015

How do you read? A list of my addictions

Iain M. Banks

It's probably fairly apparent that I read a lot.

And my reading style tends to fall into two categories: (1) Reading, in a rather omnivorous fashion, a wide variety of nonfiction and fiction — really, a little bit of everything, with a marked preference for history and science fiction — and (2) a tendency to read another book by one of my favorite authors.

My tendency, since I was a teenager, has been that I will discover a favorite author, and then want to read as many books as possible by that person. In fact, for quite a few authors, I wound up collecting their books.

If you are curious, here is a list of authors in which I've attempted to read a great deal of their work, although in some cases, I've given up the job. This is NOT a list of the people I consider the best authors; it's a list of the authors I am addicted to (or have been addicted to), which is not exactly the same thing. For most of them, I can offer a pretty informed opinion on what their best books are. The first author on the list is probably kind of obvious, given the existence of this blog:

1. Robert Anton Wilson.
2. Tom Perrotta.
3.  Jane Austen.
4. Lawrence Block.
5. Jack Vance.
6. George Alec Effinger.
7. R.A. Lafferty. *
8. Philip Jose Farmer. *
9. Janice Weber.
10. Iain M. Banks.
11. John Higgs.
12. Kim Stanley Robinson. *
13. Vladimir Nabokov.
14. Richard Powers.
15. Bruce Sterling. *
16.  Richard Blake.
17. Martin Amis. *
18. Elinor Lipman.
19. Percy Bysshe Shelley.
20. Neal Stephenson.
21. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
22. Roger Zelazny. *
23.  Samuel R. Delany. *
24. Harlan Ellison. *
25. Gene Wolfe. *
26. Sinclair Lewis.
27. Robert Graves.

A few notes:

Usually I take my time in reading everything by a favorite author, preferring to know that there is a book or two for me to enjoy. This strategy failed with Jane Austen, however. After I read all six canonical novels (my favorites are Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; Mansfield Park was the only one I didn't like very much), I read Lady Susan, the early epistolary work, and the two unfinished novels, The Watsons and Sanditon. There's nothing left. Similarly, although I've skipped the R.L. Stine book Perrotta ghostwrote, I've covered all of his novels and story collections. I have to wait for his new ones to come out to read another Perrotta.

The authors with an asterisk besides their names are the cases where I have given up trying to read every word they produced. I finished Delany's Dhalgren in college (I had trouble finding anyone else who could say that) but it was a Pyrrhic victory; I lost all desire to keep up with him. Roger Zelazny turned out to be uneven in his work, although I still read Zelazny novels I haven't gotten to yet. (In contrast, I've yet to find a Richard Powers or Tom Perrotta book that isn't worth reading.)

Kim Stanley Robinson has an asterisk because I don't like the direction his work has gone in, although I just read Aurora. For Gene Wolfe and R.A. Lafferty and Philip Jose Farmer, I realized after reading a great deal of their output that I didn't have to read every minor work they've produced and could be satisfied I've read the best ones.

My newest "acquisitions" are Janice Weber and Iain M. Banks and John Higgs and Richard Blake. Three our of four are Brits, but that may be a coincidence. Weber I'm a little bit behind on, but I will read her latest soon. The Richard Blake reading project is a little stalled because I want to read the Aelric books in order, and I can't find a library copy of Sword of Damascus or a Kindle version. Higgs I'm caught up on, except for the new one, which isn't out yet over here in the former colonies. Banks, I've mostly read the science fiction, but I'm almost done with Stonemouth.

I realize I don't have enough women, but the ones I've listed I love -- they're not there for affirmative action purposes. I don't love Sue Grafton, but I've read about half of her Kinsey Millhone books and will probably finish the series. I've read a lot of Connie Willis. I probably need to read another Allegra Goodman to see if I like it as much as The Cookbook Collector.

Harlan Ellison was almost left off the list because I realized early on I was never going to try to read all of the work he wrote in the 1950s, before he reached his stride. That said, I've read an awful lot of Harlan Ellison and still do so, so I decided he belongs on the list. I feel no compulsion to try to read all of Mark Twain, but I've read a lot of him. I've read a fair amount of Charles Dickens while leaving many works out. I've read a lot of Sinclair Lewis, but nothing before Main Street.  He's on the list  because I've steadily chipped away at him and read quite a few of the not-famous novels. (Work of Art is quite good).

Some favorite "genres": Russian science fiction (in translation), science fiction in general, books of history on the "fall of Rome/"Dark Ages"/Byzantium/Late Antiquity, ancient history.


Eric Wagner said...

Great piece. I share three of your obsessions: Bob Wilson, Phil Farmer, and Harlan Ellison.

michael said...

I find I think about thinking about reading quite a lot, so this piece harmonizes in 3rds and 6ths with me.

I think I read to "get off." I read to get high. I choose to categorize those altered states a book puts me in as "notable" or "privileged" in some way, probably because there's something in the experience of the book - for me - that was in-form-ation- filled that neural circuits were buzzed enough to give me another sort of buzz, strongly linked in neurobiological studies about "reward" to transmitter-proteins like dopamine...

Some of us suspect - and gosh, I hope I'm not talking out of schoolchildren's lunch pails here - that (wha?) there are certain among us a sort of cognoscenti about these things. But I mean THESE things. Not THEIR things. If you dig Robert Anton Wilson, I think I will probably dig you. How could a Joyce or Pynchon freak be a "bad" thing? I actively seek out these ones, my/our tribe...

So: I guess "how" I read is sort of like studying the multitudes of texts that may be of exceeding interest to you and your tribe. (People who identify with others tribes may like some of the same texts, in which case there's a possibility to minimize overall rancor. Maybe?) Sometimes I report on them; other times I just email someone about them. I love reading what y'all have to say about these texts.

Or are they somehow MORE than texts?

Eric Wagner said...

Interesting comments, Michael.I read a lot of stuff to help me teach. Now, I teach a lot of stuff that I like, but working as a teacher for the last 17 years has definitely shaped my reading. I find myself putting the stuff I "really" want to read on hold because I hate feeling unprepared when I teach.