Thursday, May 21, 2020

Series Binge Reading

The MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION carries a regular column called "Plumage from Pegasus," by Paul Di Filippo, satirizing aspects of the writing life and the publishing industry. The article in the May-June 2020 issue, "Faster, Publisher! Binge! Binge!", imagines a near future in which the federal government has "outlawed serial fiction in all media, in response to its obvious debilitating effects." One exception, the trilogy (a "one tolkien" unit) is still legal, but that can't make a dent in the addictive cravings of the narrator, a self-confessed hopeless "codex-head." Piers Anthony's Xanth series lasts him only three weeks. He takes longer to get through the nearly 100 Perry Mason mysteries, but they don't last forever, nor do Enid Blyton's approximately 700 books. In desperation, he subjects himself to the ultimate hardcore aversion therapy regimen—reading the entire Perry Rhodan franchise in the original German.

All dedicated bookaholics probably identify with the thrill of discovering a new favorite author who has dozens or scores of books to read through. Some series can be read in any order, while others don't make sense that way. When I first got into the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, I didn't realize that, while many of the novels can be picked up at any point, the ones featuring Harriet Vane have a definite story arc. I read BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON (which begins with the marriage of Peter and Harriet) before the earlier books in the arc and was bewildered for the first chapter or so, because I had no idea who Harriet was. I read many of J. D. Robb's Eve Dallas futuristic mysteries out of order (until I caught up and began buying them upon release), which works for most of the books, although one gets more out of them by following the recurring characters from one story to the next. However, the first three novels, in which Eve meets and marries Roarke, really do need to be read first for optimal appreciation and just to avoid confusion. Fans of the Narnia novels disagree on whether they should be approached in internal chronological order or original publication order. Encountering Narnia for the first time in THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE offers an experience of discovery that's lost if one starts with the chronologically earlier THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW. Although the systematic side of my mind favors chronological order, I have to agree that for a first reading, publication order works best. In subsequent readings, I would start with THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW and insert THE HORSE AND HIS BOY in its proper place right after THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE.

The aforementioned Perry Mason books, from what I know of them, seem to stand alone in any order. So do the books in Agatha Christie's voluminous mystery canon, except that I'd advise postponing the final adventures of, respectively, Tommy and Tuppence, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple until you've become acquainted with those detective characters in a few earlier novels. After Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet," which introduces Holmes and Watson, you can enjoy the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in any order, aside from the tales dealing with his "death" and return. As far as I can tell from memories of reading a few of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, those series can be dipped into at random, being written by ghostwriters under house pseudonyms and lacking any story arcs or character growth. On the other hand, the far better and undeservedly obscure Judy Bolton mysteries, by Margaret Sutton (a real person, who based the settings on the area in Pennsylvania where she lived), has characters who age from one installment to the next, graduate from school, and get married.

I recently decided to reread C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. Discovering we didn't own all the novels, I ordered the missing volumes in secondhand copies. Then I had to wait for some of the gaps to be filled, because I want to read the books in internal chronological order. Like the Narnia series, however, they weren't published that way. The original Hornblower trilogy is set at the peak of his career, when he's captain of a ship of the line. The author later filled in the hero's life story with numerous prequels and sequels.

And then there's the frustration of discovering a publisher has allowed some earlier books in a series to go out of print. Thank goodness we now have easy access to out-of-print materials on the internet. How do you approach rereading a series? Do you follow it from start to finish or pick out favorite stories to savor?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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