misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Why to read, when not to read

The other month, a to-be-commended HRSFalum asked through HRSFANS-discuss for good books to bring on a long vacation, imposing only constraints that they be in-print (reasonably available) mass-market PBs. As one might expect, this generated an excellent recommendations list (which someone really ought to collate for the HRSFANS wiki—shoot, I volunteered again, didn’t I?), if rather heavy on SF/F and historical fiction with SF/F elements. But there’s nice range to the discussions, as well; and a bit of back-and-forth amongst the recommenders.

One day into the discussion, Tony cautioned:

His Majesty’s Dragon, like Name of the Wind, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Vlad Taltos are all unfinished series, and I’d really recommend reading the GREAT books on this list that are DONE before reading ones we don’t know how they turn out.

This seems to involve a bit of legerdemain in categorization, comparing “unfinished series” to “books … that are DONE.” A series pretty much by definition comprises several books completed in their own right (or at least to the extent that individual publishing is deemed warranted). His Majesty’s Dragon is done, as are five successor novels: the author is not yet done with all stories she intends to set in the Temeraire universe, but why should her artistic and/or business decision in our reality handicap the readability of books already available?

Even if the intent is to recommend complete series (such as The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) over ongoing ones (from the barely-begun City of a Hundred Rows through the apparently-still-kicking Song of Ice and Fire all the way to, I suppose, Wheel of Time?), why should the expected number of additional related books be a more compelling reason against or for reading volume 1 (or 5) than the qualities of the specific volume in question?

And how does this square with Tony’s own list of recommendations, emailed to the thread the previous day, including “Hyperion by Dan Simmons (only read the first book!)”? Once a reader knows how a set of related books “turns out,” s/he can choose only the “GREAT” one, but that same reader should hold off reading a GREAT book that might yet have good, bad and/or indifferent successors?

Please allow me only barely to mention the undead series, completed by their creators for good or bad and re-animated in subsequent decades (Dune being probably the most extreme example—in this aspect as in others—but with the Foundation books an arguably even weirder case, since they were re-animated first by Asimov himself and then again by his estate!).

I say, read any given book on its own terms. As I’ve written before, if it is a GREAT book there will obviously be further stories to tell, but that does not mean you need feel any duty to seek out any more of those stories, or to believe any related stories just because the same person (or an anointed successor) wrote them.