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.

6 thoughts on “Why to read, when not to read

  1. Choosing the ‘book’ as the atomic unit of self-containedness seems arbitrary. Why not read each chapter of ‘Foundation’ on its own terms, or each serialized packet of Dickens or Dostoesvky?

    How well a given book (or chapter, or group of books) stands alone is an aesthetic judgment and for me varies widely among f/sf series. A Wizard of Earthsea is almost completely self-contained; A Game of Thrones is not but (unlike the last volume) can still be recommended on its own merits. Something like the second volume of Mistborn can’t really be considered apart from the rest of the series. So I think one can reasonably recommend some unfinished series but not others.

  2. Agreed with Ed.

    Discussing this issue with Tony has helped me to realize that different people do react differently to the suspense and the vulnerability of being invested in a series whose ending is uncertain. I tend to regard the investment imparted by series as almost unilaterally a good thing, because it lowers the barrier of entry to a book I haven’t read yet, but I don’t usually find that an inferior sequel lessens my initial pleasure in the first book. The best example is Jaran (Kate Elliott) and its three sequels. After writing four books of a series that was clearly incomplete, she decided that she didn’t know how to end it, gave up, and started writing other things instead. Even though I know I’ll never know how the series ends, I still enjoy the series and periodically reread it.

    But there are people (witness Tony) for whom this is not the case, for whom a great character or setting can be spoiled retroactively by a bad sequel, and for whom an unfinished story is worse than no story at all. I don’t think it’s wrong for Tony to advise others who share this attitude to spare themselves disappointment by avoiding unfinished series. It’s just not universally applicable.

  3. There are at least two other factors very important to consider, too.

    First, on a practical level, publishers look to book sales and popularity in deciding their future investments. If no one purchases Books 1 and 2 of Ye New Series, it becomes much less likely that their author will be able to go on to write Book 3, because the publisher is unwilling to make an advance and the author hasn’t made enough income from the first couple books. So if you do want a series to ever get finished, then buying and reading the first books is a good investment. I’m really looking forward to Rothfuss finishing the Kingkiller Chronicles, but I’m also eagerly awaiting the next book in Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, and I’m glad to give both authors my book money.

    Secondly, there’s an entirely different kind of intellectual pleasure that comes from trying to figure out where a series is going, from debating textural clues and speculating with friends and fellow readers. The Wheel of Time community is probably the best known, but “what’s going to happen next?” is equally fun for Song of Ice and Fire or Kingkiller or Taltos. I absolutely love this puzzle-hunting; it triggers a lot of the same parts of my brain as any other game or puzzle (or my research at work!). Figuring stuff out is fun. And it’s just not the same for a completed series, because you won’t have an vast and eager community of curious readers all at the exact same part of the story as you. Reading Harry Potter today is fundamentally different than it was back in the early/mid 00s, when no one knew whether Snape was good or evil but everyone had an opinion…

  4. Marshall, your second point proves me entirely. Isn’t the fantastic “what happens next” community all unravelled by really bad (or no) ending. Look at Lost or BSG for great examples of those. Figuring stuff out IS fun. Suspecting that they stuff you are figuring out will never be answered one way or the other is… depressingly fatalistic.

    As for the First point, shrug, many of us read books without paying for them (library, a loan), and even when we do, surely there are better ways to spend money than being a drop in the ocean of changing sales returns for publishes.

  5. I picked up from the library The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms last month. I read the first chapter and thought, “Well, this looks pretty standard. Maybe I’ll read the rest.” Then I glanced over the first page of the second chapter: my heart leapt at the architectural/social/philosophical side comment, and I read the rest of the volume in a day.

    I loved it. But I feel no push to read the following books, and am quite confused how other books could follow: the story is complete, and all the interesting characters either died or left the world À la Into the Fire. I assume that the rest of this series will follow other characters with some of the same types of dilemmas elsewhere in the same world–but it was the characters, not the world, that compelled me.

    So I’m not really expecting to remember The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as part of a series at all … and I don’t expect to find out how the third book ends or to care if I do happen to find out.


    Tony, you still haven’t explained how you can retain a conditional recommendation for Hyperion if a good book can be retroactively ruined by bad sequels. Is Hyperion ruined for you, but you realize other people might enjoy it if they never learn what comes next? Or do you, too, continue to enjoy Hyperion on its own merits while setting up a mental block against any knowledge of its sequels?

    Even if a community (based on puzzles, stories, their intersections, or any other common interest in person or online) unravels, and even if the unraveling is a sad response to the commonality becoming uninteresting, that doesn’t mean having been part of the community was not valuable. I have no regrets about the enormously intense expectations many of us poured into The Phantom Menace. It was a heck of a lot of fun to be young and idealistic enough to dream that our generation’s Star Wars would be equally as transformative as our parents’.

  6. What should become of such stories and how should the progress made on them be tracked? A second possibility is to split the story into smaller stories and take credit for the ones that can be considered done.

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