MIND MELD: SF/F/H Books We Love To Re-Read
Sometime we love certain books so much that we like to read them again from time to time, so we asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
As the years pass, I reread fewer books because the older I get, the more I need to get to the ones I haven’t yet read. Even so, there are still some writers who demand rereading, and for me the one who demands it the loudest is Philip K. Dick.
So that’s my answer: anything by Dick, because the world we now inhabit is the one he wrote about so well, a world of ever more sinister forces that seem intent on making us into what he called androids, objects to be manipulated and controlled, with little or no autonomy, slaves to the powerful. Also because I am so drawn to the characters in his novels and stories who resist those sinister forces, even when resistance seems futile.
- Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series gets re-read at least once a year.
- Nancy Kress’ The White Pipes is also a return favourite.
- Jaff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen
- Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves
- Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye
- Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners
I certainly have books that I come back to time and time again. As a reader these are the books that I love. As a writer they are the core influences that inspire my own work. And as a critic they are the touchstones that I measure new work in the genre against. Some are single books, others runs of work that represent the best of a particular author. I suspect that many of these books come from the Golden Age of SF, IE my late teens and early twenties. That seems to be the age when the ideas of SF have the most impact. But I am still finding books that leave me staggered and awestruck, but more and more it seems to come from outside SFF.
- Neuromancer – William Gibson’s work is engraved in to the deepest parts of my subconscious. This and his short fiction are still books I refer to constantly, because Gibson is as good a structural writer as he is a futurist. What strikes me now about this work are its mythic elements, prototypical Joseph Campbell monomyth through and through. On top of his other achievements, Gibson was perhaps the first writer to signify the collapse of science fiction, and the rise of fantasy as the mode of serious discussion in speculative fiction.
- The Sandman – not a book, but nonetheless Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, is arguably the most important work of speculative fiction of the last quarter of the 20th century. I might write an essay on how Neil Gaiman killed Science Fiction. But not here.
- Iain M Banks culture novels from Consider Phlebas to Look to Windward – I might jokingly suggest that Iain M Banks titles two of these books with quotes from T S Elliot’s The Wasteland because that was the state of space opera and nearly all American SF at the time. A desolate, moribund wasteland of ill considered, poorly written libertarian posturing. Banks re-imagined space opera as a vehicle for intelligent, liberal discourse on the nature of utopia, while at the same time bringing a level of literary quality that still eludes all but a very few writers in genre.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude – if there exists a platonic ideal of what speculative fiction could be, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ masterpiece of magical realism is it. Combining the traditions of Western realism, and indigenous South American magical narratives, the book does not so much create a fantasy world, as demonstrate how our own world is permeated with the magical and fantastic just beyond the reach of the rational / scientific worldview.
- Earthsea – OK. Neil Gaiman did not kill science fiction. He just finished off the twitching remains left behind by Ursula Le Guin. If parents realised the potent mix of post-modern and Taoist philosophy Le Guin is smuggling in to the minds of little children, it’s quite possible these book would be banned in numerous states of America.
I could go on, but that is enough from me for now.
This little pile has suffered repeated bouts of love:
- Tales of Nasr-ed-din Khoja, translated from the Turkish by Henry D. Barnham.
- The Universe; The Infinitely Great and Infinitely Little by F.A. Pouchet, (1877) with its fine engravings including “Gnomes of the German Legends laying bare the Skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus” and “Spectres of the Brocken in the Harz”.
- The Complete Short Stories of Saki (H.H. Munro). This one is the 1935 edition (in that depression, a wealth of marvelous books was produced), having replaced my paperback that died after too much hate-love (give me inside margins or give that publisher death!). This hardback is now so pawed that it is less a volume than a collection of pages between two flapping boards, but that’s not its fault. It’s still a pleasure to use, and I treat it with as much respect as a venerable person who needs to have meat pounded to pap.
- Gogol in several volumes: Dead Souls, and his short stories and plays.
- The Little Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov (Malamuth translation), 1938.
- The 1047-page onion-skin Great English Short Stories priced to be a great read at a good buy, published by Harrap in 1931 and still available cheap. It includes, amongst the humour and nightmare-inducing, the original and best dead parrot story, “The Preacher Parrot” by Douglas Jerrold.
- The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit.
- A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear.
- Lady Into Fox by David Garnett, one of my favourite stories and a physically gorgeous, modest little book with lovely woodcuts by R.A. Garnett. My 1923 Chatto & Windus (London) edition is neatly penned in the flyleaf: “J. Nason-Jones. 1924. S. Persia”, which just adds to the aura of this volume.
- Travels and Adventures of Little Baron Trump and his Wonderful Dog Bulger, illustrations by George Wharton Edwards.
- Of course several Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but my favourite is the Penguin Classics paperback (1998) that Hugh Haughton lit so brilliantly with his notes.
- Across Paris and Other Stories by Marcel Aymé.
- And one of the greatest fantasies of all time, The Magic Pudding; The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay. I am disgusted with what Angus and Robertson has done to The Magic Pudding in Australia, including making the children’s version a flimsy paperback printed in flyspeck type and with the additional feature of having semi-see-through pages, so you always see a dirty backside. Aside from the nasty quality, the book has no signatures. It is quite as unsuitable for children as giving them live butterflies to pet. The A & R hardback is priced for adults with gobs of money, reminding me of Lindsay’s letter to his publisher asking that they price the book for children to buy and enjoy, not for art collectors, a request the publisher ignored. I recommend instead, that anyone who’s made it this far reading this list buys, to treasure, the superb hardcover made for love (but priced at a fraction of the Australian price) published in the USA by the New York Review Children’s Collection.
And since this is close to World Short Story Day which is on Valentine’s Day, here’s a smattering of short story anthologies in paperback, all but one of of which you can buy easily, new or used. The spines of mine have and will get a lot of cracking.
- Crimes of the Heart edited by Carolyn G. Hart, Berkeley Prime Crime, NY, 1997–for one of my favourite fantasy stories, the scrumptiously poisonous “Valentine’s Night” by Nancy Pickard; and the I-wish-I-could-forget-this-one-but-I-can’t-help-reading-it-again horror, “Do Not Resuscitate” by Lia Matera.
- Modern Japanese Literature edited by Donald Keene, Grove Press, 1960. Contains many fine stories and some greats like Kume Masao’s tragic and beautiful “The Tiger” (which resembles the best of Saki), and a story that belongs in every Ten Greatest Horror Story lists, Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s “Hell Screen”.
- Snow White, Blood Red edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Eos (Harper Collins) 1993. Wonderfully varied, from Gahan Wilson’s funny but oddly lyrical “The Frog Prince” (I wish he wrote more stories), to the three beautiful horrors in the middle of the generous collection–“Snow-Drop” by Tanith Lee, “Little Red” by Wendy Wheeler, and the flawlessly set “I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Wood” by Kathe Koja. Between Koja and recently, Laird Barron with his “–30–” (to be anthologised), if everyone read their stories, no one would ever go willingly into a forest again.
- And finally, two newer books. The Blaft Anthology of Pulp Fiction selected and translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, edited by Rakesh Khanna, Blaft, Chennai (also distributed in the UK and the USA, and on Amazon). I’ve raved about this book, and the subsequent Vol. II, elsewhere, so I’ll just say here that I’m glad it’s bound well in signatures, for it’s got a long lovelife ahead.
- A Time for Dragons; An Anthology of Philippine Draconic Fiction edited by Vincent Michael Simbulan with illustrations by Andrew Drilon, Anvil Publishing, Pasig City, Philippines. I keep thinking I’ll send my copy to a friend, but instead, I pick it up and read a story or two again, and that essay “Dragons Among Us” by Charles Tan belongs in the canon of whatever people study when they study “literature”. Now that I know I won’t part with this book, I will say that this is the perfect example of a book that should be re-issued as an e-book, which eliminates the problem of true internationality in book distribution and possible readership. The quality and freshness of several stories in this collection should have earned international prizes and a following for their authors. And a sigh of relief from those of us who thought all dragon stories written now are as alive as a taxidermist’s window display after fumigation. “Moondown and Fugue” by Alexander Drilon, “The Final Tale of Zhang Bai Long, Earth Dragon of Guei Lin” by Elbert Or, and “Johnny Tato and the Dragon of Pasig” by Joseph F. Nancino seem to be the most thumbed in my copy.
Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, The Rolling Stones, The Door Into Summer, Starman Jones, Starship Troopers and Farmer in the Sky, all by Robert A. Heinlein, are the novels I’ve reread the most. Since 1964, I’ve read these books 6-12 times. They imprinted on my twelve year old mind, defining science fiction and becoming part of my definition of happiness and nostalgia.
Since 2002, I’ve been doing another kind of rereading – I’ve been buying all my old favorite SF books in audiobook editions. Any SF novel that I loved in my youth that’s come out on audio I’ve bought to see if it has stood the test of time and memory. Sadly, most haven’t.
But that’s the value of rereading books. It’s quite easy for a book to make a great first impression in adolescence, but its whole different thing for a book to make a great impression after a lifetime of reading. A second and third reading, especially under the microscope of a fine audio narration, puts a book to the test.
My Heinlein favorites have held up well, but I might be biased by my early imprinting. Other great books I’ve rediscovered by rereading in my fifties are:
- Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
- The Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
- The Humanoids by Jack Williamson
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
- Time and Again by Jack Finney
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick
- City by Clifford Simak
- The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
- The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
These are the standouts. I don’t want to list the failures – just because a book didn’t work for me a second time around doesn’t mean it won’t be wonderful for some other reader. However, some of these titles I’ve already read a third time and I expect to reread them all again. And I’ve already started rereading novels I first discovered in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Ender’s Game, Snow Crash, Hyperion, and I’ve got to say that the level of writing and storytelling in science fiction is improving.
About two years after my most recent move, I finally managed to open all the boxes and get my books back out onto shelves. Aside from in one’s hands and in front of one’s eyes, of course, this is the better place for books. Sitting and stewing in dark and enjoying the fragrant aroma of cardboard is no place for books that you feel are important enough to cart around with you between four cities, two countries, and more than a half dozen houses.
So what happens when you get those books back out and into the light of day?
If you’re like me, a multitude of books gets set to the side, books you have yet to read, or books that you know you enjoyed so much you figure you’re going to read them again. And then your spouse comes downstairs and asks what the hell are you doing and why are all those books still on the floor instead of on the shelves? And then the books go on all willy-nilly, and you have to head back downstairs during a future quiet moment to peruse the shelves to decide what might be worth another go.
There are books that I’ve thought I’d like to re-read, and then have decided that it would only spoil that youthful memory of I have of them. I think specifically of Dune in this case. There are books I’ve convinced others to read, and they’ve returned with nothing but raves, and I know I really should go back and dive in to them. Here I think of both of my boys enjoying Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, and my older boy loving Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. And there are books I’ve loaned out so many times I’ve lost track of them, and either have yet to replace them (Ancient of Days by Michael Bishop. And Hey! Maybe I should re-read his Brittle Innings) or else have replaced them but done nothing with the new copy (Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll).
But there is one book I have that I return to almost every two years, sort of like clockwork, and much to my wife’s confusion, because why on Earth would anyone want to re-read anything when there’s so much out there that’s new? I have a ratty old mass market paperback copy that’s been loaned out time and again, and a couple of years ago at World Fantasy I bought a new trade paperback, and promptly began reading it in my hotel room that very night.
There are moments in this book, many of them little, that will forever remain with me, but – and here’s the thing, one of the reasons I keep going back to it – every time I read the book it’s like I’m diving in anew, continually surprised by what Powers has to offer me. The wedding ring on the finger of the statue, the rock in the shoe, the encounter with the creature on the peak of the mountain, the Three Sisters, and so many more.
Powers has built himself a magnificent body of work by taking our world and moments of our history and then twisting those moments just a little bit, adding a flourish of the fantastic to open that world even wider. I have a vague memory of reading an interview with Powers (and I freely admit that I may be imagining here) in which he states that in his novels he builds a structure that, at first look, appears to be solid and very real, and it isn’t until you walk away that you begin to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t nothing but a house of cards, collapsing as soon as you turned your attention elsewhere.
The problem with that thesis is that what Powers writes does not collapse. All of his books continue to stay alive in my mind, none more so than The Stress of Her Regard, with Byron and Shelley and magical, mythical creatures all competing to make me think I am reading, if not a historical document, then a wonderful novel that sucks me into a world that feels like it should be a part of our history. This magical sensation, coupled with some mighty fine writing, makes this novel one I gladly return to again and again.
This covers pretty much every book on my shelf, because I have limited bookshelf space and can’t afford to allot any to books I *don’t* read repeatedly. But since I’m guessing you don’t want this article to be bajillions of characters long, I’ll try to prioritize it down to, say, ten. Some of these are “guilty pleasure” rereads, note, and some are “study at the feet of the master/mistress” rereads, but all of them have had the covers badly damaged through rereading. In a few cases I’ve even had to replace them with new copies.
In no particular order:
- The Waste Lands, by Stephen King: Third of the Dark Tower fantasy septology-maybe-octology. Not the best of the set, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I *hate* cliffhangers. But it’s also the one that sent multiple genuine chills down my spine.
- Imago, by Octavia Butler: My favorite Butler book, of my favorite Butler trilogy, about aliens who decide to interbreed with humanity and give humanity little choice in the matter. This one’s the culmination of the saga, and the closest Butler ever comes to a happy ending.
- A Kiss of Shadows, by Laurell K. Hamilton: First of the Meredith Gentry series, about sex(y/ing) elves. Hamilton is genuinely good at beginnings, I think; I was riveted by this one.
- Emergence, by David R. Palmer: Possibly the most cheerful post-apocalyptic story I’ve ever read, about a girl traveling across an empty America, with her talking bird, in search of other survivors.
- The Initiate, by Louise Cooper: One of several inspirations for my own Inheritance Trilogy. An epic fantasy in which a young man discovers and must master his terrifying heritage.
- Luck in the Shadows, by Lynn Flewelling: A lovely fantasy caper, start of a series that becomes much more. Rake, raconteur, and rip-off artist Seregil shows innocent Alec the tricks of the (spying) trade.
- Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey: First of her science fictional Dragonriders of Pern; a harrowing tale of a girl and her talking dragon, and a boy and his talking dragon, and a whole bunch of talking dragons, and some people.
- Ariel, by Steven R. Boyett: A new edition of this came out recently, which was good because the old one had gone out of print and I read the book to pieces as a teenager. A heartwarming tale of a boy and his talking unicorn.
- Magic’s Pawn, by Mercedes Lackey: I think many of the teenage girls of my generation glommed onto this one with the ferocity of today’s Twilight-lovers. A heartrending tale of a young man and his talking horse. (Notes the number of “talking animal” entries in this list; hmmm.)
- Black Sun Rising, by C. S. Friedman: First of Friedman’s science fantasy Coldfire trilogy. Another buddy tale, this one between an evil semihuman mass-murderer and the warrior priest sworn to kill him. Also, surprisingly, heartwarming. No talking animals, tho’.
Dune. I’ve gone back to that one many times. Citizen of the Galaxy. It’s like comfort food. Cryptonomicon, just because I can never get enough of the digressions. Otherwise, it’s Elmore Leonard novels, which isn’t genre, but there you have it.
- The Man in the High Castle, for the way PKD creates a perfectly lived-in and well-worn alternate history. No bells or whistles, just calm counterfactual facts, until the ending that annihilates you right along with itself.
- Sarah Canary, for being the genre’s maybe greatest example of an SF novel that looks and acts nothing like an SF novel. Plus for Karen Fowler’s sneaky wit and gorgeous sentences.
- Of course there’s the Lord of the Rings, which is very different when you come to it at different times of life. I go back to it every six or eight years, give or take, and part of the experience is spending time with the version of myself that read it last.
It’s funny – I don’t generally think of myself as being one who re-reads beloved novels: there are enough new (or new to me) works out there that I just don’t do it. A book is finished, and so am I.
Or so I thought. But very recently, I have moved home, and have had to downsize a sizable collection of those beloved novels. And I have reassessed. Oh yes.
Because there they were, accusing me like a drunk’s row of empty bottles: books that for better or worse, I cannot quit. They are a motley crew.
- Since the day that I read it serialized – in Galaxy Magazine, I believe – I have enjoyed going back to Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It is cheese in so many ways – but it is also a delightful, sadomasochistic action film of a yarn. And it allowed me to allude to Dante long before I ever cracked spine on the original. Which, um, I should probably get around to soon…
- Stephen King gets a big run of the reread shelf, particularly his early work. I go back to Night Shift every time I want to remember how to write a short story. Salem’s Lot, The Shining and Pet Sematary all get second reads now and again, because the dirty secret of horror novels is that they’re easy to do, but damn near impossible to do well, and those three are in my mind nearly perfect.
- As far as fantasy goes – you fan-boys and girls can have your Middle Earth and your Hogwarts. For me, it’s Nehwon. All of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories get a thorough going-over every few years; in particular, the single novel in the series, Swords of Lankhmar and the novellas “Lords of Quarmall” and “Lean Times in Lankhmar”. By my books, Lieber was the Scott Fitzgerald of sword and sorcery. And you know what? I reread those stories a lot more than I reread The Great Gatsby. Make of that what you will.
What do I reread again and again? The cheap and easy answer (which is what I usually give first, and that gets me in a lot of trouble sometimes) is, “Everything.” I reread more than I read, and in general I don’t think a book is worth reading once if it’s not worth reading more than once.
As I get fierce and bald and short of breath, I (a.) speed glum heroes up the line to death, but also (b.) become more aware that this program of intensive rereading has drawbacks, shutting out a lot of great books that I could read over the course of a necessarily limited lifetime. But I can live with that, because I’d have to anyway: nobody could read everything worth reading unless they were practically immortal. Which I’m not, at least according to the manual.
I pick up new favorites periodically: you have to read new stuff too. Karl Schroeder’s Virga books, for instance, I haven’t had time to reread yet–I haven’t even read them all yet–but I know I will. Ian McDonald is another writer whose work cries out for rereading. So I’m not completely buried in the past. Half-sunk my shattered visage lies, or thereabouts.
To pick two books, though: To Live Forever by Jack Vance and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. For maximum rereadability, a book has to be able to offer new things on each reread, and both of these do that for me. Vance’s book is flawed in a couple of ways, but it’s a harrowing portrait of a particular high-pressure society and the kind of monsters it creates, including (especially) the villain-hero. Vance is also genre fiction’s supreme ironist, and practically everything anyone (including the narrative voice) says in his stories has a couple of different meanings. To Live Forever isn’t as funny as some of his work (e.g. some of the Cugel stories), and it’s from early in his career. But nearly every word carries a symphony of impacts.
If Vance is one of the genre’s greatest stylists, Le Guin is the greatest. She doesn’t speckle her text with pointless polysyllables or play the games that self-regarding writers play. She just uses exactly the right word every time. Ezra Pound, who was kind of scumbulous in some ways, said some great things about poetry, one of which was that it ought to be “as well-written as prose.” Le Guin, who is a poet, writes prose as well as a poet ought to write poetry. I don’t think she always picks topics worthy of her talent, but in The Left Hand of Darkness she tackles the biggest ones there are: love, death, knowledge, mystery, hope, depair, pregnant kings. The book is no deeper than a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough; ’twill serve.
If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to answer this question a bit tangentially, by discussing my experience of rereading in general and then moving into the specific. Rereading is always interesting for me because of the way I was trained to read–namely, by my mother, who is a librarian, an avid reader, and someone who *hates* rereading.
To my mother, reading is accomplishing a task. It’s checking off a box on your list of life’s achievements. I have read that book–check.
Not that she doesn’t enjoy reading. She loves reading. But to her, rereading is pointless. You’ve already checked off that box, so what’s the point in revisiting?
So, then there’s me. I love rereading, but I always feel a little guilty about it. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure.
I tend to reread for one of three reasons:
- I find the work extremely profound and revisiting it allows me to uncover new layers in the text. Not every work can tolerate this kind of rereading, but I love it when I find a text that is equally breathtaking–though usually breathtaking in a different way–on reread. I go to Octavia Butler’s work for experiences like this, particularly Lilith’s Brood and Parable of the Sower, although I admit it’s gotten harder to do this since she died. As a friend of mine says, it’s sad to live in a world where there will never be a new piece of work by Octavia Butler.
- I find the work comforting and part of the reason I like rereading it is because it’s a familiar, cozy experience. I reread many of the Terry Pratchett books every year or so. I often do it when I’m sick or stressed out and I don’t have the mental resources to go exploring. I just want to be in a warm cocoon with Lions of Al Rassan or Doomsday Book or Wicked.
- Nostalgia. I reread work because I want to evoke the feeling I had the first time I read it. This can be great–I really love Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun and Silver Metal Lover, for instance, although I think they were really something keyed into my experience of the world as an adolescent. Some children’s books still have that crackle of a world I saw as potentially magical–E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Roald Dahl’s Mathilda, The Forbidden Door by Merilee Heyer. Rereading for nostalgia can also be painful, though. In college, when I met someone who had written Pern fan fiction in high school, I thought to myself, hey, it would be fun to read those again. “It really won’t be,” she told me, “You’re going to be sad you did.” I didn’t believe her, but she was right and I was so very wrong.
Of course there’s a lot of overlap between these categories. I find Octavia Butler’s work very profound, but it also reminds me of all the times in all the previous years when I’ve read it before. Wicked is comforting, but also nostalgic of my adolescence–when I was sixteen, I painfully over-identified with Elphaba. Even though I see Biting the Sun through the eyes of my teenage self, I discover new layers when I reread it, too, especially as I read more feminist SF and gender theory and see the ways in which the book is part of an ongoing conversation.
I guess there’s also a fourth reason I reread–which is when I’m trying to figure out how an author achieves a particular effect, or do a structural analysis on a text because I hope it will help me discover something about my own writing. But while I often end up doing this as I reread, I don’t think it’s usually what’s on my mind when I go pick up the book. Instead I’ll think “You know what I want to reread? That book!” and then when I’m halfway through, realize that it’s because there was something in it that resonates with one of my own projects, or some way I’m thinking about writing, or even just a philosophical or emotional dilemma I’ve been contemplating.
I really love rereading–I find it inspirational, profound, comforting and nostalgic. But I have to admit, from time to time when I look at my shelves and see all the books I still haven’t managed to pick up for the first time, I start to worry about all those empty boxes that I still can’t check off.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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