MIND MELD: Books We’ve Worn Out Re-Reading
There are books we read once. There are books we re-read. And then there are the books that we wear out because we devour it again and again. These are the books for which we have to buy ourselves another copy immediately upon lending out because we’re sure we will never see it again — or just want to make sure we have it on hand.
Some of my favorite books– IT, The Stand, Watership Down — are huge re-reads, but don’t necessarily trigger the “must have ten copies on hand at all times” urge in me, because I know they’re available. Whenever I need a new copy, or want to share them with a friend who needs to better understand the books that built me, they’ll be there. They are my friends and my companions, and they have always been there for me, and they always will. Other books…other books are harder.
Mirabile and Hellspark, both by the late, lamented Janet Kagan, are two of my favorite books. Mirabile was part of what sparked my passion for mad science gone wrong, and Hellspark inspired my love of sociological science fiction. I’ve read them both at least a dozen times, and they’re both so out of print as to be virtually unfindable. I buy them whenever I encounter them in the wild, and have given away more copies than I can count.
Mermaid’s Song by Alida Van Gores, is a beautiful example of “I had one book, I wrote it, it’s done.” It is to mermaids as Tailchaser’s Song is to cats, or Watership Down to rabbits. It’s an ecological, political epic fantasy with mermaids and teaching songs and I cannot put my love for it into words. It made me. In so many ways, it made me.
Finally, and a little more…oddly…I want to list Santa Steps Out by Robert Devereaux. This is a very adult book: it’s full of sex and swearing and violence and bad things. It’s also a Jacobean tragedy. It’s also-also about Santa Claus. It’s one of those books that proves there’s a story anywhere, and I find it oddly enthralling. I have a copy of the original signed, illustrated, numbered hardcover, and I will treasure it always.
Some of my best friends are books. You can take that exactly as read.
There have always been those books that I’ve gone back to over and over. Sometimes it was because of the comfortable read, of knowing exactly what would happen and still engaging the characters and being entertained. Anne McCaffrey’s books were that way for me, as were Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, and Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series. There were others, but I tended to go back to these again and again.
As I’ve grown, aged, matured (maybe), and changed, other books have become tattered rereads also. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is one of those. It’s told with such complexity, depth, density, richness, and wonderful characters, that every time I read it I enjoy it like it’s new. The same applies to Sherri Tepper’s Grass. Elizabeth Moon’s Once a Hero is another one I return to over and over. It sits in the middle of the series, and I will read all the books again, but that one will call me back more than the others. It speaks to struggle, determination, overcoming great odds, and dealing with emotional havoc. Another is Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. Again, it’s a rich alternate history urban fantasy. It’s a stunning read and I love the characters and the way they connect to each other.
Now, I should say that I also go back to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, her Persuasion, and Dickens’ Bleak House all the time, as well as Robert Browning’s poetry.
All of these books speak to me. They engage my mind and my spirit and they pull me into other places, other times, and they tell such good stories. They are trustworthy and dependable. I know that when I pick them up, they will be what I need. They have hooked me and call me back, touching me in ways that others don’t quite match.
I currently own at least eight or nine copies of Neil Gaiman’s excellent Neverwhere. I own it as a graphic novel, as an audio book read by the author and a radio play put on by the BBC featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. I own a hardcover copy that I gave to Neil as I trembled with shock as he scrawled his name on the title page. I also own a few paperback copies that are falling apart. There is one that is so unsightly that it’s being held together by a rubber band and some of the pages are water stained from an accidental dive into the bath. That copy has been retired with honor and sits on my bookshelf like a convalescing old army general. That book has seen some stuff.
I’m not sure why Neverwhere hit me so hard. I first read it when I was in high school and it was the right book at the right time. The novel was a kind hand helping to pull me back to my feet after I had fallen down. It was an understanding hug. At the time I was struggling with feeling invisible. I had recently moved across country and no one in my massive new school even tried to get to know me. I strongly saw myself in Richard Mayhew who was scared and alarmed by his recent invisibility to people who lived above ground. Instead of giving up, Richard went on to have an incredible adventure and helped save the day. Suddenly the most mundane parts of the world became magical. That book helped me through so much. It taught me that you might be invisible, you might be scared, but you can still be brave and do great things.
I recently purchased Neverwhere for my Kindle. I wonder if you can wear out a digital copy? I intend to find out.
So Paul came to me and asked me to write about books that I read and re-read until they fall apart (which is kind of amusing, given the care I take of the books I own: I recently gave several books to my mother-in-law and she asked me if I had read them, they looked so new). I thought about this for a while. I could have written about my youth in New Jersey, when I traveled the galaxies and when bookstores were so rare that I did not have one in my town until the 1970’s. I did read many books then that (almost) fell apart, a combination of there being so few genre books being published (compared to today; anybody who claims “there’s nothing to read” isn’t looking hard enough!) and there being so few sources (rummage sales, garage sales and the library were my primary sources until around 1976).
While I have many favorite books and many favorite authors from that period (still), I thought it better to talk about some books that are not only read and re-read, but which helped me as well. You see, in 2001 I witnessed (directly) something that affected me badly, and which still affects me today (“trigger warning”: contains real-world events). While this has not entirely gone away, in fact, probably will not ever go away as long as certain sights and smells remind me, I can point towards certain books and authors and thank them for helping me “muddle through” and start on the road to healing.
Which books? Which authors? In particular: Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford D. Simak, Spider Robinson and Patrick O’Brian. What is it about these four that struck me in the same way and helped?
Arthur C. Clarke died in 2008 and by then was pretty much forgotten by all the cool kids. But I’ll start with him as he was the first of these four that I started reading and several common elements can be found. Clarke never wrote very long novels. In fact, with some of the doorstops that get published these days, his novels might fit within chapters of today’s books. But…in those relatively short works he shot off more ideas per page than most writers manage in the thick tomes that seem to fill the bookshelves these days. He was always optimistic, always filled with awe at the universe, able to excite you on subjects as diverse as the ocean, space exploration or mathematics. I needed short works as my attention span (indeed, there were times when I even despaired of being able to think clearly anymore) was shot. I needed optimism, as I clearly had lost all of my own. And I needed ideas to get me out of a hole. Clarke was this and more; even his after thoughts caused interest (and a drain on my wallet).
Clifford D. Simak is another name that we have mostly forgotten. I first read his stories in various multi-author anthologies and the anthologies by him alone, courtesy of those rummage sales that m parent’s visited during the year to stock up on Christmas presents (all hail the Science Fiction Book Club and whatever member in the Teaneck, New Jersey area that bought so many volumes that ended up on my shelves!). Simak is often seen as the creator of “pastoral” science fiction, stories where a simpler life takes precedence. But Simak wrote about space travel, time travel and may have contributed as much to our picture of robots as Isaac Asimov did. He also wrote of compassion, humility, loyalty and friendship. In books such as City, Way Station, The Goblin Reservation and stories such as “The Big Front Yard”, I found a quieter time to help me heal and the qualities of being I thought I had lost.
I first came across Spider Robinson when a local magazine stand/soda fountain (“local” being that I had to walk six miles, no joke, to get to it) started selling Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine. He told quirky little tales about a bar named Callahan’s (a place to me as mysterious as the far side of the galaxy, being that I was too young to actually go to a bar) where everybody knew your name, where people made room for you, and even aliens or time-travelers might fine the answer to what ailed them. The series grew from a sprinkling of short stories, to novels and even a offshoot series (Lady Sally’s). While some may be put off by the style (many puns) or the let’s-hold-hands-and-think-positive-thoughts solution to some of the stories, I sorely needed a place like Callahan’s in 2001 onwards and these stories were the next best thing.
And, finally, Patrick O’Brian. Now, I know that Paul said “genre” and O’Brian’s long series about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Doctor Stephen Maturin (naturalist and intelligence agent) are not “science fiction”, but could counter that they both bear many similarities to science fiction and influenced authors of said (for example, David Drake). Be that as it may, I mention O’Brian as I’ve read and re-read the books in these series (overall, I’ve probably read the entire series six times and some individual novels as many as twelve or more times), so I think this counts as something that I’ve read until it fell apart. I gave my trade paperbacks first to a co-worker to get him hooked and then to both my father and a brother-in-law. I bought a large boxed set, which is in rotation on a regular basis. I bought the audiobooks and listened to them all over one summer (one interesting thing about this experience was how much different I interpreted some of the stories based on who the narrator, the incomparable Simon Vance paced and enunciated).
Why this author and series compared to the other books I mention? Running as a strong thread through all of the books of this series is friendship, compassion, humility and loyalty. And music. All things I needed to ground me and thaw me and start me on the path back.
Night after night they played there in the great cabin with the stern-windows open and the ship’s wake flowing away and away in the darkness. Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike in nationality, education, religion, appearance and habit of mind as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and ‘cello; though this was a language in which Jack was somewhat more articulate than his friend, wittier, more original and indeed more learned. They were alike in their musical tastes, in their reasonably high degree of amateur skill, and in their untiring relish. (Patrick O’Brian, The Far Side of the World)
I first read The Shining by Stephen King when I was eleven, and I’m still scarred by the scene in Room 217. But I’m not complaining. To be affected so much by words on the page is a beautiful thing. However, as I’ve reread the book as an adult, I’m drawn more to the family dynamics, to Jack Torrance’s inner struggles, to the inexorable dread. It gives me chills each and every time I read it.
Lisey’s Story is another King novel I frequently reread. I love the portrayal of the marriage between Lisey and Scott, their secret language, the secrets they both keep. Each time I read it, even though it’s known from page one that Scott is dead, I still hold onto hope that somehow Lisey will find a way to save him. When I turn that last page, and I’m always a weeping mess when I do, I’m always struck with the realization that she did. In so many ways, she did.
Shadowland by Peter Straub is another book I read when I was young, and it affected me in much the same way as The Shining. Tom Flanagan’s crucifixion scene gave me nightmares for weeks. Again, as an adult, I’m drawn to different things—the imagery of the birds, the jealous desperation of the alcoholic Coleman Collins, and the friendship between Tom and Del. And from the perspective of a writer, it’s absolutely perfect—the tone, the story arc, the way we’re taken from present to past and back again.
When I found I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman on the shelf at my local Barnes & Noble years ago, I’d never heard anyone talk about it and didn’t know anything about the author, but the story sounded too intriguing to resist. The first time I read it, I was blown away. It’s dark and beautiful and heartbreaking and it left me with a thousand and one questions. It’s not a book for the easily frustrated, for people who want everything tied up with a pretty bow. Every time I read it, I come up with different theories; every time I read it, I keep hoping I’ve missed a line or two that will prove one of those theories right. Yet I’m certain if everything was explained in a neat and tidy fashion, the book wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. Sometimes the greatest power a novel has is not in what it contains, but what it does not.
The world building, the lush language, and the characterization of The Phèdre Trilogy (Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, Kushiel’s Avatar) by Jacqueline Carey are nothing short of exquisite. Each time I reread the series, I bask in the splendor of the Night Court, tremble in fear while locked inside La Dolorosa, and feel the sharp sting of loss and betrayal at a lover’s hand. It’s like accompanying an old friend while she travels a journey that tries its best to break her, knowing all the while she’s far too strong to allow that to happen.
I love re-reading and there are a lot of books on my shelves that are falling apart because of it. I recently wrote on a similar topic, for Novelocity, about the books I go back to again and again for “comfort reads.” So I thought I’d talk about a slightly different angle, and mention one of the authors I continually return to—not just because I love her books!—but because I find different things each time.
Diana Wynne Jones. A children’s author—a (very good, well-beloved, amazeballs) children’s author, and I don’t mean to take an iota of children’s authorness away from her by saying that her books are lovely for all ages.
Fire and Hemlock is one of my all-time favorite books. There’s a lot in there about myth and memory, and the heroine Polly’s experience with half-remembered things. I think that Polly’s faulty memories shape my experience as a reader. Away from the book, I don’t remember which things were real and not, and when I come back to the book I see different things.
Hexwood is a peculiar one for me. I missed reading it as a kid, but I would have found it different then. Because I first read it just after college, which was also right when I started writing. Scenes and characters change in Hexwood as the characters go into the forest. People are older, then younger. Details morph. To me, as an early, floundering-around writer, it felt like a true and accurate description of my writing process. You write one scene and it seems like it might be good if the characters are one way. But then in scene two it becomes clear you should try writing the characters another way. Brainstorming until you hone in on what you want. I don’t know that Jones had any of that in mind, but that’s what I always think of when I read it.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (and the related books Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin). The Tough Guide is a brilliant skewering of fantasy tropes, and the Derkholm books are set in a world that is basically a tourist country that uses those tropes. I thought these books were funny the first time I read them (as a reader), but when I read them as a writer they were even funnier. I haven’t read them in years, and it’s probably time to revisit them for a refresher on fantasy clichés!
When I was younger, my SF/F books – most of them tied to movies or TV shows – were dog-eared wrecks. Diane Duane’s Final Frontier and Spock’s World, as well as Vonda McIntrye’s Enterprise: The First Adventure are embedded in my memory, along with Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars Thrawn trilogy. Somehow, I don’t have these anymore, which is kind of a bummer.
What I liked about these was the world-building, because these novels took worlds I was familiar with in new and unexpected directions. Looking back, I can see how they impacted my own world-building in historical fantasy, where the familiar often takes a hard left turn.
In high school and college, my big re-reads were actually role-playing game books. I was especially enamored with Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension and Call of Cthulhu. (Actually, CoC got me into Lovecraft, which ended up being another re-read mainstay. Because Lovecraft.) I didn’t get to play much at all after college, so rereading the setting and sourcebook materials was kind of a substitute for that in my first few years out of school. Again, I think the different aspects of world-building were really interesting to me here, along with the character building inherent in role-playing. RPGs are great training grounds for fiction writers, I think.
Finally, throughout my teens and twenties, I had a penchant for…Tom Clancy novels. I remember Red Storm Rising and The Cardinal of the Kremlin particularly well. I know they’re not speculative fiction per se, but those were the spy/military novels of my youth, and they were re-read quite often. I’m quite tempted to download some of these now, actually. It’s been a while.
But these days, I don’t re-read much. A lot of my time is now taken up exploring a lot of new works, many from folks I’ve been privileged to meet over the past year, or just writing my own stuff. And I find that as I write (and revise) more of my own fiction, I’ve developed a critical eye toward other works. It makes for more interesting reading, but also, I think, it’s actually made it harder for me to get really lost in a book and make me want to re-read it again. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that development.
Short Story Collections:
- Looking for Jake (China Miéville, Del Rey 2005): My first Miéville. The weird is right there, as well as beautifully wrought characters and ideas. I can read delight in an epistolary story about feral streets any time. And so I do.
- Burning Chrome (William Gibson, Harper Voyager, 1986): The Winter Market; Burning Chrome; Dogfight; Red Star, Winter Orbit; The Gernsback Continuum – every single story so beautifully crafted. With bonus Sterling and Swanwick!
- The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women (A. Susan Williams and Richard Glyn Jones, eds; Penguin 1995): I’ve had this book all my adult life. It falls open to favorite stories. It has water stains and curled leaves. The cover is in terrible condition. It was the first place I read Octavia Butler. The first time I met Candas Jane Dorsey. Joanna Russ. PD James. James Tiptree Jr. Carol Emshwiller. So much goodness. The stories go back to 1942. And still hit hard.
- The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson, Spectra 1995) – Neo Victorian maker culture on digital speed. A book that can become anything. Drone warfare. My collection of Stephenson runs from The Big U through REAMDE, and this is the one that I read the most. That said, I re-read almost all of them.
- Dune (Frank Herbert, Hodder 1965) I read this all the time! When I can’t sleep, especially. Chapterhouse, Dune, too. But I’m not a big Leto fan, so the middle ones get skipped.
- Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster, Bullseye, 1951). The Jules Feiffer pen and ink illustrations – the puns – the Dodechahedron! There’s a sunrise symphony. And one of my favorite secondary characters, Alec Bings, whose feet grow down to meet the ground. I keep multiple copies of this for giving away to unsuspecting and deserving folks.
True confession: I’m not as much of a reader as I’d like to be, thanks to mild dyslexia. The act of reading is hard for me. This is why, among other reasons, I’ve been a lifelong fan of graphic novels, comic books, and manga. I can consume those the way my friends and family read full length novels. That’s not to say that there aren’t many books I deem “worth the effort.” But, because of this, a book has to be really special for me to finish it, much less choose to read and re-read.
That being said, I can think of a few books that I’ve nearly destroyed with love. Admittedly, some of these were dog-eared in my youth and I haven’t returned to them nearly as much in my adulthood, when there are time-pressures competing with my learning disability. Also, I would hardly call any of these perfect books. In many ways, I tend to think that the opposite is probably true. These books are flawed in a way that was meaning for me, the kind of book that inspired me to want to fill holes with reams of fan fic and hours of daydreaming and play. The world-building of these books were of the sort where I wanted to climb in, and live there forever, to breathe the air of these novels forever and ever.
And, thus, embarrassingly they are the series that began with:
- DRAGONFLIGHT by Anne McCaffrey
- DERYNI RISING by Katherine Kurtz
- DANCERS OF ARUN by Elizabeth A. Lynn
My copy of DRAGONFLIGHT, which I was fortunate enough to have Anne McCaffery sign when she was still traveling and doing such things, is embarrassingly beat-up. I’d used a colored pencil to highlight my favorite passages and I can, to this day, still tell you that the fist time F’lar is described from Lessa’s p.o.v. is on page 78. This was the kind of book that kids of today would say was IMPORTANT TO ME. It gave me FEELS. For REASONS.
Both DEYRNI RISING and DANCERS OF ARUN sparked copies amounts of fan fic and fan art from me. Thankfully, I was doing all this in an era before the internet, so none of it exists anywhere but in the pages and pages of notebooks in my basement (and now collected by Lynne M. Thomas by Northern Illinois University).
But because my list was so small and sad, I posed this question to my family as well. Both my wife and my son are more typical voracious readers. Shawn, my wife, has a copy of REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier she’s dog-eared nearly to dust. She also regularly re-reads British author Phil Rickman’s entire oeuvre because, she says, they’re so rich that she can get something new out of them every time.
At one point in his young life, my son Mason was so attached to J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT that we had to have several copies at hand. So for a while we had one we simply referred to as “the car hobbit.” These days, he’s re-reading for the umpteenth time THE MAD SCIENTISTS’ CLUB: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION by Bertrand R. Brinley, a book that Shawn remembers reading and re-reading herself as a child, having inherited it in a similarly dog-eared condition from her older brother, Greg.
Mason said that I should be sure to tell everyone that his favorite go-to comfort read, however, is currently anything by Brandon Mull, his “favorite author ever” because the stories are exciting, but “now I know them so well, they’re also comforting.”
Which is really the part of this question I find fascinating: why are some books re-read to near-exctinction? For Shawn and Mason the answer seems to be one part comfort, another part depth. My own answer seems to be akin to: magic. These are books that just worked on some primal level for me and made me want to be part of their tribe. Which is how, I’ve come to believe, fandoms are born.
They tend to be ones that got me into things from the past — my love of comic books start with things like 1980’s X-Men and Fantastic Four, and I’ve purchased them in multiple collected editions, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is something that I find myself going back to in a multitude of formats. It is familiar and comforting. They may have been challenging once, but I’ve covered that challenge and now find them comforting.
I can’t pretend that they are as diverse as the books that I would seek out new today — they’re works like Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, or Foundation. They are the works that are the works that got me into genre; something like John Christopher’s Tripods or Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Pyrdain (though I need a fresh copy of that).
They’re also ones that trigger happy memories — for example, Paul Cornell’s Doctor Who novels from the 1990s kept my love of the TV series alive when it was off the air, and so there are now multiple levels of nostalgia involved with those. They connected me to other people, and strengthened my ties to fandom.
I would hope that new books that get added, and something that might have originally been challenging becomes comforting — I realized at Minicon that Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpest is starting to get into that mix. It can take a number of years for works to get included in that history, and they’re works that connect and become part of your life’s story. One of the things that made me enjoy the Harry Potter novels so much isn’t that they *became* part of that type of novel for me, but that I am sure they will become one of those works for Many Many other people that were a part of a different generation.
I have read some of Barbara Michaels’ supernatural novels so often that I have no idea how many times I’ve devoured them! Once per year for many years, in a few cases. Having run through many print copies over the years, I’m now stocking up my digital library with permanent copies of THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE (a famous man’s biographer discovers that his subject owes his success to a silent partner, so to speak), WAIT FOR WHAT WILL COME (a woman inherits a watery family curse along with a crumbling manor in Cornwall), SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE (a pair of academics are distracted from their work by a paranormal presence), PATRIOT’S DREAM (a woman keeps experiencing vivid scenes that occurred 200 years earlier), AMMIE COME HOME (something sinister lurks in a quaint Georgetown house), THE CRYING CHILD (a woman hears a ghostly baby crying at night in the remote woods near her home)… And I could go on for a while, actually.
I can’t point to any one Barbara Michaels novel and say, “This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.” But I can name about ten Michaels novels that I’ve been re-reading regularly for many years.
A love of history, archaeology, and art, an interest in folklore, legend, and the occult, and a shrewd wit and sharp sense of humor run through all of Barbara’s work. The “secret formula” here for me is subject matter that I find so enjoyable that I’m very often in the mood for it, combined with an authorial voice and sensibility which I find so engaging that I enjoy “hearing” her tell me the same stories again and again.
(Note: Barbara Michaels, who passed away last year, also wrote mysteries as Elizabeth Peters, as well as some nonfiction books under her real name, Barbara Mertz.)
Northwest of Earth by C. L. Moore
There is simply no story or set of stories that stirs my sense of wonder the way these tales do. I have taken the Gnome Press, the Don Grant (with a somewhat different title), and the Paizo Press editions with me to 4 continents and a couple of dozen cities. We may have produced three or four writers as good during the past 80 years, but none better.
Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley.
I love humor, have indeed sold well over 100 humorous stories in the field, and believe to this day that no one has ever done it better than Bob Sheckley, who was first one of my role models, then my good friend, and finally my collaborator. And of all his books, this one is his masterwork, a type of humor that really only works as science fiction, which is quite an accomplishment.as well as a delight.
Herovit’s World, by Barry Malzberg. It’s a brilliant novel, not science fiction but rather a devastating look at the science fiction milieu, and while Barry’s experiences in the field are almost the polar opposite of mine, it rings so true (for him, at least) and is so powerfully written that I find myself re-reading it every couple of years.
The primary purpose of nonfiction books is either to give us facts, give us insights based on facts, or to persuade or urge us into some course of action based on that insight. But the primary purpose of fiction is to slake the thirst we have for the magical waters which flow from worlds beyond the dry and bitter world of facts, to drink, to bathe, to be cleansed, to be refreshed, and to emerge shining from the baptism of the imagination to return to the dry wasteland of the factual world washed and prepared for battle. Science fiction and Fantasy form the deeper waters which carry us farther from the shore of this wasteland, and therefore provide deeper springs from which, through the imagination, to irrigate it.
Hence, those books which call a reader again and again to its wellsprings must be those which have particular power to restore what the factual world does not give him. By seeing what books never lose the power to refresh him, you can see what he most craves and yet which the world most fails to provide him.
Science Fiction is a refreshing drink when you look around at the world, and you see some bad and ancient institution, and you think: that will never change. It is also a shocking splash of cold water in the face when you look at some good we take for granted and think: that will never change. So books worth multiple reads include NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell if you are taking your unchanging liberties for granted; also and include LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon or SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe if you are tired of the view of history from the parochial view of ‘now’ and want to see the vast sweeps of time as if from a skyscraper, and all our present concerns no bigger than ants.
Since each time Mr. Wolfe adds another book to his duodecology of the Solar Cycle I reread the previous volumes, I suspect that I have reread his work more often than any other author’s, with the exception of Tolkien.
Gene Wolfe also writes detective stories where the detective never actually tells anyone the solution of the crime, something of a puzzle-box story where one must be alert for clues. This would make multiple rereading of his work a clear necessity for that reason alone, even if there were not many reasons to reread.
Less well-known books which offer the refreshment of seeing the heroism too often absent in real life, and which are so well crafted and lyrical in their ironic wit include nearly anything by Jack Vance. I particularly have reread, and often, his ‘Planet of Tschai’ books (CITY OF THE CHASCH, SERVANTS OF THE WANKH, THE DIRDIR, THE PNUME) and his ‘Demon Princes’ series (THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHINE, THE PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE, THE BOOK OF DREAMS).
More famous and frankly more poorly written novels that I have reread for refreshment come upon me when the smallness and cowardice of my fellows (or my own) threaten to choke me with disgust. Many people turn to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories when they seek the stark romance of a world where fate hangs on the edge of a sword, but these are slightly too newfangled for my taste: I prefer the crude but colorful pulp of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the first three books of his Barsoom series, PRINCESS OF MARS, GODS OF MARS and WARLORD OF MARS.
The stern sense of civic patriotism which rings through every line of Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS is one I also seek out when the wasteland of men without honor overwhelms me. It is little more than a lecture disguised as a novel, but it is a good lecture.
Fantasy is refreshing precisely for the opposite reason. The wasteland at such times seems too full of machinery and modernism and the endless rush of little men pursuing little fortunes in little ventures, and the soul aches for a touch of magic, the sense that there are golden cities far beyond the horizon, and fields in some distant and forgotten mountain glen where fauns leap and dance and fairies hold revels, or darkest ocean depth which no sunlight touches, where the monsters waiting Ragnarök stir in uneasy sleep. We want to see true love, and the sick healed by the touch of a king, and the dead raised, and all the things we do not see in the evening news.
The greatest of these fantasies, and most worthy of rereading (and more often by me reread) are THE LORD OF THE RINGS by Professor Tolkien, and THE WORM OUROBOROS by E.R. Eddison. These are both re-readable for the opposite reason: Tolkien’s command of the language is such that he can draw out the strange and fantastic figures of Northern myth as if into the clear sunlight of Earth, so that we can touch and handle marvels; and Eddison’s command of the language is such that he can elevate the earthly things or love and war as if to a high unvisited mountain storm-fraught with strange reports, and against the setting sun allow us glimpse the figures on the peak where no mortals tread, and we see their vast shadows against the intervening clouds. And, yes, Eddison’s book is the one where I possess three copies, so that I might lend one out and not regret the loss.
The great poem, the greatest in the English tongue, of PARADISE LOST by Milton is the garden to which I escape when I flee from mere pettiness, mere ugliness, for he makes even the wretched devils speak with such power and grandiloquence that even their darkness is tinged with gold. That book I reread whenever I want to be among the old friends who know my old friends, all the figures from classical antiquity. But lest I seem to rarified in my taste, let me rush to assure one and all that the far inferior work DREAM QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft is perhaps the most often reread book in my collection, since it was the first I bought back in childhood, and the spell of enduring strangeness has never let go its grip.
I suppose I’ll sound like an old-fashioned fart when I mention that I’ve re-read George Orwell’s 1984 more than any other book. In fact, I love the book so much that at one point I started collecting every edition of the book that had been published, mostly by searching thrift store stacks. I still have most of those copies somewhere…
Originally, I decided to re-read 1984 because I felt I would get more out of it as a I got older. It was first exposed to me in my sophomore year of high school, and so it makes sense that a 14-year-old me wouldn’t get as much out of that book as an 18-year-old me. So I started re-reading it every year, and every year, I got something more out of if. I noticed details I never picked up on before. The world became more complex. More mysterious. More oppressive (it is a dystopia after all).
Books like 1984 are the best kind of books (though your mileage may vary). They’re the books you can read again because you know you’ll find something new to think about. They’re complicated, messy, and beautiful. This may explain why I’ve now added works like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin (and the other Xenowealth books, but that one is on the verge of earning more re-reads than 1984), and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man to my list of books that I must re-read until I have to buy new editions…or reading-only editions. It’s mostly an oldies list, but given that my generation will live to be 293, I imagine more works from today will appear here in short order…
Lastly, I’ll just say that these are also the books I *don’t* lend out. Period. Get your own copy, jerk.
I was a teenage book hoarder. When I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown in fifth grade, I borrowed it so often from the school library that the librarian gave me the library’s copy when I graduated the next year. (She bought another, though, so no fear!) Another confession: I’m very careful with my books—my shelves are double-stacked with paperbacks of unbroken spines and crisp un-dogeared corners. But (and here’s the Act I twist) somewhere in college I realized that the best way to get friends to read books I liked (especially when those books were out of print, for which read utterly inaccessible—as so much great 70s SF was before the dark times, before the Empire) was to snap up copies as I found them and start my own lending library. Since I wanted to take care of my books, that meant buying many copies.
It seems so logical written in a word processor window, but in fact I labor under a compulsion, a curse. I can’t pass a copy of Lord of Light, or Creatures of Light and Darkness—especially used, in a dealer room—without buying it and shoving it into the hands of the nearest poor benighted soul who hasn’t yet had the pleasure. I own three separate copies of the Amber Chronicles, since I gave away the fourth. The Hero and the Crown‘s another frequent victim, though I can sometimes resist since it’s remained accessible in print. Dorothy Dunnett, High Lady of Historical Fiction, doesn’t quite class as genre, but I’ll include her here anyway because I doubt a genre fan born wouldn’t enjoy her tales of murder, espionage, romance, and betrayal, starring an improbably brilliant and dangerous Scottish ninja bard in 16th century Europe. (Game of Thrones fans, she wrote two complete series and a standalone novel.) I’m not the only Dunnett fan I know who has a copy of her books for home and a copy for lending. Come to think, I’m not sure where my lending copy of The Game of Kings might be. Time to buy another one.
John M. Ford’s another author whose books fit in this category—though I just discovered him a few months back, thanks to an impassioned Boskone panel, and so I’m still accumulating my first set of his books. So far I have The Dragon Waiting, The FinalReflection, How Much for Just the Planet, The Last Hot Time, Web of Angels, and Casting Fortune, the last of which I haven’t yet read. The lending library will come later; sadly it’s as necessary for Ford’s books as it ever was back in the 90s, since Ford’s passed on and his surviving family won’t allow his books to be reprinted.
Time’s mellowed me out a bit—and living with my wife, who’s more utilitarian in her treatment of books—but I still can’t kick the multiple-copies bug. Which reminds me: I have a book here you just have to read.
A gentleman inquired the other day why I had an obsession with keeping books that I’ve already read. My answer was, of course, “Why, to read them over and over again!” So when posed with this week’s Mind Meld, I considered listing the 100 or so books that I’ve worn down to the point where nobody would even pick them up from a Used Bookstore for over 50 cents. But, honestly, there are only two books that I have not only read on average once per year for every year that I’ve owned them, but also plan on continuing that trend.
Katherine Neville’s The Eight was published in December of 1988. I think I got my copy within a year of that (age 10 or 11). A friend of mine leant it to me and we spent the next few years trading it back and forth whenever we had a need to plunge back into this brilliant historical fiction/modern Raiders of the Lost Ark. Years later, Neal Stephenson would use the same model for The Cryptonomicon which is another one of my read, read again, never lend to anyone, books. The Eight intertwines two time periods starring two brilliant women, Catherine Vellis is a computer programmer in 1972 and Mireille de Remy is a novice French nun in 1790. Cat and Mireille are caught up in the dangerous game of Charlemagne’s chess set, “The Montglane Service,” that contains a powerful alchemical formula. Never before had I read a book with women who have this much ownership of their destinies while playing a game that men desperately try to control, especially in a story of such epic proportions. I stole the copy that my friend loaned me and never looked back.
I honestly have no idea what the original cover of my copy of The Neverending Story looks like as I lost the book-jacket decades ago. The cloth hardcover is threadbare at this point and the pages are falling out, but the Auryn is still visible within the threads. This book has lived in my bed with me, travelled around the world with me, made it through every move with me, and will NEVER, EVER be loaned to anyone that doesn’t live with me. The inscription on the title page reads, “An autumn day, September 26, 1986. This book is for Jennifer, my daughter! Why? Because I love you.” I cherish this book more than any other possession; the red and green words by Michael Ende and beauitful illustrations by Roswitha Quadflieg are so genuinely magical that one would be remiss not including this story in their fantasy lexicon. The Neverending Story was MY story and it remains the template for how I engage with everything I have read since 1986. And if you are a fantasy fan, I dare you to try to read it and not tumble just as hopelessly into Bastian and Atreyu’s adventures in Fantasia.
The book I have always kept multiple copies of is Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. I’ve leant this many times over the years and I have lost count of the number of times the borrower has said, “I’m not at all sure I liked it, but I was telling a friend about it and she asked if she could borrow it, I hope you don’t mind….” and I never see it again. “Go little book….”
I bought this copy of Fellowship, along with its companions, with the money I got for my tenth birthday. It was the first grown-up book I ever purchased with my own money, of which I was extremely proud. I think it was my first conscious step toward adulthood. The Two Towers is in similar condition, and I finally had to recycle Return of the King a few years ago. One of these three books went with me to secondary school very frequently; I re-read the entire trilogy at least once a year until I entered college. I think I had read it close to 20 times before I lost count.
The now-missing cover of this book is still my favorite Tolkien cover, Tolkien’s own art (image from Amazon):
I loved staring at the picture of Hobbiton and identifying the Party Field and the door to Bag End and trying to deduce which of the 3 holes in the row beside the field belonged to the Gaffer and which to Rory Brandybuck. (I was also always jealous that someone could both write these books and do such good drawings, which are far beyond my skill.) I loved the Fangorn cover because of how small the hobbits are. The Barad-dûr cover wasn’t as interesting to me as a teenager, but looking at it now I think about how much of an industrial grim brick Victorian building it looks, and how scary such places really are: institutions, cold, unforgiving, used for dominance. I like these covers because they don’t depict dramatic scenes, which left me free to own my imagined forms of those scenes, while at the same time they give me a glimpse of how Tolkien saw Middle-Earth. They’re like an outline for my mental eye.
As you might guess about a book that was treated almost as an iPhone is today (it went everywhere, entertained me, provided emotional security, gave me something to talk about, and allowed me to hide from the world), it influenced my writing. The first influence was in plot – everything I wrote for years was a Tolkien rip-off. (The number of Tolkien rip-offs in the fantasy of the day only encouraged me to keep writing.) When I finally became serious enough to commit to writing as my life goal, I reread the Trilogy, slowly, deliberately paying attention to each word. I found lines I had never really read before, and I also discovered what I loved about his writing and what I think most shows up as influenced by him in my writing: the clear, plain, description. My favorite sentence in the entire Trilogy is this, describing the morning the hobbits wake up at Tom Bombadil’s:
The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly, and the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.
This is what makes Middle-earth so real, this plain yet vivid descriptive language. A lot of fantasy written today has long paragraphs of description that I tend to skim though, either because it has a flatter tone or is overladen with adjectives. Tolkien’s gift with simplicity is not present.
He loses this simplicity as the story goes on and becomes higher and more elevated; the rise of Aragorn’s fortunes coincide with a complexity and floweriness of language that is not as appealing to me. This is the other significant thing I have learned from reading and reading and reading these books: the genius of the narrative is that it’s the hobbits’ story, not Aragorn’s or Gandalf’s. That’s why the Scouring of the Shire is such a necessary part of the story. It took me a long time to realize this. In the end, it turns out to be Sam’s story more than anyone else’s; he changes the most, and he’s the character last on stage, with this very domestic scene:
And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor on his lap.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.
It’s Sam’s return, not Aragorn’s, that finishes the story. The highest of high fantasy ends with an ordinary hobbit holding his baby. This is what I want out of my writing, and out of the writing of those I read: a world whose foundations are those of daily life. Fantasy and magic need to be grounded in the ordinary.
Why do I still have this battered physical book? I have some sentimentality for an object that has been part of my life for so long, and I love books as books and hate to destroy them. But, those reasons aside, it’s a touchstone for my life as a writer, where I began and what I yet want to do. Rereading it is confirmation that the path I’ve been on since I was ten is still the right one. The tangible, physical connection with that girl has continued for all these years, and it keeps me anchored to that first kernel of adulthood and identity.
Books are one of my favorite comforts, so I’ve always been a big rereader. There are some books I reread seasonally. I read all of Sandman every fall (the season of mists, and all of that). Because they came out in the summer, and reading the new one was always such an event, I reread the Harry Potter series every summer. And every spring, it’s Susanna Clarke’s extraordinary Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. With those, it’s almost like part of seeing in the season – this is the time that I do this particular thing – and also, part of like having a small time machine, because of course it’s not just the story that I’m meeting again and again in those pages, but all the past selves who have read that story before.
Then there are the books that I reread for reasons that I can’t really articulate beyond the fact that they feel like they are mine. They are books of my heart, books that make me who I am. Or they are the books that I trust to speak the words I know I need to hear. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs all fall into that category for me. (And yes, those are also books that I will probably buy you a copy of, rather than lending out mine.)
Finally, there’s one series that fits in both places, and that’s Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. I read them in winter of course, in December, near Christmas. But sometimes also in high summer, and sometimes just because. I’ve had to buy myself multiple copies, because of literally reading the covers off. If a book could code itself into a person’s DNA, these would be in mine.
There’s only one book I’ve ever really “worn out”, and that’s more through travelling than through reading (though it is still one of my most-read books). It’s a horror/thriller serialised novel called The Blackstone Chronicles, by John Saul. I must have got my copy when I was about twelve or so, and I’ve had it ever since – few books have been in my collection that long.
I actually found out about The Blackstone Chronicles due to the video game sequel, a game my dad picked up as part of a budget pack. The game really grabbed me and I think it’s fair to say it’s been one of the most influential things in my life, spawning a vague interest in horror (which essentially culminates to Mike Mignola graphic novels and about 50 Stephen King books), as well as opening my eyes to LGBT themes, something I now actively seek in what I read. Few books really made an impact on me like that, and fewer still have ever actually been re-read, but I can think back at any point and I can remember various plot points (though it’s been a few years since my last read) and I can even tell you the solution to a puzzle or two from the game (use the lighter on the temperature gauge!).
That said, there is another story I go back to every so often, and it’s similar in genre – Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I’ve read it a couple of times (though no version I’ve encountered ever bested the Benedict Cumberbatch reading for the BBC), and it’s such an incredible piece of fiction. Even if you know it back to front, you can always go back to it. I’ve got a nice little hardcover edition, and it’s one of my most cherished books.
- Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
This was one of the first adult SF books I ever read and only the second one by Cherryh, so I wasn’t familiar with the Union-Alliance novels at all. I can’t say I fully understood it, being too young and inexperienced with SF as a whole, not to mention this intricate universe she created, but what I did understand completely intrigued me. So periodically as I grew older I revisited the book, bought the 3 separate paperbacks, then later the omnibus edition, and then the sequel, and it’s still one of my favorite books. I don’t lend them out but I recommend them heartily – and anything else by this great writer.
- The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
I love every single thing I’ve ever read by Winterson, and her foray into science fiction is no exception. Beautifully written and profound, it’s a tightly wrought interstellar adventure with sadness and humor – just basically the human (and non-human) experience.
- China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
When I first read CMZ, I immediately fell in love with this vision of a future America – it was unlike anything I’d read before. Narratively, the way she intertwined novella-like points-of-view to make a whole novel inspired me with the idea that you could break form in the genre and experiment with voice. The first person point-of-view had such a strong voice and I grafted to that.
- Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge
I was a kid when I read Psion, and years later its sequel Catspaw, but I loved the protagonist and the world. I think I read Catspaw around the time I was developing concertedly as a writer myself, and something about the character and point-of-view struck me. A very strong voice, a flawed protagonist, the political intrigue…love it to this day.
- Robotech Book Series by Jack McKinney
This is purely here for nostalgia purposes. Going back to read them takes me straight to my childhood of being absorbed in anime and science fiction. This series had romance, mecha, aliens, war and probably my first introduction to kabuki (through one of my favorite characters Lancer). Adapted from the anime of the same name (which was adapted in America from three separate original Japanese animes), McKinney’s books took a space opera and infused grounded realism in the characters and the affects of war. In some way I’m sure it influenced my own first foray into the genre.
Oddly enough, the books I’ve bought the most, read the most, and replaced due to wearing out are not overlapping categories for me. ‘Read the most’ is easy, and mostly the books I grew up with: I read Chronicles of Narnia well over a dozen times; I don’t know how many times I read Ella Enchanted but I had a good chunk of the beginning memorized at one point; and when I got the Enchanted Forest series by Patricia Wrede out from the library I would read the whole thing three times before the due date.
But I don’t have multiple copies (or any, in a couple of cases) of any of those books. I currently have at least three copies of The Hobbit… I’m actually not quite sure how that happened, but I’m not complaining because hey, it’s The Hobbit. Maybe I can pretend one is for each movie. Hands down, though, the author whose books I have bought duplicates of the most often is Chaz Brenchley. I more or less forced a copy of Desdaemona (Ben Macallan) on a friend of mine, and when she loved it, later gifted her Pandaemonium. Another friend got my copy of Dragon in Chains (Daniel Fox) and I bought myself a new one. I have two copies of River of the World right now, since I bought another copy intending to give it as a gift, then realized it was the 2nd in the series not the first. There’s just something about Chaz Brenchley’s books that makes me want to force my friends to read them.
The books I have re-read to the point of wearing out… there’s only one I can think of. True, my Dragons of Spring Dawning is quite ratty, but it was a library discard and came to me that way. My Lord of the Rings is holding together surprisingly well and probably has at least another re-read or two left in it. My The Dark is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper) fell apart quite spectacularly but I had only re-read it once or twice, I think it was a bad binding job. But of all the books I have owned, the only one I can recall re-reading to the point of pages falling out and buying myself a new copy, is Silver Princess, Golden Knight by Sharon Green.
(Although both copies were used, since it’s from 1993.) When thinking about this post I was surprised… If you asked me to name my top ten books, it wouldn’t be on the list. In many ways I don’t consider it a great book, but it’s got fun worldbuilding, a feisty main character, and the plot moves. It’s an entertaining comfort read, for me, and I think that’s why I’ve worn out my copy. Because a lot of the time–especially when I was in university–that was what I really needed. And I find my own reaction, an instant need to justify liking this book, because for whatever prejudiced reasons I don’t think I “should” like it, really interesting. I don’t often consciously think about “lowbrow” or “highbrow” fantasy, or the popularly assumed quality rankings of various genres/subgenres, but it is obviously ingrained in me nonetheless. So I’m calling myself out on my own bias now. I really like this book. You may not. That’s fine. Anyone else have recommendations of their favourite entertaining comfort reads for me? Clearly I need to branch out.
Dragonrider & Dragonsinger trilogies, Pern series, Anne McCaffrey.
There are a lot more than just those six books, and I’ve read many of them. But those were the ones I discovered when I was just a young teen. Even the Dragonsinger books, which are written for YA back when that actually meant kids and young teens. The emotion of being a teenaged girl, an outsider, different, misunderstood, is still poignant twenty years later. I hope it never grows old.
The Way of Kings, Stormlight series, Brandon Sanderson.
I can’t say I read this cover to cover when I go back to it. It’s a looooooong book. But I often go back to certain chapters, or one person’s storyline. It’s simply a fascinating world, with great characters woven through it. The imagination it takes to create such a completely unique world, whole and entire, with such a rick background, simply amazes me. And the characters are so compelling. The first time I read it I had to put it down early on because I was just GUTTED by something that happened to a character I’d already come to love. That’s the character I go back to again and again.
Transformation, Carol Berg.
Transformation is the first book in the Rai-Kirah trilogy. The characters in that one absolutely blow me away. The depth of their individual pain, their strength and complexity, and the relationship (non-romantic) between the two main characters is so poignant it drives me to tears. Or back to the book to read that scene just one more time. And then, of course, just one more scene before I put it down…
Assassin’s Apprentice and all the rest of the Fitz & Fool books, Robin Hobb.
I knew how much I loved these books, how many times over how many years I’d read and re-read them. But what I didn’t realize was how much they impacted the writing of my first book. The similarities may be detectable only to me, since the plots and settings are so completely different, but a lot of the emotional impact, the defining moments in a young man’s life, had carried through for me so strongly and for so long that years later when I went to write my own tragic young man, I found a lot of Fitz in my Jake.
I’ll probably think of more as soon as this posts, but those are the ones that come to mind immediately and powerfully. What are some of yours?
When I was a kid, I would re-read books sometimes, but that’s faded as I’ve gotten older. With less time for reading for fun, I’d usually rather try something new than go back over well-traveled ground. There are two books, though—series, really—I read over and over until my copies fell apart.
The first is The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on two different tabletop roleplaying games set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but even before I landed those assignments, I read the trilogy through more times than I could reliably count. The story sucked me back in time after time, and over the years I discovered that I found new things in it each time as I grew older.
The books hadn’t changed, of course, but I had, giving me new insights into the story. It’s a rare story that can reward you like that every time you return to it.
The second series I can never seem to resist is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. No one beats Douglas Adams when it comes to comedic genre fiction, and it makes for a great break from heavier stuff. Despite the fact that I already know all the jokes, it never stops being funny.
Tagged with: Anne Leonard • damien walters grintalis • Diana Pharaoh Francis • Farah Mendlesohn • fran wilde • Fred Kiesche • jen zink • John C. Wright • Laura Resnick • lyda morehouse • Meghan B • Michael J. Martinez • Michael Lee • Mike Resnick • Mind Meld • Seanan McGuire • Shaun Duke • Tina Connolly
Filed under: Mind Meld
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