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Reading Order vs. Publication Order

So I’m sitting here, thinking about my unfathomable backlog of books I have yet to read – and it occurs to me that (1) I have way too many books to read, and (2) so many science fiction books are part of a larger series. Then I get to thinking about series and reading order:

Should I read a series of books in the order in which they were published, or (if the publication order jumps all over the place story-wise) should they be read in chronological order?

Many sites talk about recommended reading order. (Anyone ever notice that it’s usually the sf/f genres that are so fickle about such matters?) For example, see question #19 of the rec.arts.sf.written FAQ and questions 8 and 9 of the Heinlein FAQ. The excellent resource website SciFan is devoted to publishing reading orders of series. And a simple Google search will reveal some recommended reading orders for Jerry Pournelle’s Future History, Anne McCafferey’s Pern books, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

When I geekily vowed to read all of Asimov’s Robots/Foundation (and related!) novels before the year 2000, I read them in chronological order. This painted a great picture of Asimov’s Future History, even if there may have been a spoiler or two. (For those keeping score, and you know who you are, I succeed in my goal. If only the multitudes of sf fans would correspondingly pledge unholy allegiance to my nefarious causes, all would be peachy.)

But I guess it all comes down to the material in question. Some books that occur earlier in a timeline (but were published later than those that happen next in the sequence) may contain spoilers. Or, a series might not give up any spoilers and actually paint a better picture if read chronologically but out of publication order (I think . I would think, though, that most series can (and should) be read in publication order. Of course, I could be wrong.

What’s your preference? Let us know in this week’s poll starting tomorrow!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

10 Comments on Reading Order vs. Publication Order

  1. I recently obtained all audiobooks of all of the core Foundation books that Asimov wrote. I listened to them is chronological order, stating with Prelude and ending with Earth, even though they were released to mirror the publication order. Two points:

    1: Asimov read Foundation, but the rest of the books were done by an actor. So at the end of the emotionally wringing Forward the Foundation, the narrative suddenly shifts from a subtle voice to Asimov’s avuncular narration. I loved IA’s worls, but my GOD he had no business reading his own books on tape. Every inflection is the same. Plus, when he’s reading the encyclopedia entries, they add a reverb/echo to his voice. It sounds like powerful Trek villian portrayed by an old jewish man. Just silly.

    2: Having read four of the books years ago, I instantly noted a few dozen discontinuities in the prelude books. Some are blatant.

    I usually go by an author’s recommendations if they have a preferred reading order. The only time this ever backfired was with Moorcock, who used to have a habit of changing his preferred order every time a new Eternal Champion book came out.

  2. Honestly, I almost always prefer to read them in the order they were written. Consistency in time is not something I require. Reading Howard’s Conan stories, for example. Reading them in chronological order would completely kill the juxtiposition of character he sought to evoke. For example, in the first story he wrote, Conan was a King, who had learned the burdens of leadership and being responsible for the lives of helpless thousands. In the second story he is a young barbarian chasing after a giant’s daughter. In the third, a lowly thief accused of a murder he didn’t commit.

    Eventually Howard fills in most of the pieces giving you a firm grasp of the arc of the barbarian’s life. But it is a complex narrative weave that loses a lot of its luster if told in chronological order.

    That is the reason why The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe will always be the first Narnia book to me.

  3. Richard Novak // October 3, 2005 at 6:17 pm //

    Realistically, chronological order is not practical if the possibility exists for an author to do prequels. Look at Orson Scott Card and the Ender series.

    However, I do want to read the Chronicles of Narnia in chronological order.

  4. I tend to read them in the order in which they were written or published. Sometimes you know a book was written before another despite being published out of order and I tend to read them that way.

    However, if I know in advance I’ll defer to the wishes of the author. If a writer says ‘you should really read this one first, I wrote it later but it sets up the earlier work’ I’ll pay attention and read them that way.

  5. I prefer to read them in a chronological order, if such an order exists. For example, C.S. Lewis preferred that “The Magician’s Nephew” be read first. Makes sense to me, as it shows you the creation of the Narnia you see in the other books.

  6. “(Anyone ever notice that it’s usually the sf/f genres that are so fickle about such matters?)”

    Mystery readers can be fickle as well. Take a look at the Ellis Peters “Brother Cadfael” series. Later books refer to incidents in earlier ones. Ditto some Sherlock Holmes.

    Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is another that should be read in order.

  7. quote:

    I prefer to read them in a chronological order, if such an order exists. For example, C.S. Lewis preferred that “The Magician’s Nephew” be read first. Makes sense to me, as it shows you the creation of the Narnia you see in the other books.


    I never really understood this. Not that you defer to C.S. Lewis, but that Lewis preferred The Magician’s Nephew be read first. A great deal of the wonder in The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe for a first time reader is the mystery of what’s beyond the wardrobe. The lamppost, the snowy forest, the wider world of Narnia peopled by amazing beings. Reading Nephew first would have spoiled that for me. And not being familiar with Narnia before reading Nephew would have diminished my enjoyment of the creation story.

    While perhaps an extreme analogy, it would be like Tolkien preferring you read The Silmarillion before The Lord of the Rings. (And yes, I’m aware that Tolkien may not have really intended The Silmarillion for publication at all. 🙂 )

  8. Yeah I think the latest poll is missing an answer option. (stinky)

    Option 3 should have read: “It depends on the specific series of books you are reading.”

    The reason I say that is if you take the R.A. Salvatore DnD books for example I definately would rather have read them in book universe chronological order than published order.


  9. If I had known you were going to whine, whine, whine I wouldn’t have helped with your commenting issue, Trent. 🙂

    I intentionally left off the “depends” option because it was the obvious go-to answer. I was hoping that people liked one over the other as a matter of preference.

  10. Personally, I like to follow chronological order for a given series and in many cases this works out since the books may have been published in that exact order. But, there are situations where the author really knows what order the books should be read in to maximize the enjoyment and understanding of the series. The other side of the coin is what if you started midseries? Since the author then decided to do prequel novels? Not like that would ever happen …

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