The Agony and the Ecstasy of Author Glomming

Inspired by Nicole's idea at bibliographing, I have been moved to examine my own list of most read authors.  Off I went to LibraryThing, where I clicked on the "already read tag," organized the list by author, and examined the results with some satisfaction and a creeping sense of chagrin:

William Shakespeare - 39
Tom Stoppard - 28
Elizabeth Peters - 19
Lewis Trondheim/Joann Sfar - 17
George Bernard Shaw - 10
Neil Gaiman - 9
Charlaine Harris - 9
Sam Shepard - 8
Judy Cuevas / Judith Ivory -8
Bill Willingham  - 8
J.K. Rowling - 8
Brian K. Vaughan  - 8
Ursula K. Le Guin - 7
Martin McDonagh - 6
Jane Austen - 6
Oscar Wilde - 6
Boris Akunin - 5
Agatha Christie - 5
Susan Cooper - 5
Charles Dickens - 5
Alan Moore - 5
Tamora Pierce - 5

Some greater philosophical questions immediately leaped to mind.

First, naturally, What does this list say about me?

Well, I am a reader of, let us say, disparate and polyglot tastes.  You can see the residue of a decade spent pursuing degrees in Literature in the presence of various classics (Dickens, Austen), and the marks of a lifetime spent in the study of drama in the inclusion of playwrights like Stoppard, Shaw, and Shepard.  Combine this with an obviously completist approach to Shakespeare, and you can see that the "S" section of my "Already read" library* is a vasty prospect.

But you can also see that I am a voracious devourer of comics (Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan of Y: The Last Man, Bill Willingham of the Fables series, and Trondheim and Sfar, frequent collaborators on the brilliant Dungeon series whose work I have lumped together here), mysteries (Elizabeth Peters, Agatha Christie, Boris Akunin), romances (the stunningly literary Judith Ivory, and Charlaine Harris, whose presence on this list is the real source of my blushes**), YA of the fantasy variety (Susan Cooper, J.K. Rowling, Tamora Pierce), as well as fantasy more broadly (Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin).

Immediately after blushing for the amount of genre literature on this list, I began to question my own academicky prejudices: is this really a cause for embarrassment?  Certainly not. I am pleased by the breadth of my tastes, in literature as in film and music.  It shows a flexibility that is one of my own favorite features.  Even when I dislike something, that repulsion is usually accompanied by a nagging feeling that I want someone who loved it to communicate the details and causes of that love to me.  The pleasure to be gleaned from hating something is, for me, less rich than the pleasure of loving it.

The only cause for embarrassment comes in seeing that you have devoted a great deal of time to reading books that you haven't particularly enjoyed or admired.  And there are a few of those on here.  Harris's books are the prime example of books that are addictive without being (any more, at least) really enjoyable.  Peters's mysteries are others that I enjoyed tremendously without admiring to the point that I would recommend them as literature (and many in number are the genre books that I would recommend as literature, I hasten to say:  Judith Ivory's Black Silk, for example, or Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.  Or, for that matter, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, which doesn't appear on this list.).  The Willingham and Vaughan comics fall into the same category as the Peters mysteries.  And apart from Gaiman's very good Sandman comics, I have always found him more compelling as a personality and blogger than as a novelist.

So, What does this list say about this list?

First of all, it says that the authors you read most are not necessarily the authors you like best.  Often, they are simply either the authors it is easiest and fastest to read, or the authors who have written the most books and longest series.  Both of these factors contribute substantially to the glommability of an author's canon.  Jane Austen, for instance, would have ranked much higher had she lived longer and thus written more.  I have never read an Austen novel that was less than an impeccably-crafted page-turner, but I have (alas) read all of the long works now.  I glom Austen.  I glom her most heartily.

Because of some of the reasons mentioned above, it also says that genre authors are going to be disproportionately represented on lists like these.  I am reluctant to generalize beyond my own reading habits, but I will tentatively say that many, like me, read genre fiction faster than the ickily-designated "literary fiction."  With the exception of works like Joe Sacco's excellent Palestine, I read graphic novels considerably faster than their prose brethren.  (This is a flaw in my reading: in fact, I should be reading them much more slowly, since I process images more lumberingly than I do words.)  Fantasy, mystery, young adult fiction, and romance are also quite a bit more likely, as genres, to appear in series, which demand that you move on to another by the author as soon as you have finished one.

There are also a few flaws in my methodology here:

First, there are gaps in the records. The books included encompass only those I have read since beginning a book diary at age ten. They also fail to take into account the many years since in which my record-keeping (and record-translating-to-LibraryThing) has been spotty, lazy, or entirely void (I'm looking at you, senior year of high school.  I know more than five books were read that year, regardless of how much time I spent on the phone with my boyfriend.).

Secondly, some genres are hard to account for via LibraryThing.  LibraryThing records the volumes of literature that you read, but with drama, for instance, I often read full-length works in anthologies, without completing the full volume (and thus without marking it as read on LT).  I feel certain that more playwrights should appear on this list, but can't quite put my finger on who they would be.

Still, intriguing.  I am most interested to note the dearth of contemporary, non-genre fiction writers on this list. Ishiguro, for instance, is a favorite who barely failed to make the list. (I have A Pale View of Hills on the nightstand, ready to remedy this injustice.)  But what of other favorite likes Auster, Barker, or Munro? My tendency, I suppose, is to read broadly in contemporary literature, rather than deeply.  Hmm.

What, I ask you, would your list look like? And what, more importantly, would your feelings about it be?

*Which occupies the basement and ground floor of my house and a whole wall of my office.  The "To be read" library (also known as Mt. TBR) occupies a much vaster territory - the middle and top floors of the house, and the two other bookshelved walls of the office.  Sometimes it intimidates me.  But most of the time it fills me with a sense of cosmic rightness.

** More on this soon, I expect.

One Response so far.

  1. nicole says:

    Wonderful extensive analysis of your own habits and the way these lists work. It's interesting to me too that you have relatively little contemporary "literary fiction"; I found I ended up with rather a lot of that simply because of authors I started reading several years ago who kept publishing once every year or two. That makes it easy to hit five, unlike with someone like Austen who is done writing or someone like Tobias Smollett, whom I loved last year when I read Humphry Clinker but most of whose work is now out of print.

    So glad to have gotten you to join in, especially since it made for such a fruitful-seeming post!

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