A game I play at conventions is confession. Bring up an old Jack Vance? I’ll admit to never having read it and ask what spoke to you about it. I’ll confess to never having read Theodore Sturgeon or Octavia Butler, or only having read Samuel Delany’s non-fiction, or only the first book of Wheel of Time and Ender’s Game. The fun of this exercise is watching people around me relax, because by going first (and going at all), I’ve let them give up pretense. Tension leaves their shoulders as they realize it’s okay.
My excuses are legion. I didn’t grow up with LeGuin and Zelazny, and only ever heard of G.K. Chesterton after I graduated college. I’ve gone out of my way to collect books by canonical authors in order to catch up – what I call “doing the diligence” – which yields a mixed bag of results. LeGuin and Zelazny amaze me, but if I never read another Asimov short story that’s a thin fictional veil over a science lesson, I’ll be fine.
My troubles are compounded by interests in literary fiction, which has its own far broader canons around the world. The many years I spent reading Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and various translations of The Divine Comedy seem to be the same time others were getting familiar with The Sword of Shannara (only read the first one and can’t remember it, sorry). And then there are all those superhero comics that ate up my adolescence, though they seem to be more useful now that Marvel films are dominating the earth. Don’t get me started on Beta Ray Bill.
Nor have I have I given up my other loves. I’ll get to A Canticle for Liebowitz, but I’m probably going to read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel first. So maybe I’ll always be behind, but that’s not always bad.
|I own it, but...|
As frustrating as it can be to listen to geniuses dissect apparently great works I’ve never heard of, this slower pace has also yielded great pleasures. I’m not sure I would have appreciated the works of Shirley Jackson as a teenager, though having started reading her a few years ago with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she is now one of the most inspiring authors in my life. So there’s the frustration of finding two more important books for every one I knock down, this hydra of literacy, but there is also the wonder of finding true masterpieces vetted by decades of readership.
It may just be the way I look at things, but I am far happier to have read Lord of Light late than never at all. No one I know of writes this way today, and as far as I’ve read, no one else used to, not even Zelazny.
If you’re curious, the next authors I intend to do the diligence on are Lois McMaster Bujold and Samuel Delany. I’m told I’ll love Nova. The two keep getting postponed because I’ve taken such a long detour through Jo Walton, even though she so strongly recommends both of them.