Aug 4 2008 9:01pm

I Have a Confession to Make

Stack of Books black and whiteThe other day, I wrote a post about a possible Generation Gap in reading among writers. I suspect this gap is more from the point of view of younger writers, and that a lot of older writers are doing a decent job of keeping up with the young folks.

I should also confess that a lot of that post is pointed straight at myself. I don't read well outside of my acquaintances/outside of newer writers. For me it's been partly trying to give support to new people so they keep writing and the sense that the established writer didn't need my help since they were already established. And--for short fiction--it's also partly that a lot of my print subscriptions take the back seat to online fiction. I don't always remember to carry print magazines with me, but I can access the Internet most anywhere these days. Then I go back and try to catch up on my print subscriptions to varied success.

A few years back I went on a minor shopping spree at a Worldcon, and bought a bunch of older science fiction novels like Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman books. I figured I needed to know more about the field and needed to dive in and start reading. I don't think I spent much more than $20 on the 20 or so books I bought.

Here's a complete list of the titles although sadly I note that I somehow no longer have Stars My Destination or On the Beach. There may be a few more titles in my collection that I bought that day, but I think this is everything.

Still, it can be embarrassing at times when I haven't read something that a lot of the field knows. I've never read any Poul Anderson, A. E. Van Vogt, Bruce Sterling, James Blish, Lois McMaster Bujold, C. J. Cherryh, Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, or Cordwainer Smith to name a few. And then there are the books that didn't hold my interest but I still feel that I should read, such as Dhalgren or Foundation or Gormenghast (although I did see the BBC series).

What about you? Who or what haven't you read that you think you should?

[photo from Flickr user austinevan, CC licensed for commercial use]

1. Skip
Of the three you mentioned not holding your interest, I've tried to read Dhalgren probably five times over the last twenty years, giving up each time probably about forty percent through, and I'm not sure how anyone can make it through Gormenghast. For it I even tried the audiobook from Audible, and failed. Foundation's so short I don't really understand that one though.

As for what I think I should have read, but haven't, I haven't more than a few pages of anything by Ursula K. Leguin. I've picked up things a few times, and they just didn't hook me browsing them at the bookstore.

One thing I've been planning on doing is picking up a copy of every book I can find that's been nominated for a best novel Hugo, and reading through them. I've probably read something on the order of fifty percent of them total, many of them not for decades, so I think that would be a good project.
Lola Allison
2. lolacolleen
Wow. SO MUCH! Not just talking about the fantasy genre either. I'm an English student and I hate to admit that because I have SO much to read I usually don't end up reading more than a few chapters of any of it. However like most literary minded people, including yourself, I bet we could have an intelligent conversation about some of the major themes of it.

However I plead the fifth. I'm sure there's ton out there that we wish we could get around to reading and just don't have enough hours in the day. I feel deja vu coming on because I just commented on a blog that had this very topic. Books that you're ashamed to do the "nod" on and really haven't read.

Also like I said on the other of your posts, I think it's unfair to say that the problem is with younger writers not reading the classics. There are as many exceptions to this rule in the younger generation as the older. Not picking an argument just defending my generation.
3. JeffVanderMeer
John: Good points in both of your posts. It's something this forty-year-old thinks about a lot. It's at least one reason why when Ann and I do anthologies we have open reading periods, and also why we do things like Best American Fantasy: so we stay abreast of what's going on across all strata of genre, from the writers just beginning to publish on. The thing is, it's not inevitable to become an Old Fart so long as you keep challenging yourself to encounter the new. There's also the practical consideration that, as a writer, I'd not be doing my job if I didn't try to keep up with the new stuff, because it all informs my own work, makes sure I'm aware of what's on the verge of becoming cliche and where the new energy is directed.

Me, I keep picking up Gravity's Rainbow once a year, convinced that I will have loaded the right book software into my head in the preceding twelve months to make it through this time...

William Hassinger
4. iObject
At 24, I haven't read nearly as much as I want to. Still, I make an effort to diversify my reading experience. I've read Asimov and Heinlein (gods how I've read Heinlein). I've read Edgar Rice Burroughs and C.L. Moore. I've also read Charles Stross and Alastair Reynolds, Glen Cook and Harlan Ellison among others. I've also read a lot of non-SF/Fantasy authors. I don't write much (yet) but I expect that even once I do I won't feel bound into any one particular "bracket". It seems to me that curing being stuck in a literary time period is as easy as going to a library or book store and picking up something you've never read before.
Debbie Moorhouse
5. GUDsqrl
All that good stuff that's out there but which I never seem to find....
Paul Meyer
6. pmrabble
John -

Go read Lois. Now.

You'll thank me later.

7. Jim Kakalios
Read Lois, only AFTER reading Sturgeon!

Seriously, find the possibly out of print 13 by Sturgeon. Every story a gem,
and A World Well Lost and A Saucer of Loneliness - well, my life would be a poorer thing if I had never read those stories.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Physics Professor,

Jeffrey Richard
8. neutronjockey
I need to read more of the "classics" of SFF. The problem is...finding an objective list of what defines a classic.

There are a lot of times where I look at a list and ask, "Why isn't ______ included?"

But, by taking a year out to catch-up on classics I take a year away from reading contemporary. an effort to assist in catching up I'm requesting that Tor hold further publishings until August of 2010.

Stephen Covey
9. coveysd
It's difficult to know what I should--but haven't--read. Several people have created their own lists of essential science fiction.

The topic of essential science fiction over the last 20 years was discussed on the SFsignal blog, and my comment included:
"To me, essential science fiction must excel at what makes SF stand above all other genres: imagination, vision, and impact on the future. That impact can be on readers or on writers as it affects the entire genre.

Books such as Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Childhood's End. Larry Niven's Ringworld, or Lucifer's Hammer. Or Vernor Vinge's Across Realtime (see The Technological Singularity). Fred Saberhagan's Berserkers. Isaac Asimov's I, Robot."

Note that none of my list were from the last 20 years; I, too, am behind in my reading. I'm certain that I've missed something essential. But what?

I look forward to reading some of the suggestions posted here, hopefully with some discussion of why each novel is essential.
Arachne Jericho
10. arachnejericho
I haven't read a lot of the genre, new or old, because I'm pretty new to it (or at least haven't seriously dabbled in it until recently).

Deciding what to read is, like others have mentioned, a bit of a problem. Much as I'd like to, I can't read everything. I found the 2008 Hugo nominee list to be very enlightening; I hope to start digging into the Nebulas and Hugos.

Basically, though, I surf boards and blogs and magazines and some of my saner friends and look for recommendations. People taken as a whole tend to have a better ranking system for what's good than by themselves, even if they happen to be writers I worship as god-like beings of the firmament of words.

And it's not just the new generation(s) I find recs for---there's also nostalgia from the ranks, or people who mention what inspired them. I would never have read Heinlein if it weren't for all the people suddenly waxing nostalgic for RAH after reading Scalzi. Or all the Clarke material when he passed away and all these recommendations suddenly burst from the woodwork of the blogosphere.

Also, I do not look gift horses in the mouth., both the official posts and the community posts, has been a treasure trove of recs. I swear you all will bury me under a pile of books.

Really, the internet has been priceless for information gathering such as this. And it's the only scalable way to gather a wide spread of recs. A sort of informal Mechanical Turk.
Debbie Moorhouse
11. GUDsqrl
I'm still working my way through PKD. I'd hate to take on an even more prolific author!
Marissa Lingen
12. Mris
Neutronjockey and Coveysd, why do you care if it's objective or comprehensive? It's a big tangle. Grab an end and pull. If that's the Hugo winners, or the Nebula winners, or the Tiptree winners, or the Libertarian Futurist Society winners, or the authors whose surnames begin with W, or the authors your uncle likes and happens to keep at his cabin when you're staying there, what harm? Sure, there'll be a skew, and someone will say to you, "Oh my GAWD, I can't BELIEVE you've never read Judith Merril!" And then you'll go out and read Judith Merril, and to find some of her stuff you'll wind up with an anthology with other people in it, and then you'll wander off and read some of their stuff, too. It's a *good* thing that there's more out there than any of us can thoroughly catch up on, not a bad thing!
Samantha Brandt
13. Talia
I have never read any Arthur C. Clark or Isaac Asimov (I may have heard a book on tape of the latter's, I'm not sure.. if so it was many many years ago). No Harlan Ellison yet either (I think). And, um.. I never finished Ender's Game. :(

Of course my genre of choice tends to be fantasy over sci fi. In which case, I confess to never having read Brust's Jhereg books, which I should probably do as I've enjoyed other of his writings.
Fred Coppersmith
14. FCoppersmith
There's a Slate article from a few years back in which Jodi Kantor wrote about the supposed shame of not having read the books we're supposed to have read:
In his novel Changing Places, David Lodge describes a literary parlor game called "Humiliations" in which participants confess, one by one, titles of books they've never read. The genius of the game is that each player gains a point for each fellow player who's read the book—in other words, the more accomplished the reader, the lower his or her score. Lodge's winner is an American professor who, in a rousing display of one-downmanship, finally announces that he's never read Hamlet.
I think there are always going to be inexcusable omissions in all but the most voracious reader's back catalog. And we're always going to fall short of reading all the books we want, or think we need, to read. But in a way that's sort of glorious, isn't it? There's so much out there to read. I'll never get to it all, which is sad, but I'll never run out of things left on my list.
Robert H. Bedford
15. RobB
Since I'm a big fan of Apocalyptic fiction, the most glaring omission for me is probably A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I haven't read any Sturgeon either. Other than those, there are a lot of writers and books I haven't read that I should have by this point in my 34 years of life.
John Klima
16. john_klima
I think there are always going to be inexcusable omissions in all but the most voracious reader's back catalog. And we're always going to fall short of reading all the books we want, or think we need, to read. But in a way that's sort of glorious, isn't it? There's so much out there to read. I'll never get to it all, which is sad, but I'll never run out of things left on my list.
Absolutely. And for me, I'd rather come up with lists like this than try to figure out a list of my favorites.

So, which Bujold should I read first?
Patrick Shepherd
17. hyperpat
As a sixty-year old, I have the advantage of having had time to read most of the old classics, the Heinleins, Clarkes, Asimovs, Sturgeons, Ellisons, etc, and have kept up fairly well with the recent stuff, from Gaiman and Stephenson to Bujold, Cherryh, Stross, Mieville, and Doctorow. But I still haven't read any of Smith's Grey Lensman series, and all I've read of Gibson is Neuromancer. Alastair Reynolds I haven't even touched. But my current TBR pile is still twenty books deep, and is unlikely to ever get much below that number.

Once upon a time, in the late fifties, I could pretty much keep up with almost everything published in the field of any significance. That day is long past; it seems that now there are more new authors showing up each year, many with multiple books, than I have time for, let alone keep up with those published by 'established' authors.
Debbie Moorhouse
18. GUDsqrl
@hyperpat Count Zero is better than Neuromancer, imo.
Paul Meyer
19. pmrabble
John -

Start with The Mountains of Mourning for the Miles series. Available from the Baen Free Library.

If you'd rather try the fantasy side, I think Paladin of Souls may be her best book (although Memory is right up there, but needs some of the Miles backstory first).
20. roj
hmm best recent sci fi is michael z williamson's book freehold and dont forget david weber,elizabeth moon,john ringo,s.m stirling and early alan dean foster.
other than that i've probably read it.
avaerge speed for a book is 2 hours but a robert jordan can take 4 hours.
wish writers would write faster :)
as you can understand this is not a cheap hobby for me :)
have a couple of thousand books at home but have read librarys out when younger.

Soon Lee
21. SoonLee

I'd start with "The Warrior's Apprentice" and work my way backwards & forwards from there. TWA is the first of the ones that feature Miles as protagonist. The Vorkosigan Saga features Miles Vorkosigan as the main character. "The Mountains of Mourning" happen immediately after TWA.

The stories working backwards are about his parents & provide an interesting parallax. They are quite different, but excellent too.

My vote goes to "A Civil Campaign", but to fully appreciate it, you need to have read the earlier Miles stories first.
Sammy Jay
22. Malebolge
I'll be honest, I kinda feel like a kid in a candy store with a blank cheque sometimes when it comes to older fiction, with particular on scifi and fantasy. There's just so much of it, much of which is fairly high-quality, and you want to read it and incorporate it into yourself as fast as possible to get onto the next gem, like a child stuffing stuff down his throat at blinding pace. New stuff is great and fun to read, but I feel guilty if I don't read the older stuff first, to get a grip on today's writer's inspiration- which, in turn, means I want to read the influences on yesterday's writers too. Which gets to be something like a vicious bicycle.
John Adams
23. JohnArkansawyer

Of the authors on your list of the unread, I'd say you ought to read Poul Anderson. He was especially wonderful in midlength--look for books containing "The Saturn Game" or "No Truce with Kings".

I've got a great big gap in my reading from the mid-seventies into the mid-nineties. I missed most of the authors who started writing then, with the notable exceptions of John Barnes and Nancy Kress.

I looked at the works of Gene Wolfe at the library this week, but where to start? Octavia Butler never caught me when I browsed her books. I read a story by George Alec Effinger once and loved it a great deal. All I know of Shari Tepper is a poem from a Judith Merrill anthology. It seems I ought to like Michael Bishop. Charles Sheffield's "Tiny Tango" was great. And then there's Vernor Vinge.

So what by these authors to read? As my daughter says when she really wants an answer, "I'm asking."
24. Angelle
I'm ashamed to admit that I've stated Perdido Street Station three times with no success. I just can't seem to care.

On the upside, this post and comments has given me plenty of new things to go look up, so that's shiny then.
Wesley Osam
25. Wesley
On Gene Wolfe: His biggest classic is The Book of the New Sun (currently published in two volumes called Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel), but that might be a bit long to start with. I'd suggest picking up any volume of his short stories. They deliver the same puzzle-story flavor as his novels, in smaller packages. Peace, a sort of mainstreamy magic realist novel with a lot going on under the surface, is overlooked and underrated.

On Octavia Butler: Wild Seed is a good book that stands alone. After that, you can move on to Dawn, Imago, and Adulthood Rites, which if I recall correctly have been republished in one volume as Lilith's Brood.

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