I have yet to read Gideon the Ninth, though my friends have been texting me constantly to chat about it. Despite Reddit constantly recommending him, I’ve yet to read a single Brandon Sanderson novel. Dragonriders of Pern? Nope. Joe Abercrombie? Meant to. And oh Lord, please don’t strangle me when I admit I’ve only read a single book by Ursula K. Le Guin.
At writing workshops, my friends gush about books I meant to read while I sit quietly, encased in total dorkness, wondering how Charlie Jane Anders’ and Robert Jackson Bennett’s and N.K. Jemisin’s latest books still sit atop my to-read pile despite me gobbling down their prior writings like candy, and how am I so utterly ignorant not to have delved James Tiptree’s award-winning stories.
I am scandalously unread.
Except…I’m not. And I don’t think you are, either. Not if you’re showing up at Tor.com to read an article about how guilty you feel about not having read enough.
But before I can confirm that, allow me to do some math for you on my reading habits—because I suspect the amount of books I read will not be at all unusual when compared to the magnificent overachievers who frequent this site.
On average, I read somewhere between 30 and 60 books a year.
Now, “reading 30 to 60 books a year” is about three to five times above the national average of 12 books a year (of those who read books at all…don’t think about it, best to think light thoughts). In my case, most of those books are speculative fiction, most of them recent releases….
Yet that number is way down from my wayward youth, where thanks to the startling benefits of having no friends, I often knocked off three or four books a week in an existence startlingly like that of Morwenna from Jo Walton’s Among Others, but without the interesting magical bits. Doing some rough math indicates I’ve probably read somewhere in the range of 2,300 books in my 51 years of age, most of which are speculative fiction.
But wait, there’s more! I not only have read deep, I have attempted to read wide.
In 2010, fresh off of two major writing workshops where I sat numbly by the sidelines as people merrily discussed authors I’d heard good things about but never actually read, I compiled a list of Authors I Should Have Read By Now—a selection cultivated by trusted friends with magnificent tastes. I read about one a week, knocking off another 50 or so authors I had always meant to get around to.
And when I went into my next sci-fi convention, I thought, This is it. I’ll finally be caught up. When people discuss Ted Chiang and Lois McMaster Bujold and Peter F. Hamilton, I’ll be on top of it.
Gentle reader, all my efforts did not make a dent.
Which was when I realized: You can’t read everything in speculative fiction. Heck, it approaches a full-time job just to scratch the surface of having read a meaningful speculative canon.
But why do we feel like we’re behind, when the truth is that we’re in a delightful Platinum Age of science fiction, where there are so many magnificent, wonderful, well-reviewed books that it’s hard for anyone to keep up?
I have a couple of theories.
Being Online Magnifies the Sensation of Missing Out
If you’re reading Tor.com and checking Book Instagram and discussing on r/Fantasy and following your authors on Twitter, chances are good you’re two things:
- An author’s best friend—someone who pays attention when their new books come out, and:
- Statistically above-average.
A lot of books come out in a given year—and while it’s lovely that you’re paying attention to them, the fact that you’re hip-deep in friends who constantly broadcast literary squeeness amplifies this sensation that you should be reading ALL THE THINGS.
Which isn’t a bad thing! It’s good to have friends who are invested in other people’s stories. It’s a thrill to find some new author based on a recommendation! But that potential goodness can turn milk-sour when you transmute joy into a sick guilt.
Remember: These aren’t obligations to be shouldered on. These are joys you can partake in. And if you’re being showered with so many potential delights that you can’t keep up, then you’re letting the thrills you can’t have taint the pleasures of today.
(Though, you know, if you haven’t read my book The Sol Majestic, you’re absolutely missing out. Right? Sure.)
You Discount the Clubs You’re Already a Part Of.
I was at a writing workshop when I heard the words “Matthew Woodring Stover is a genius,” and I leapt across a table shouting “DAMN STRAIGHT!” to high-five a stranger.
Now, the other people in that workshop who I had accidentally elbowed aside (sorry about that) doubtlessly felt was a sense of alienation—“Who’s Matthew Woodring Stover?” or “Oh, man, I keep meaning to read him.”
But what I felt in that moment was having found My Tribe. I was new to a workshop, on the lookout for friends, and was warmed by that nerdy certainty that Anyone Who Liked Matthew Woodring Stover Couldn’t Be All Bad.
And in this case, I was right! I made a couple of fast friends at that workshop, because correctly picking Matthew Woodring Stover’s Heroes Die as one of the best grimdark fantasy novels of the early 21st century meant that we had similar tastes, and we bonded over our goal of matching Stover’s visceral fight scenes.
In truth, that happens a lot. I can usually find a few books in common with most people.
But particularly if you have social anxiety, those moments where the entire table discusses The Author You Meant To Get Round To, lavishing praises for an anguishing eternity where you have nothing to contribute to the conversation? They can be excruciating. Particularly if you have nasty flashbacks to those old days of being left out of the crowd (see also: my lonely, book-filled childhood).
Yet if you are sensitive to such temporary lockouts, remember: a) large-scale conversations usually veer away from any given person’s interests for brief periods of time before coming back around, so that’s normal, and b) most folks tend to discount all those times when they were actually in sync with people and focus on the uncomfortable, feeling-left-out bits.
You’re not poorly read. There’s just a lot of books, and simple statistics will tell you that everyone gets left out occasionally. And the only way to avoid that is to become that boorish person who arm-wrestles every conversation into submission by complaining, “Aww, who cares about that author? Why don’t we discuss somebody I’ve read?”
Just go with the flow. It’ll come back around to people you’ve read and are excited about. (Or else you need to find better friends.)
There’s Some Books You’d Rather Have Read Than Actually Read, and That’s Okay.
Some books pull you aside with a trenchcoat-jacketed whisper. “Hey,” they promise. “If you read me, you’ll be the erudite scholar you’ve always longed to be seen as!”
“Yes, I’ll be seen as smarter for having read you,” you agree. “But will I enjoy the process of reading you?”
“So many questions!” the book shrugs.
Yeah, sometimes that works out—my wife and I read Moby Dick, and it was surprisingly entertaining! Then I took another stab at Gravity’s Rainbow, and bounced off.
Truth is, there’s some Very Notable Books out there, books with cachet—and they’re books in styles that you don’t particularly enjoy.
It’s fine to read pulp! It’s fine to read for fun! Not every book must be A Deep Tome! (Or, alternatively, if you like books packed with massive philosophical digressions, it’s fine to skip the pulpy books in favor of dense, tangled narratives!)
Point is, there’s no shame in skipping a book that you’re not enjoying, or reading just to prove a point.
There’s Some Books You Probably Don’t Need to Read, Even If Other People Think You Do.
There’s plenty of books that Some Fans think you absolutely have to read. And many of them are enjoyable! (This statement applies to both the books and the fans.)
However, a significant portion of those books fall into the uncomfortable category of “A Product Of Their Time”—books where women and minorities didn’t seem to exist, or did exist but were written as uncomfortable stereotypes, or had romantic dynamics that seem, shall we say, a little more coercive in the cold light of modern conceptions of consent.
These are books that have good points if you’re willing to overlook the flaws that have sprung up now that society has marched on. But if you’re not willing to overlook those flaws because you find them icky, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “I read the opening chapters and didn’t like what I saw” or even “Heard from a friend it’s aged poorly,” and move on to talking about something you do enjoy.
Reading should be for pleasure. Will you get more out of contemporary works knowing who their influences are? Absolutely! But a good fiction book should also be enjoyable on its own merits.
And if someone tells you that you have to be familiar with “the classics” before you can claim that you’re well read—well, note that most people’s definition of “the classics” mysteriously line up in a perfect Venn diagram with “the favorite books that person read in their teens and twenties.” And then remember that you don’t have to endure poorly-aged books to achieve some imaginary sticker of completion.
Remember: there’s a world of difference between “I haven’t read it” and “I chose not to read it.”
Surrender to the Immensity of the World…
As I said: we are in an age of speculative fiction miracles. There are amazing books being published by all sorts of authors—groundbreaking, heartbreaking, devastating brilliance all around.
And there’s decades of brilliant books published by authors with lifelong careers.
And there’s accreted layers of influences, short stories and novels that flavored the work of your own favored authors, as well as stories that are embedded in the marrow of your friends and lovers, sagas they want so badly to discuss with you.
You have a choice:
You can have friends to discuss some of these books with.
Or you can retreat into your Reading Cave (you do have a reading cave, don’t you?), in a vain attempt to Read All The Books until a kind stranger comes across your cat-chewed corpse.
And oh, what a lonely life that would be!
Look, there’s a few speed-readers who can chow down a huge lap-breaking novel every lunch, but chances are you’re not one of them. This isn’t a race. Enjoy the books you can get to, be choosy in what you go for next, but honestly?
This is an ocean, and in your finite lifetime you will only be able to swim across a bay or two.
Enjoy the water.
And whatever you do, do not tear your eyes away from that comfortable delusion that one day, you will read every book on your to-read pile. You will absolutely do that. Keep buying books, it’s fine.
Ferrett Steinmetz is the author of the novels The Sol Majestic and Automatic Reload from Tor Books, as well as the ‘Mancer trilogy and The Uploaded. He is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2012, for his novelette Sauerkraut Station. Ferrett can be found on Twitter as @ferretthimself, and his new podcast, …And We Will Plunder Their Prose, analyzes the writing techniques of great modern speculative fiction.