Reasons for reading five or more of an author’s books (with statistics! and lists!)

Nowadays, I never consciously read deep into a writers’ ouevre. I’m almost always ready to content myself with his or her 1-3 most critically acclaimed works. For instance, I really loved Vanity Fair, but I’ve never even been tempted to read Pendennis or Henry Esmond or any of Thackeray’s other novels. I figure that there’s a reason that you never hear much about those novels.

This stands in stark contrast to my younger days, when I had considerable author loyalty. I would not be surprised to learn that I’ve read 10 or 15 or 20 books by Mercedes Lackey or Anne McCaffrey or Isaac Asimov or David Weber. But when my reading expanding, the ardor of love for particular authors also changed. I don’t think I’m capable of feeling as much affection for an author as the twelve year old Rahul felt for Asimov. There’s just too much else out there that’s worth reading. If a book merely gives me a bit more of what I enjoyed about another book, then I usually consider that book a failure. For me to enjoy it, a book also has to be somewhat new.

However, I recently read a post on the Guardian’s book blog in which the site attempted to compile a list of 32 American writers who had four notable books. In many cases, they turned up books that I’d never heard of (like Cather’s One Of Ours). At least one of their selections, Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon, was sufficiently intriguing to me that I read through it. As I did so, it occurred to me that this was the fifth Edith Wharton novel that I’d read, and that this was a rather high number. It made me curious about what other authors had repeatedly caught my interest.

In order to create the following list, I drew upon a log of books-completed that only goes back to January 1st, 2009, so it’s certainly not exhaustive (if it was, the top twenty picks would probably all be writers who I loved when I was twelve). But I did find it somewhat interesting.

For instance, what the hell is Nabokov doing at the top? I mean, Nabokov is awesome, but he’s definitely not my most favorite writer. I almost never talk about him or blog about him or recommend him to other people. And I certainly never intended to read nine of his works. The answer for him is a bit complicated.

And Marcel Proust is, well, that’s kind of a cheat. All of his novels are really one novel. You need to read them all in order to get the merit badge.

The rest of the writers seem to fall into four categories

  • Authors Who Genuinely Wrote Four Or More Interesting Books – The authors I put into this category are ones who wrote four or more books which are of roughly similar quality. Authors like Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair don’t really have one stand-out masterpiece. They have a number of different books that elucidate their different qualities.
  • Authors Whose Masterpiece I Loved So Much That I Had To Read Everything Else They Wrote – Jane Austen’s Emma was so good that I was almost compelled to read all her other novels. None were equal to Emma (except, perhaps, for Pride and Prejudice), but they were all fairly interesting.
  • Authors Who Also Wrote A Significant Quantity Of Fairly Entertaining Non-Fiction – George Orwell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, and David Foster Wallace fall into this category. I loved their fictional work, but they’ve each only produced 3 or fewer worthwhile volumes of fiction. However, I have different standards for nonfiction. Somehow, it’s easier on the brain. If I can find a nonfiction writer whose work is of high literary quality, I’ll usually read everything they write. All of the above are exceptional nonfiction writers. In Orwell’s case, I read his two major novels before 1/1/9, but, since then, I’ve read almost all of his nonfiction output. And it was spectacular.
  • Authors Who Are Just A Hell Of A Lot Of Fun – Okay, I read the first six books in Charlaine Harris’ vampire series (the one that True Blood is based on) during the course of a single weekend. That was a great weekend. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and C.S. Forester are standbys of mine. They’re always good for an evening when I’m dead-tired or depressed or sick or otherwise unwilling to put up with a lot of shit from a book.

Now that I’ve gone through these reasons, I think I can finally understand the problem of Nabokov’s pre-eminence on this list. It’s not that I like him the best…it’s just that all of these reasons apply to him. After reading Lolita, I was so impressed that I was almost compelled to read more books by him. He’s also written at least four very interesting books (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin, and Ada). He wrote a few non-fiction works that I’ve also read. And he’s also kind of fun and easy. Or , at least, fun and short. The most recent Nabokov that I completed was The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight, which is something I picked up because it was short and I felt like finishing a book in an evening. And because, no matter what, you always know that Nabokov is gonna tell the story in a zippy, spritely manner.

But I’m still not happy about this. No more Nabokov!

 

Vladimir Nabokov – 9

Invitation to a Beheading
Pale Fire
Lolita
Pnin
Lectures on Russian Literature
The Defence
Lectures On Don Quixote
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight

 

Marcel Proust – 7

Swann’s Way
In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower
Guermantes Way
Sodom and Gomorrah
The Prisoner
The Fugitive
Finding Time Again

 

Emile Zola – 7

Germinal
Nana
L’Assommoir
The Masterpiece
La Bete Humaine
The Earth
La Debacle

 

Jane Austen – 6

Emma
Sense and Sensibility
Persuasion
Northanger Abbey
Mansfield Park
Pride and Prejudice

 

Raymond Chandler – 6

The Big Sleep
Farewell, My Lovely
High Window
The Little Sister
The Lady In The Lake
The Long Goodbye

 

C.S. Forester – 6

The Happy Return
A Ship Of The Line
Flying Colors
Commodore Hornblower
Lord Hornblower
Midshipman Hornblower

 

Charlaine Harris – 6

Dead Until Dark
Living Dead In Dallas
Club Dead
Dead to the World
Dead as a Doornail
Definitely Dead

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 6

News of a Kidnapping
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
No One Writes To The Colonel
Clandestine in Chile
Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor
The General In His Labyrinth

 

Leo Tolstoy – 6

Anna Karenina
What is Art?
A Confession
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
War and Peace
The Cossacks

 

Willa Cather – 5

Death Comes For The Archbishop
Oh Pioneers!
My Antonia
A Lost Lady
The Professor’s House

 

Charles Dickens – 5

Bleak House
David Copperfield
Oliver Twist
Great Expectations
Hard Times

 

Graham Greene – 5

The Third Man
Our Man In Havana
Travels With My Aunt
The Power And The Glory
Brighton Rock

 

Dashiell Hammett – 5

The Maltese Falcon
Red Harvest
The Glass Key
The Dain Curse
The Thin Man

 

Sinclair Lewis – 5

Babbitt
Main Street
Arrowsmith
Elmer Gantry
Dodsworth

 

George Orwell – 5

Down and Out in Paris and London
Homage to Catalonia
Road to Wigan Pier
Burmese Days
Fifty Essays

 

Anthony Trollope – 5

The Warden
The Way We Live Now
Barchester Towers
Autobiography
Doctor Thorne

 

David Foster Wallace – 5

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
Infinite Jest
Consider the Lobster: Essays
Oblivion: Stories
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

 

Evelyn Waugh -5

Decline and Fall
Scoop
Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust
Put Out More Flags

2 Comments on “Reasons for reading five or more of an author’s books (with statistics! and lists!)

  1. The list goes back to 2009 (damn you read A LOT!)? So, does this mean the you may have read “!00 Years of Solitude” before 2009?

    I wonder if one day you will make a list of “books that improve with age.” and “books that decline with age”?

    • Yep. I read 100 years of Solitude sometime in 2007, during my senior year in college.

      And yes, in a few years I think I’m going to start re-reading some of my favorites to see how they held up. I’m definitely looking forward to that.

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