Some people’s reading histories have formidable pedigrees. For example, I have a close friend whose favorite book of all time is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Another speaks highly of Stephen Jay Gould. Dig through my literary history, and you’ll find nuggets of Melville and Dostoevsky buried under broad strata of Dragonlance.
My earliest reading memories from grade school are dominated by Big Little Books, a squalid literary form rightfully lampooned by James Lileks as a “joyless synthesis” of books and comics. I owned both the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four titles in the Big Little Book series, and re-read both many times. Humorously, the Spider-Man edition I owned had a printing error in which two chapters of the book repeated themselves verbatim, which my young self took as some kind of intentional time-warp that I accepted as canon.
After that came the seminal Choose Your Own Adventure books, and their ill-fated and disreputable cousins, TwistAPlot. Golden Sword of Dragonwalk was my favorite, even though its narrative payoff in both swords and dragons turned out to be woefully lacking. My second favorite was Time Raider, which I only recently learned was written by the God Emperor of Goosebumps himself, R.L. Stine. Time Raider’s central conceit, as I recall, was a time machine that had a lever that read PAST and FUTURE and buttons with increments of tens, hundreds or thousands of years in either direction. Talk about user friendly. I distinctly remember writing the page numbers of these time increments on the back cover, so I could relive the thrill of the same brief story arcs over and over again. Like a lot of kids, I had a really high tolerance for reptition.
As adolescence approached, my reading tastes emerged into the ghetto of movie novelizations, leavened with the occasional sci-fi classic like Dune or the Foundation trilogy. I’d love to tell you that I’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, but I haven’t. Mostly, I read the parts about Gollum and skimmed the vast swaths of history and geographical detail until finally getting serious about it circa 2002. On the other hand, I probably read Dragonlance Legends a dozen times in my eighth-grade year alone (a series I abandoned without remorse when Raistlin Majere’s kid came galumphing along like a spell-slinging Cousin Oliver). But I probably read the novelization to Terminator more than either of those works, because the author went into fetishistic detail about the guns involved and there was an amazing scene where Reese shared a slice of stolen pizza with a stray dog. Oh my god, you guys.
In my defense, there was a reason I read so many movie novelizations. I grew up in a time when cable was mostly a wasteland of crappy B-movies, punctuated with the occasional major motion picture. I once saw a stand-up comic joke about cable in the early Eighties being “Krull and Beastmaster five hundred times apiece,” but that’s not actually a joke. That’s how it really was. My parents didn’t own a VCR until probably 1993, and as a lazy kid with a small allowance and an undying thirst for Star Wars figures, I didn’t have the disposable income to see a lot of movies in the theater. So, to relive my favorite cinema experiences over and over again, I re-read the Star Wars novels like a junkie, little suspecting that there would come a time when there would be such an unholy glut of Star Wars in the popular culture that I’d lose interest in absorbing it. But I digress. The point is, my dog-eared, much-abused copy of the Star Wars novelization, ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, was probably my favorite book in the world for several years following 1977.
High school brought an obsession with the blue-collar horror sensibilities of Stephen King, still the most influential author in my personal lexicon. I used to lug the unwieldy hardback of It to class with me and read it during study hall, to the revulsion of my classmates, who couldn’t believe I would read such a gargantuan doorstop on purpose. (This brings to mind an anecdote from a close friend who, while sitting in a small-town diner reading a paperback, was approached by some patrons whom she thought asked “what are you reading?” What they’d actually asked was “what are you reading for?” Good times.) People often seem surprised when I tell them I nearly flunked out of high school. It wasn’t because I wasn’t bright enough; I was just far more interested in the antics of Pennywise the Clown than my actual studies. This persisted well into college, where I picked up The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick on top of the books I was already reading for my classes; at that point, even my professors treated me as if I’d lost my mind.
Still, despite years of relatively voracious reading, I have huge gaps in what are generally considered the genre classics. I never got any further into Herbert’s work than Children of Dune, for example, nor have I ever finished Asimov’s Robot series. I could rarely do more than skim Arthur C. Clarke’s work, as hard sci-fi makes my eyes glaze over almost instantly. I’ve read exactly one Heinlein novel in its entirety (Stranger in a Strange Land), and didn’t get much out of it beyond a B+ book report. Even though I speak very highly of Ray Bradbury’s work on the craft of writing, I’ve never successfully made it through the Martian Chronicles (although I did watch the TV miniseries, and I’m genuinely sorry about that).
I never cared for Narnia. I couldn’t stomach Harry Potter. I recently gave up on George Martin’s magnum opus because I realized that after five books in fifteen years, I just don’t care anymore. (Having the outrageous cheek to criticize Martin probably deserves its own blog post at some point.) I’ve never read the original Grimm’s fairy tales. I have, however, read the Sword of Shannara series. Probably two or three times. I liked the original Hitchhiker’s Guide, but found the third volume in the series kind of flat and pointless. And so on. My favorite authors tend to be slightly more out of the way: James Morrow, A.A. Attanasio, Glen Cook, Matthew Stover, Robert Sheckley, Robert Anton Wilson (whom I recently found out a lot of nerds seem to despise, which I find dismaying).
Sure, these are just my personal tastes, but sometimes they feel like a thousand tiny heresies eroding whatever eventual credibility I might have as a writer, or even a reader. A lot of my favorite authors tend to be obscure, but it’s not even dime-store hipster snobbery at work; I genuinely wish those guys were immensely popular, and it bothers me that they’re not. Having obscure tastes is more irritating than anything. Who likes blathering about their favorite book and getting a blank stare in return? And where do I get off criticizing Douglas Adams, anyway?
So the lesson here is probably that when it comes to matters of sci-fi and fantasy, my opinion is probably not to be trusted. Still, I’m trying. I’m currently plowing my way through Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, and have picked up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Iain Bank’s Culture series and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, in the hopes of getting on board with the current genre darlings. I’m not sure that will lead to productive conversations with my book-reading friends at the end, but at least I’ll be able to recommend something that’s in print.
Speaking of which, I wonder if I still have my copy of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye somewhere…
So tell me, reader. What are your genre gaps? Any trashy series that you unabashedly love? Any classics you unreservedly hate? I’d like to know.