Sunday, 9 January 2011

Where Should I Start?

I am slowly working my way through Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing, her account of a year selecting her reading just from the books already on her shelves. Slowly because there is so much in each chapter that sets me thinking. I need time to take in what she's saying and reflect on how it applies to me and my own reading journey. Originally I borrowed the book from the library. I'm on a very fixed income and I have to make as much use of the library as I can. However, it soon became apparent that there was no way that I was going to be able to keep it as long as necessary and so I've just bought my own copy. So far I've made it about one tenth of the way through and I intend to savour every single moment.

One of the first things that stopped me in my tracks was Hill's query when discussing reading Barbara Pym as to which of her books she should begin with.

Would I like Barbara Pym? Where should I start? Anywhere, really. Odd that. It is not always the case. You should never begin reading George Eliot with 'Middlemarch', nor Trollope with 'The Way we Live Now', and one of the lesser Muriel Sparks might put you off for good...I am glad I did not read 'The Mill on the Floss' first or I would never have tried another George Eliot, and 'Travels with my Aunt' is not a typical novel by Graham Greene, so it does not much matter if you do not care for it.

Wherever possible I have always tried to begin an author's works at the beginning, to make my way through their bibliography chronologically. In some instances this is essential. I found myself saying of two crime writers last week, "even though each book tells a separate story you need to read them in order to understand the relationships amongst the ongoing police personnel.". And, I have just put a novel to one side because I discovered it was a sequel and to understand it I was going to have to read its predecessor first. However, this doesn't really explain why I feel this compulsion to begin and the beginning and read until I get to the end.

I think the real motivating force here is the desire to understand how a writer's thought processes develop. When I did my first substantial piece of research into Shakespeare's plays, looking at the way in which he portrayed the character of the Fool, instinctively I read each play in the order written (as far as we can ever ascertain that) and found that it was possible to chart a change in his understanding of what the Fool stood for and was capable of, what the character was about. Reading chronologically was essential. I have never understood why people insist on reading the Narnia books in the order the story happens in fictional time. This isn't how Lewis wrote them and the growing darkness makes much more sense if you follow his growing distaste for the female characters as the writing process develops.

But, I can see that it some instances this might be a problem. What if the first full length Dickens I had read had been Pickwick Papers? I'm sorry if that happens to be your favourite Dickens; it leaves me totally unmoved. While I don't suppose I could have escaped without ever reading him again, I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have developed the abiding love for him that is one of the hallmarks of my reading life. I'm trying to remember what was my first. David Copperfield I expect. It was a set text in my first year at secondary school, but I think I'd already encountered a television version.

And, some writers take time to find their metier. I always think of the British children's writer, Jacqueline Wilson, in this respect. Best known now for her work for eight to twelve years olds that hides cutting edge exploration of social problems behind telling humour, few remember that she started writing much more straightforward stories for older teenagers. They were excellent and I wish they were still readily available, but if you were to start at the beginning of her output and find you didn't enjoy them you might never discover the later work which might be more to your taste.

In the end you find your way in to a writer's work in the way that best suits you and very often it will be through an act of serendipity. What matters is that you get there. I've never read Barbara Pym, so I shall take heart from what Hill says and just pick up whatever I can get at the library and hope that she is a writer I take to. Then perhaps I can work through her books chronologically and see what that experience has to say about her.



  1. I really, really, really want to read the Susan Hill book! And I really like Pym, so I'm rooting for you to like her too. I don't have strong feelings about reading things in order, so I rarely do. But I'm intrigued by the idea and what it might teach me. When I read books by the same author, though, I tend to read them widely spaced apart in time, so I might forget too much and see the progression over time.

  2. I'm going to look for the Susan Hill book now, too; it sounds lovely. It's a very interesting question, how to approach an author. I certainly prefer to start at the beginning and work through to the end with books that run in sequence themselves (including crime novels, as you say--because the long story arc is usually the one involving the detectives, after all), but I don't necessarily follow chronological order for unconnected novels by the same author. I agree that serendipity often plays a big part for me in 'discovering' a new writer.

  3. Dorothy, I can see that the spacing issue might be an issue. I tend to be the sort of reader who wants to glut on any new novelist I find and love. After posting this I discovered in a tucked away corner of an almost invisible shelf a copy of Pym's 'A Very Private Eye' that I didn't know I had, so it looks as though that's going to be my starting point.

    Rohan, I'm sure you will enjoy the Hill. Each chapter is just bite size enough to read over a coffee but then gives you enough food for thought for the rest of the day. You're right, dropping in on the middle of a series can be difficult. When you go back to read the earlier ones you have pre-knowledge which can be ruinous to your enjoyment. In some cases, though it's more than that. Have you read Sophie Hannah's work? She is a brilliant writer, also a very highly regarded poet, but if you tried starting with her latest book the relationship between Charlie and Simon would leave you so baffled as to put you off. If you haven't read her I think you would appreciate her writing but definitely get hold of 'Little Face' as a starting point.

  4. If I'm interested in an *author* I usually read chronologically too! At least, contemporary authors. For classic authors, I might do a bit of research first or ask a blogger/friend for recs on where to start. But even if I don't love the first book I read, I almost always give authors a second chance (unless something about the book really, really alienated me). On the other hand, oftentimes I'm interested in a particular book by a new-to-me author, and then once I've read it if I loved it I'll start going through an author's backlist.

  5. Eva, the idea of giving a wrier a second chance is interesting. I hadn't thought about it before, but it made me ask when I do that. Sometimes I have to be pushed. Margaret Atwood was a case in point. I have a friend who is a great fan and she encouraged (polite way of saying nagged) until I tried a second book and got engaged. Sometimes it's to do with the quality of the writing. If I didn't much like what the book was about but thought the work had a quality of style then I'm quite likely to go back for a second time around as well. Thank you for making me think this through.

  6. I have always been a book person, as compared to an author person. Only recently did it occur to me to read other books by authors I enjoyed; instead, I've always been focused on reading this or that book. The idea of reading an author's works chronologically is very new to me, and one I've not yet really had the opportunity to try. My usual approach is to choose the book amongst an author's works that most appeals to me and start there. If I enjoy it, I'll read others. I can see, however, how reading books in the order they were written can reveal much about an author.

  7. Erin, I suspect that in part my way of working has come about because I needed to be able to give an overview of the author to any class that I was teaching and to place a work for them within that author's development. I'm sure that just diving in and picking a book you like works just as well if you're book focussed and there's nothing wrong with that.

  8. I love Barbara Pym so I hope you enjoy her. I think her best books are Excellent Women & Some Tame Gazelle (this was her first so if you do start at the beginning, you'll have a pretty good idea of her style & preoccupations). I'm enjoying your blog & working back through the archives as you can see! I also enjoyed Susan Hill & love Dickens but Pickwick Papers is not my favourite. I've read it & enjoyed it but will never read it again. Our Mutual Friend & Great Expectations are the books I reread most often.

  9. Lyn, how nice to meet you. While I hate making gender based judgements I do begin to wonder if 'Pickwick' isn't more of a male book. The one person who has always tried to get me to give it another go is the man who was my PhD supervisor. Every woman I've spoken to has just failed to see the point. 'Some Tame Gazelle' is the only Pym I'd really heard of before reading the Hill which suggests that it a book that is in the general reading conscious and I do like to start at the beginning. I might see if the library as a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.