This week’s XKCD What If? is the excellent – if somewhat difficult to answer – “At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?” It’s a great question, and the answer, despite the necessity of being an estimate, is fascinating.
This got me thinking about the books I read, and the books I have read. The other thing that’s been turning in my head was the reaction I sometimes get – usually online, or at cons – when I mention that I haven’t read a particular book: “how have you not read it?”
The answer is, of course, with an unsurprising amount of ease. There are a LOT of books out there! I get that everyone has their favourite books, but really? I have, I will admit, avoided books out of sheer bloody-minded spite because someone has been so desperately adamant that I simply have not lived because I haven’t read them.
I came pretty late to science fiction and fantasy. I actually remember attempting the first book of the Belgariad as a teen and shutting the book at the first use of the word “grolim”. I grew up in a town whose tiny library was stocked with Enid Blyton (Island of Adventure, yo), R.L. Stine in the children’s section, and very little else. I remember bugging the living hell out of the librarian for access to the “grown up” books, and her giving in with a world-weary sigh. I read Tom Clancy, Wilbur Smith, Stephen King: one of the first things I wrote (outside of the exercise books that I chain-filled in English class) was a re-write of scenes from The Dark Half, great, curving sweeps of longhand on unlined paper that were crammed into a blue folder. I showed it to a curious teacher and almost got a phone call home for my trouble (it included a home invasion scene that saw the homeowner being choked to death with expanding foam filler poured down their throat*).
I came to SF/F the long way round. I lived my teens through Westerns, techno thrillers, and the uniquely awful gun fantasy that was the post-Vietnam world of pulp fiction. Books like Point of Impact, Stephen Hunter’s lone gunman betrayed by the country he served. I missed cyberpunk. I missed Wheel of Time, pretty much all of Gemmell (playing WoW, someone made a reference to Druss and then refused to believe I didn’t know who that was), and gave up on Terry Goodkind at the first book. It wasn’t until I picked up Feersum Endjinn (I recall checking it out along with Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires, the novel Lifeforce was based on) and Assassin’s Apprentice that I started to think, hey, I like this stuff a lot.
It feels strange to me when people say I have to read something, or that I am somehow lesser for not having read it until now. It’s nice to have the odd recommendation now and again, but I baulk at the sentiment that I have to read something. Read what you like! You’ll find the stories you love, no matter what path you take.
*this scene appeared in an episode of CSI once, and I did a running circuit of the living room yelling, “hey! I wrote that!”, much to the consternation of my other half.