Monday, October 22, 2012

The Art of Reading: Series

The Art of Reading: Series

All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post's theme: series. Do you read series? (You know, duologies, trilogies, quartets, or those so long that we just call them series.) What do you do when only part of the series has been published? Do you wait for all the books to come out? Or do you read them as they’re available? Do you re-read the old ones to ensure you remember everything when a new book’s released?

I try as much as possible to read series straight through: wait for all the books to be published before starting number one and then read the entire series consecutively. I treat a series as a large book. If the work's done well, that's what it should feel like, an extra long story that has been artfully separated in terms of smaller stories. (Whenever possible, I like to buy omnibus editions so it really does feel like one big book.) I've mentioned before that I don't like to re-read books, so that's part of why I do this. When I wait too long between books, I forget too much, leaving me with the unsatisfying choice of either re-reading a book at the loss of time to read a new one or forging ahead and most likely struggling through the latest in the series with a foggy memory of characters and events.

I'm not as firm about this habit as a I used to be, though, mostly because I have access to advance reading copies now and if a publisher, editor, or author takes the time to send me a copy of their book before it's released I feel an obligation to read it, or at least try, before the release date rather than stashing it away until the rest of the series is published. However, with books that aren't advance reading copies I still hoard the series until I have the last one before I start reading.

Obviously, this system has its drawbacks. Take George R. R. Martin's A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. I own all the books published so far, but haven't started the first one. I believe there are two more books expected to come out, but Martin takes a very long time writing each one and there's speculation that he might not even finish the series. This touches on a couple of issues with my habit. First, there's a ton of buzz about these books right now; they come up in readerly conversations often and I'm missing out. Second, there's a television adaptation, but I don't want to watch that before I read the books. Another issue occurs if you wait to buy the books until they're all published: that's less supportive for the authors. What if the first two books in a trilogy don't sell well and the publisher cancels the third - your purchase would have been helpful in ensuring the third's publication. When I know without a doubt that I want to read a series, I do still buy the books as they come out; I just don't read them yet!

Despite these flaws, I still find reading an entire series straight through preferable. This way there's no "settling" period at the start of each book as I recall the characters, past events, and the tone of the story. I already remember those things, because most likely I just finished the previous book that same day, probably minutes earlier. I also find it easier to slide into the fictional world, to actually invest in characters as well as their relationships and choices when I don’t leave big gaps of months or years between returning to their story.

On this topic, I've met some people who simply refuse to read series at all. They give various reasons, but I've picked out a few common trends. First, they, like me, worry about forgetting too much in between books but also don't want to re-read all the old ones every time a new installment comes out. Second, series can be confusing! Some publishers make it blatantly clear that a book is in a series, how many books are in that series, and the order of the books. (I applaud those who choose that approach!) However, other publishers sometimes make an active effort to conceal the fact that a book is part of a series in hopes of "hooking" readers with the first one, perhaps even readers who normally avoid series. (That technique drives me crazy: I feel like I'm being lied to and manipulated when I would have bought the book anyway.) Many readers have had frustrating experiences when they read a book and discover halfway through that it's the second in a quartet or they finish a book they thought was a standalone only to read a cliffhanger ending and find out the next book won't be published for a year or two. Experiences like these turn some readers against series in general - it's just too much work to figure out how many books you need to read in what order.

What about you? Do you read series? If so, do you try to read them straight through? If not, do you need to re-read all the old books when the latest comes out?


  1. I love re-reading books. It's one of the reasons I buy them instead of just checking them out from the library. I don't usually re-read right before the next book comes out, because for me, if the series is interesting enough to keep pulling me through, then I'll have re-read enough that the details will feel familiar to me, like dusting off worn memories as opposed to straining to remember minutiae for a test.

    I won't read books out of order. Maybe out of chronological order, but only if the publishing order wasn't chronological, like if a prequel is published later.

    It also drives me crazy when publishers don't make it clear that a book is in a series, or what the order of that series is. I can usually tell pretty quick if I've picked up a book that isn't the first, but I hate getting to the end and realizing that the book wasn't stand-alone, and all the promises the author made with the story aren't going to be resolved until later. I want to know that going in.

    What happens if you don't know until the end that you've started a series? Do you wait until the whole series is published to finish, or do you put it aside?

  2. Oh I love series, to me it's almost painful when a series ends and I can't look forward to more adventures with the same cast of characters. I do enjoy reading series straight through, and when given the chance (i.e. discovering a new series) one thing I look for is whether or not the whole series is published. If that's the case I think I'm more likely to purchase and read it, but it's certainly not required. If I've heard good recommendations for something I will start before the series is finished and eagerly await the next installments.

    Whether or not I re-read the previous books once a new book is published depends on how invested I am in the series. Series that I really really enjoy (like George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire) I happily re-read for the opportunity to remember things forgotten, and re-experience those epic moments in the story. Other series that have lost some of their luster I decline to re-read, for example the entire Wheel of Time (still unfinished) series. I read the first few books when there were only 4 or 5 published, now going on the 13th volume I'm not about to reread all of them...but I'll be damned if I don't finish the series just out of spite at this point.

    My favorite series I have read 2, 3, or even more times through. I especially enjoy re-reading series because it gives me a chance to pick up on things that I missed the first time around. Plus I have a notoriously poor memory when it comes to plot details. I remember the broad strokes, but the little things easily slip from me, so rereading allows me to enjoy the books again and again.

    That said I certainly don't finish every series I start. If the first book in particular is only 'OK' then I won't go to the trouble with the rest. I rarely buy the whole series at once, preferring to read through #1 and proceed from there. If #1 is good, then odds are that I'll buy the rest in a lump so that I can speed through them all quickly. And I do appreciate it when the publishers make it clear where a book is in a series.

  3. @ Casey - If I've already started a series, I'll continue with it, even if all the books aren't already out yet. But I find myself pretty annoyed with the publisher for marketing it like a standalone.

    @ Fernleaf - Oh, I totally know what you mean about the bittersweet feeling of reading everything in an amazing series or by an amazing author. You kind of wish it never had to end.

    I also have a terrible memory for details, but I chalk it up to reading so much. That's one of the things I love about blogging reviews now. It's a database of what I thought about a book (more specifics than generalized) even when I can no longer remember myself!

    I used to always read series to the end even if I'm not particularly liking it, but now I find it's just not worth it. I will read the first book to the end, but if the first book doesn't win me over, I'm not wasting more time on the rest.