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  1. #1
    Start judging theWallflower's Avatar
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    The "I Should" books vs. "I Want To" Books

    I was thinking the other day about how, as an (unpublished) author, there's a ton of books out there that everyone has listed as classics and must-reads, that I have never gotten to. I've never read Starship Troopers or Dune or The Last Unicorn or Chronicles of Narnia, just to name a few.

    Two reasons for this: one is I can never get around to it. There's too many books coming out now, that I barely have time for. The ones that everyone's talking about like Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. When can I fit in anything else before the next big thing comes along?

    The other reason is that I have no real interest in reading these books. I'm not a fan of military SF or dry, hard SF like The Martian Chronicles. I already know the story of Dune and I didn't like reading 2001. Life is too short to read books I don't really want to read. But I'm not sure if I should be reading these to be a writer with a capital 'W' - if I'm missing out.

    So my question is, should I be reading the books I want to read or the books I should read?

  2. #2
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    I guess it comes down whether or not you want to know where you come from as a writer or not.

    I saw "Iron Man" last week, and when I was walking out of the theatre I heard a 20ish year-old kid talking about how "Robocop sooooooo ripped off Marvel. That's how you do it right!" he says...

    Now, if I wasn't in polite company I would've pulled a minor rampage on the kid! All of that kind of stuff is pretty much based on -- or at least informed by -- Starship Troopers. Including Iron Man. And Voltron. And Thunder Cats. and Gundam Wing. And Robot Jocks. And Aliens. Etc...

    As a fan, it's ok to be a bit ignorant because there's no importance to knowing everything -- you should just read what you like. As an academic it would be inexcusable to display such ignorance. As a writer, though, I think you can approach it on a case by case basis. If you're writing a story about soldiers in powered armor, you'd do well to research what's already been done. If you're writing a story set on a desert planet, you might wanna research that. If you're writing a post-apocalypse novel, you might wanna pick up a few.

    As a writer, I don't think you need to read everything, but you should probably at least be familiar with the history of the particular idea you want to play with.

    You know... study the bear before you try to wrestle with it.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by theWallflower View Post
    I was thinking the other day about how, as an (unpublished) author, there's a ton of books out there that everyone has listed as classics and must-reads, that I have never gotten to. I've never read Starship Troopers or Dune or The Last Unicorn or Chronicles of Narnia, just to name a few.

    Two reasons for this: one is I can never get around to it. There's too many books coming out now, that I barely have time for. The ones that everyone's talking about like Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. When can I fit in anything else before the next big thing comes along?

    The other reason is that I have no real interest in reading these books. I'm not a fan of military SF or dry, hard SF like The Martian Chronicles. I already know the story of Dune and I didn't like reading 2001. Life is too short to read books I don't really want to read. But I'm not sure if I should be reading these to be a writer with a capital 'W' - if I'm missing out.

    So my question is, should I be reading the books I want to read or the books I should read?
    You already answered that last question: "Life is too short to read books I don't really want to read."

    The 'however' is, do you want to understand your favorite genre from the ground up, are you interested in its history and how it got to be what it is? If you are, you need to read at least a smattering of older works. If you are not, keep reading the new stuff and enjoy. It's possible that as you read the new stuff some of it will lead you to older work that will interest you enough to dig in. Or not.

    By the way, The Martian Chronicles can in no way be called 'hard sf.' On the one hand, the stories are not tied all that directly to science and the notion of Mars as habitable was already discredited by the time Bradbury wrote it. It is, however, one of the most beautifully written science fantasies that I've ever read, in particular the concluding story.

    Randy M.

  4. #4
    I think it all depends on one's philosophy of reading. I read books only to relax and enjoy escapist literature. As an aside, I often learn about the world, people, and the universe. Occasionally I will spend good money on a book, read part of it, and then just decide I do not enjoy it, and to continue to read will be a waste of my time. To decrease the money I waste on unreadable books, I typically read books by authors I already like, and occasionally try someone new.

    Granted, after reading about this or that book being a classic and really a 'must-read' by someone knowledgeable in scifi, I will tend to buy it and try to read it. Usually that ends in a waste of my time. And time is just as valuable of a commodity as money for many of us. So, I tend to try to ignore those impulses. The other problem is that with the accumulated body of scifi/fantasy literature, there is so much to read, that one does not have to compromise and read something not enjoyable. (Of course, this statement does not extend to school assignments, where students have to read just totally worthless dribble because the teacher or professor likes it - no 'choice' there.)

    I think it is different, as the Beaver (Fung Koo) suggested, if one is in the field either as a writer, reviewer, or in the publishing business. Then I think it is necessary to have a thorough knowledge of the body of literature that exists, and at least read a smattering of each well known author, and read in depth the really good ones.

    I see no problem in just reading for fun, relaxation, vicarious adventure, and some knowledge - and not feeling obligated to read what you don't want to read.

    "I've never read Starship Troopers or Dune or The Last Unicorn or Chronicles of Narnia, just to name a few." ---- neither have I, but I enjoyed the movies. Although, now that I think about it, I may have read Starship Troopers years ago, but I'm not sure. It may have been Armor by John Steakley that I am mixing up with it - similar ideas.
    Last edited by catsrule1; May 20th, 2008 at 03:31 PM. Reason: corrections

  5. #5
    You "should" read whatever you want to read.
    That said you are the one missing out. It is ridiculous to say something is "must read" or "must see" because nothing is (esp. must see TV). But generally if something is described that way it is because it is generally considered very good. You think of Dune as a book every one calls a must read that would be some big chore to read. I think of it as one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read (5 or 6 times). I have to say though that I can remember it starting out a little slow at the beginning of the book.
    As far as your other examples:
    Starship Troopers - I only read it because it won a hugo and was not impressed (good writing though);
    The Last Unicorn - maybe someday;
    Chronicles of Narnia - probably never (it is YA)

  6. #6
    I agree with everyone so far.

    As a casual reader, read what you want and never apologize.
    As an academic or professional writer, though, you should be versed on classics that helped define the way modern books are written. Do it for no other reason than you don't want to be embarrassed when they interview you and ask for your influences, and you say "McKiernan and Brooks", never knowing there was Tolkien before them.

    This reminds me of a Northern Exposure episode where Adam Ant is in town and they ask him for his musical influences and suggest Hendrix, but he says he "never listens to anything recorded before 1980."

  7. #7
    Chill out - it's only me
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    Life is too good for bad books

    I found many of the classics wanting, and many of the pop-fiction books entertaining.

    The simple answer is: Try both out.

    I got into reading science fiction when I was sixteen (like, almost three years ago), because a friend handed me the novel Dune by Frank Herbert. It's a classic that I would recommend if you enjoy pushing your way through chapters of dense writing, and can see past the dull passages to the exotic, rich, full bodied events that happen underneath it.

    I read Asimov's Foundation Trilogy - another classic. It did nothing for me. Too focused on technology in the typical 1950's Sci-Fi fashion.

    The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. An excellent book, though murdered by Canada's grade nine English curriculum. Luckily, I was never forced to study it.

    Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein was a waste of time. I came out of it feeling: if I wanted to read about fascist, egocentric, narcissistic, warmongering elitists, I'd read a newspaper.

    Never read a book you don't like unless you're getting graded on it. Even then - if you pass the 50 page marker and think it's crap, go out and buy the Coles Notes. Life is too short for bad books.

  8. #8
    aka. Stephen B5 Jones MrBF1V3's Avatar
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    There are no established rules for which books a writer must have read. They don't give a test to be turned in with the query letter.

    Having said that, being well read sometimes helps. I've gone out of my way to be aquainted with the classics, and not just the classics in my favorite genre. Also, I spend time with best selling books, especially the ones that continue to sell well after the first week. At least part of the time I'm reading trying to figure out why it's considered a classic, or why it sells so well. (Personally, I think the publication of Moby Dick was the result of a bar bet -- but there are those who would disagree.) Sometimes there are things you can learn.

    B5

  9. #9
    Not really an answer to your question, but, theres no reason should and want have to be mutually exclusive. A lot of the "classics" got their those because they were books that were good at the time and were good enough to be good years down the road.

    On the Dune book/series, I'd recommend reading the first one at the very least. It's a good story (Made into a movie, a mini-series, and now probably a second movie) but there are some nuances that those mediums never quite get right. I'd say it's worth reading to get the complexity of the story.

    Aside from that, read what you want.. but look at the "classics" as books that are quite probably very solid stories.

  10. #10
    Old Fogey Fan RimWorlder's Avatar
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    I'm working on a long, involved piece for my blog and had occassion as a result to look into the teaching of science fiction as literature.

    The long recognized expert on the subject is James Gun (SFRA) and he put together a series of anthologies (The Road to Science Fiction [vols y-z]).

    Strictly as a reader - you're entitled to read whatever you want.

    Strictly as a writer - you're entitled to read whatever you want - BUT, if you are NOT grounded in the origins and history of the genre, not only are you likely to cover hacked over ground, you are denying yourself access to the best resource available for ideas, characters, concepts etc., etc., etc. At least half my story ideas come from two sources, both based on reading the classics: "oh yeah, well he's wrong and here's why!" and "I wonder if there's a new take to be had on this hoary old plot...?"

    Strictly as an academic - you aren't entitled to read whatever you want. You MUST have a grounding in the recognized classics, a grounding in a good selection of the not so recognized classics and in genres that are related.

  11. #11
    Start judging theWallflower's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bohbohb View Post
    Not really an answer to your question, but, theres no reason should and want have to be mutually exclusive.
    Actually, they do, which is the point of my question - because there aren't enough hours in the day to do both effectively. At least not without skipping something and thus getting a 'half-assed education'. If I had all the time in the world, I wouldn't be asking this questions, but new books I want to read come out as fast as I finish the old ones.

  12. #12
    boss of several cats... Severn's Avatar
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    Yes, truly, as a writer knowing your playing field is quite important, no - vital. If I look at myself I'm interested - as a reader and a writer - in both the fantasy and literary fiction 'genres'. (Though the last is too broad for me to find that an adequate term, but it is what it is). I write with a lit. fiction 'voice' and I'm experimenting with merging the two. I have a short story that does just that which might -I truly hope! - be published soon. My novel idea also encompasses both genres. In the last 7 years I've read widely, and voraciously. I've read classics, I've read poetry, I've read fantasy and some sci-fi. I've read tonnes of literary fiction, some non-fiction, and history. As a consequence I feel like my knowledge base is full, and rich. This isn't to say I write derivative work - I like to think I have my own voice that comes through in my short stories - but I know what's out there, and what has been. I can recognise the evolutions in writing forms. I feel part of the writing world through my knowledge.

    So, if you were 'just' reading I'd say - read whatever the hell you want. As a writer though, I suggest that you read consciously. If you read all books you think you 'should' you'll end up miserable I reckon. If you read some of those books though, and some just for pleasure, your own knowledge base will increase, and at a nice pace. Pick certain 'must-reads' based on your own writing interests, so you can increase your understanding of the genre, and the writing world, that you want to be contribute to.

    Cheers

    K

    (Also, remember you can't read everything! That doesn't mean you'll be getting an half-assed education though...)

  13. #13
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    There's a stat somewhere that says one could have read every book ever written in their adult life as of the year 1900 or so. Following that, the rate of publication has increased every year such that it's now considered impossible, even if you started from the moment you were able to read, to cover every single book in even a single genre or form.

    So, I don't think you need to worry overly much about the incompleteness of trying to read allllllll the classics. It's impossible... Everyone's education is half-assed!

    But you've got me curious: Why, if you don't mind me asking, are you concerned with reading so much of the new stuff? Other than the fact that it's new -- what does what you read do for you? Are you following a particular group of authors? Or trying to read everything in a particular sub-genre? Trying to keep current? Is there a particular method to your intake of the new stuff?

    Reading, to me, is just a question of personal priorities. I like to know where things come from, so my taste tends to follow a regression pattern. I'm also quite heavily biased against popularity -- the more popular a new thing is, the more likely I am to avoid it simply because I hate being duped by hype. My music collection, for example, starts with my current favourite bands, then generally follows their influences backwards, and follows out to those who make similar music. My approach to books is about the same. I'll read everything by a particular author, read about that author, read some of their stated influences to see if I enjoy it, and read some of what's considered similar. I rarely ever read anything new -- unless it's the latest book from an author I follow. I'm usually busy exploring the back catalogue of influences. I would describe my consumption of reading material (and music) as being like following a family tree.

    So I'm really curious, since your approach to reading seems so different from mine -- what drives your consumption of the new stuff? How would you describe your priorities?

    (And hey, the answer might let you find a way to accommodate some of the classics!)

  14. #14
    Live Long & Suffer psikeyhackr's Avatar
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    dry, hard SF like The Martian Chronicles
    The Martian Chronicles is dry, hard SF???

    ROFL

    I would think you should read the kind of books that would appeal to the audience you are seeking which I presume is also what you would like yourself.

    I read LOTR and have often asked myself why I did that.

    I am a hard SF fan but I thought Martian Chronicles was cool but in no way hard SF.

    psik

  15. #15
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by psikeyhackr View Post
    I read LOTR and have often asked myself why I did that.
    LOL -- Did you ever get a good answer?

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